What the two alien invasion films tell us about existential questions.
Ever since H.G. Wells released “The War of the Worlds” in 1898, the alien invasion genre has become a vehicle for humanity’s fears, questions, and aspirations. Although at the time that novel was thought to be a metaphor for the superstitions of the Victorian age, the story proved universal enough to apply to any era; from anxieties about Nazism when Orson Welles read it as a radio play in 1938, to Cold War nightmares when Byron Haskin adapted it into a film 1953, to worries about the War on Terror when Steven Spielberg did the same in 2005. But beyond merely reflecting the terrestrial fears of any particular time, the genre also addresses more universal questions — about life, death, and humanity’s place in the cosmos. Two of this century’s best alien invasion films — M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival — take precisely this existential approach, but the two films arrive at very different answers to the grand questions they pose. Taken side by side, they represent opposite, if equally human, ways of finding meaning.
Both Signs and Arrival find their lead characters facing tremendous personal tragedy, a time when existential questions are especially salient. Mel Gibson’s Graham Hess is a former reverend who has lost his faith after the death of his wife, while Amy Adams’s Louise Banks is a linguist grappling with the premature death of her daughter. (We later learn that Louise’s daughter’s death occurs in the future, but given the structure of the film the effect is identical.) Already in these films’ respective setups, a dichotomy is posed: the man of faith in Signs, and the woman of science in Arrival. Moreover, each character is bolstered by a foil who crystallizes his/her crisis of meaning. In Signs, it’s Merrill Hess (Joaquin Phoenix), Graham’s reverential younger brother, who tells him, “one of the things I can’t take is when my older brother, who’s everything I want to be, starts losing faith in things.” In Arrival, it’s Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist (and future father of her child) who tells her, “language isn’t the foundation of civilization, science is.”
Both films also stick rigorously to the perspective of their lead characters, filtering the global import of alien invasion through the prism of individual grief. They also distinguish themselves from a film like War of the Worlds in their humility of scale; rather than depicting toppling skyscrapers and exploding White Houses, they confine themselves to small, particular worlds. Shyamalan put it this way to the BBC:
“It’s about this little family living on this little farm and they see all these things on TV. For them, that’s what the world outside their farm is because they live a very isolated existence. We never leave the farm so we get sucked into their world. Mel’s character was a reverend and he’s having all these issues about faith and belief.”
“It’s an alien invasion, but told from an intimate point of view, by this person who’s in mourning and dealing with strong emotions in her life, and who suddenly is thrust into this momentous event. So it’s about aliens but also a mother-daughter story.”
Our perspective on the cosmic is always and inevitably our perspective on the personal. In the case of Signs, Graham has come to view his wife’s death as a symbol of the callous indifference of the universe. No loving God, he surmises, could allow his wife to be hit and killed by a sleeping driver. Her final words to him, a jumble of strange requests and cryptic phrases, epitomize the meaningless randomness of the cosmic order. He explains, “People break down into two groups…See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky?” After his wife’s death, Graham’s perspective on the matter is solidified: “there is no one watching out for us,” he tells Merrill firmly.
But by film’s end, he makes a reversal. Confronted with a vindictive alien in the film’s climax, Graham recalls his wife’s final words, which prove to be prescient instructions of what to do to save his family. Vagaries of chance, like his son’s asthma and his daughter’s habit of leaving glasses of water around the house, prove to be Graham’s saving graces: the former prevents the alien’s poison from entering the child’s lungs, while the latter turns out the be the creature’s greatest weakness. The moment is less a defense of Christianity in particular than of faith in general. As Shyamalan put it in an interview with UPI, “For some reason, I just keep pounding away at this until I get it myself, which is kind of a guy waking up to his potential and who he is and the things around him.” Seen in this way, faith is not about belief but about perspective — choosing to see meaning, and thereby finding it. Before they learn that water is the aliens’ weakness, Merrill hears on the radio that the aliens were beaten back through “some primitive means.” One could argue this means was faith itself, humanity’s first method of coping with the hostility of our primal circumstance.
In Arrival, Louise’s transformation is less about finding meaning in death than about accepting it. When her fluency in the aliens’ time-transcending language allows her to see her daughter’s death in the future, she’s made vividly aware of the circumstance in which we all find ourselves. “You know you’re going to die,” Villeneuve explained to The Verge, “I know I’m going to die. I have three kids. What can happen right now? I need to trust life, I need to embrace life…That’s the way I see it, personally.” Villeneuve’s faith in life is less about “signs” than about presence; it’s a kind of Eastern/Buddhist compliment to Signs’ Western/Christian view. While in Signs the aliens are demonic representations of the hostility of the universe, in Arrival they are embodiments of both nature and mortality. “For me, the movie was about a woman having a new relationship with death and changing her perspective on her own life,” Villeneuve told The Verge, “and finding a new humility going through that process…being in contact with our finality, and being more in contact with our nature, I think we’ll find that humility.”
These philosophies are echoed the filmmakers’ distinct approach to the design of the aliens themselves. In Signs, the creatures are anthropomorphized, shaped like humans but with chameleonic skin and poison gas emanating from their wrists. They are the symbols of a natural world channeled through the lens of human anxieties, constrained by the human imagination. Just as ancient religions embodied the diffuse evils of nature into recognizable forms, so Shyamalan builds villains that conform to his characters’ particular fears. It is no accident that the aliens’ language in Signs mimics the clicking vocalizations of ancient tribes, nor that what kills them is the same element that gives humans life: water. These aliens are primal manifestations of human fear.
In Arrival, by contrast, the aliens are unrecognizable in both physicality and language. They are embodiments of the mystery of nature, literally alien to human perceptual faculties. Villeneuve’s operating principle in their design was simple: death. “[Death] was the idea that inspired the way the spaceships would look, the way the aliens would look, the way they will express themselves,” he told Gold Derby. All elements, down to “the quality of their presence,” were tailored to this end. For a movie ostensibly about translation and understanding, the film ends with a great deal of mystery about the aliens’ origins. Their message, such as it is, reduces to an understanding of death’s reality. This alone, the film suggests, is enough to instill in one’s life a sense of preciousness and love.
Signs and Arrival may be very different films, but both are intimately concerned with the way humans make meaning of their fragile existence in the cosmos. While individual viewers may gravitate to one or the other perspective, both films represent the ways in which we as a species have learned to make sense of, and perhaps make peace with, our fragile existence. This is what stories in general and sci-fi in particular can offer: a human lens on cosmic questions. What you have to ask yourself is…what type of person are you?