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A world turned upside down

By David Wilson


January 2017

Like millions of others, I was heartsick in the days following the U.S. presidential election last November. The unthinkable had happened, and I was haunted by thoughts of what the consequences might be. I welcomed even the smallest distraction, anything to pull me out of a fog that felt an awful lot like grief.

I decided to go to see the sci-fi film Arrival. It was getting rave reviews and promised a break from the nightmare unfolding south of the border.

Arrival, an alien movie that defies the conventions of the genre, is the story of a linguist who learns to communicate with extraterrestrials. Their spaceships aren’t the laser-spewing monstrosities we typically see in alien movies; instead they look like enormous deflated footballs. Inside, up is down and gravity has lost its grip. The occupants are giant squid-like creatures that communicate with swirling blobs of ink that form into circle-shaped “sentences” that follow no human rules of grammar. And unlike the threatening movie aliens who normally show up on Earth’s doorstep, these visitors seem to have come in peace; they may even want earthlings to do them a favour.

Scriptwriter Eric Heisserer and Canadian director Denis Villeneuve push the boundaries of the genre even further by structuring the film to reflect the aliens’ non-linear reality: beginning, middle and end, past, present and future — all are relative. It’s a daring device that risks losing the audience. I had to go online afterward to decipher what I had seen.

To the extent that it doesn’t make conventional sense, that it challenges our established modes of comprehension, Arrival is very much a movie for these times. The ascendency of Donald Trump is terrifying in more ways than I have space to describe here. But perhaps scariest of all is how his election shattered our collective sense of certainty — the idea things will balance out in the end, that after all is said and done, tomorrow will probably look a lot like today. Trump wasn’t supposed to win; in most quarters it was assumed that voters would behave as they always do once they got into the polling booth: they’d cast their ballot for stability, a known quantity. Rational self-interest would prevail. The centre would hold.

It didn’t. The worst instincts of America, not its best, prevailed. The candidate with no qualifications for the office got the job. Millions of disadvantaged voters cast ballots for a wealthy show-off who is suspected of not paying income taxes for almost two decades. It mattered that one candidate had used the wrong email server, but it didn’t matter that the other has faced lawsuits for fraud, sexual assault and shady landlord practices, to name but a few in a long list of alleged transgressions.

The analysis industry shifted into high gear even before the last votes were counted, but I suspect it will be years before anyone makes sense of what happened last fall. Maybe they never will. It really does feel like the Earth has shifted on its axis — that the old certainties were just an illusion, shattered by the arrival of something alien and frightening. 

It’s kind of fun when science fiction takes our world and turns it upside down. It’s a different matter when it happens in real life.

* You will notice two new additions to your Observer this month. Conundrums is a monthly column that explores the perplexities of contemporary theology. And Roads to Reconciliation focuses on United Church efforts to live out its commitment to right relations with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Enjoy. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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