On November 11th, Denis Villeneuve’s The Arrival (2016) hits theatres. The film clearly touches upon many facets of the UFO discourse, and delves deep into the fundamental principle that the UFO phenomenon is more of an exploration of the self, than that of physical or metaphysical objects occupying our skies. The UFO question is not about an objective other, such as flying saucers, ET or “light beings”, rather, it is subjective - the real phenomenon is within ourselves.
It must be noted that I am not suggesting that there is no physical UFO phenomenon. There is enough evidence, at least in my own opinion, to suggest something strange is occurring in our skies. What that strangeness is, I can only speculate. Even though there may be a physical UFO phenomenon, we can only truly begin to understand how it affects us, the subjective self, as the actual objective cause of the phenomenon may be forever out of reach.
So why is The Arrival, potentially, an important film? It calls into question one fundamental principle of Ufology; how much does our subjective interpretation shape the objective UFO?
In the film’s trailer, we see a very human ideological approach to a very alien problem. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a respected linguist, translator and interpreter. She struggles to tie together her subjective understanding of human languages to understand a totally foreign language, based wholly outside of human ideologies and experiences. While we can tentatively describe her as a translator, she is more of an ideological interpreter/navigator. The reason that it is not merely an act of translation rests upon the fact that the alien’s “world view” and experience would be completely different than that of humanity. While humans speak various languages, our social and ideological constructs and mechanisms fall into the spectrum of human experience. Humans are generally the same. We share common experiences, therefore, we can communicate about them. In dealing with a totally foreign species, those shared ideological constructs do not exist.
Adams’ character is an intriguing representation of the UFO discourse itself, as well as the people who participate in the discourse. Ufologists, UFO researchers, and other members of the field need to make the puzzle fit, so pieces are jammed together. The entire Ufological discourse rests upon the idea that we can understand the other, not linguistically, but ideologically.
The film touches on this during the trailer. Adams’ character states that she must ensure that the alien beings understand the difference between a weapon and a tool. The result of this semantic error could result in conflict, which Adams’ character, and humanity, wants to avoid. This is a philosophical leap in logic. The assumption is that the aliens have an ideological understanding of what a tool is, and that it, in some way, can relate to a weapon. The film, and Adams’ character, assumes, in simple terms, that tools and weapons exist, in some way, within the alien’s experience, and ideology. This aspect of tool/weapon is clearly required for the plot, so the convenient logical leap is essential. It’s a story, we can forgive the flaw.
The need to create New Age ET religions, men in black conspiracy theories, human-alien hybrid hypotheses, ancient alien astronauts, the greys and various other speculative species, all rests upon our cultural and human ideologies. In dealing with a totally foreign intelligence, to suggest they have an experiential understanding of the tool/weapon dichotomy is a flaw in reasoning; so too is every other extraterrestrial, alien, and spiritual “light being” hypothesis and theory. These hypotheses and theories are shaped by human needs, wants and experience. The UFO phenomenon is forced to fit into our ideological reality. Any actual and true alien other would operate, think and experience in a completely different way. There would be no ideological understanding, no point of similarity, and no frame of reference.
It is understandable why Ufology has had an “object evolution” from flying saucers to triangles to modern day metaphysical objects, often described as orbs that change depending upon the viewer’s perception, “vibration level”, or spiritual preparedness. The UFO, as a social phenomenon, defies reason simply because its source is unreasonable. We, therefore, must make it reasonable; it must fit into given ideological mechanisms but remain mysterious and obscured. Flying saucers were, in the fifties and sixties, unreasonable, but as our understanding of technology changed, the flying saucer was no longer some wild object outside of potential human construction. As we develop greater scientific understanding, the UFO question must take on something that exists outside of our technical know-how; what better than a multidimensional spiritual being to replace a “flesh and blood” creature operating a “nuts and bolts” vehicle.
Is this shift towards a spiritual intelligent other a reaction to a secularized mainstream culture? Or, is it that humanity has lost faith in the technological marvels it's created, realizing that perhaps we cannot save ourselves through science alone? Whatever the hopes or the fears, Ufology has shifted. The UFO phenomenon, and the debates that rage around it, are a mirror of our own limited understanding. Ufology is interpretation, and we can only interpret from a source that fits into our subjective reality. Whether objective UFOs and intelligent extraterrestrial beings exist or not is moot. We may not make them exist, but we do shape them to fit into our existence. We are translating a concept which is untranslatable, and we are trying to interpret what the UFO is by using social and cultural mechanisms native to Earth and humanity. Whatever these strange UFOs are, from alternate universes or from distant planets, it is our own illusions which make them reality.