Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
by Christopher B. Barnett
Most science-fiction films exchange intimacy for spectacle. This is as true for popcorn flicks such as Independence Day (1996) as it is for classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). And perhaps there is good reason for this tendency. After all, the reality of existence in space or on planets beyond our own, not to mention the uncanny possibility of extraterrestrial life, naturally boggles the mind, asking us to imagine what we otherwise cannot experience or describe. To encounter the transcendent is to encounter the sublime.
And yet, on occasion, a piece of science-fiction comes along that is able to cast new light on very earthly and all too human concerns and questions. Arrival is an example of such a work. Based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 novella “Story of Your Life,” Arrival centers on a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is thrust into a dire situation when twelve alien spacecraft alight on various points around the Earth. In a series of suspenseful scenes, handled with aplomb by Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve, Louise is able to establish a relationship with the inhabitants of one of the alien ships. She acquires the rudiments of their language, realizing that its circular written form bears a certain way of perceiving reality — namely, as a whole, without a beginning or an end.
This language of the “heptapods” (as the aliens are called) contrasts with linear and thus formally temporal languages such as English, and, in learning it, Louise comes to see the future or, perhaps more accurately, the world from the perspective of eternity. It is a power that both enlightens and aggrieves, giving her insight not only into the crisis with the aliens, but also into a tragedy that will one day befall her.
Thus Arrival‘s tense plot is actually in service to a poignant question: would you turn down an opportunity for love, if you knew it would entail suffering? This is a heartrending question precisely because it is a universal one. All human beings must, on some level, decide whether or not they will choose to love — that is to say, to will to live and to seek the good of the other — in the face of certain pain and death. And though that choice is not always easy, it is one that most people continue to make and to make in the belief that life is worthwhile, even beautiful.
This fact is not necessarily theological, at least not on the surface. One need not see life and love as transcendent goods in order to value them, even if there is a genuine discussion to be had about the philosophical coherence of such a view. But Arrival does not engage this issue discursively. Instead, its sci-fi premise lends itself to a theological reading. Upon the arrival (or, one is tempted to say, advent) of the heptapods, there is great fear about what will happen next. As it turns out, however, the aliens come bearing gifts, especially the gift of a new way of attending to reality. Their circular “frame” is not understood by all, but, for Louise, it is nothing short of a revelation. She sees time from a transcendent point of view, her life as part of a larger whole. This perspective does not take away her freedom, but it does cast her freedom in a new light. The heptapods give her the strength to move forward by showing her what is to come — the joy, the beauty, and the pain. She comes to exemplify what Kierkegaard writes in his 1845 discourse “At a Graveside”: “Let death keep its power, ‘that it is over,’ but let life also keep the right to work while it is day; and let the earnest person seek the thought of death as an aid in that work.” Further, the heptapodic language makes Louise more empathic, allowing her to reach out to others who are suffering, even when just this vulnerability appears risky.
In short, Louise has received the gift to begin at the end or, indeed, to see the end as an opportunity to begin — a gift that could be understood in, say, Heideggerian terms but, in any case, clearly and strongly resonates with Christianity’s attempt to frame time from the perspective of the eternal. Here it is also worth noting (however provisionally) the “linguistic turn” in Christian theology, whereby doctrine is viewed as a kind of “grammar,” allowing those who are “fluent” in it to see life in a particular way. The strengths and weaknesses of this approach remain debatable, but Arrival highlights its significance nonetheless. In portraying the acquisition of an eternal language, the film calls attention to how words (or grammars) can open meaning to us — or close it.