Denis Villneueve’s 2016 science fiction masterpiece Arrival has been one of my favorite movies since the first time I saw it. I think my love for the story and concepts it explores has only grown over the years, especially since reading Story of Your Life, the novella by Ted Chaing that inspired the movie.
Arrival tells the story of Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist tasked with learning how to communicate with the intelligent alien life that has unceremoniously arrived on Earth. Louise and research partner Ian are eventually able to learn their language, and notice something surprising about it: it is non-sequential. The aliens communicate by writing full, complex thoughts all at once. Louise consequently begins having visions of herself and a little girl, eventually realizing the girl is her daughter. At first these visions seem to be flashbacks, but it soon becomes clear that Louise is having “memories” of her own future.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote in defense of using the grotesque in her work that “to the hard of hearing you must shout, and to the almost-blind you must draw large and startling figures.” Arrival certainly uses some large, startling figures—namely, the pair of aliens referred to as “heptapods” due to their seven limb-like tendrils they use to move and communicate. They are portrayed onscreen as two massive creatures who, far from humanoid, defy even association with any known earth creature. The closest comparison one can make is perhaps to a pair of enormous seven-fingered hands walking around on fingertips.
The heptapods are radially symmetric with no apparent face and move freely and easily in any direction, a fact that begins to make sense as the team of human scientists and researchers realize that these aliens aren’t just anatomically distinct: They also experience time in a fundamentally different way. Through the contrast with the bizarre heptapods, the audience has a greater appreciation for Louise and Ian’s normalcy—their chemistry and banter, their excitement and frustration over the task at hand, even their sleepiness as they are forced to live on the 18-hour schedule of the heptapods’ shell. The plot moves these two parties from being entirely separate and distinct, literally unable to communicate, to connected in some strange yet fundamental way.
Lousie and Ian’s initial encounters with the heptapods leaves them visibly shaken; Ian even vomits. The audience sees Louise uncertain and unsteady for the first time in the film. This moment is visually depicted by an arresting scene where the humans in their bright orange hazmat suits appear to be walking on the ceiling of the heptapod’s vessel. Gravity itself has been shifted, and the researchers’ world has quite literally been turned upside down. It reminded me of Moses going up on Mt. Sinai and seeing God Himself; upon returning to the Israelites at the base of the mountain, his face is shining with the residual glory. Arrival’s alien encounter is a much darker echo of this scene. The god-like aliens are an ambivalent presence but still utterly terrifying, and the humans who encounter them are forever changed.
In the face of these bizarre creatures uttering indeterminable sounds, Louise stands terrified and shaking but determined to communicate. One could track the plot of Arrival as Louise’s movement into becoming more and more like the heptapods. This shift is visibly portrayed first by her insistence at removing her hazmat suit inside the shell and placing her hand on the transparent screen that separates the humans from the heptapods. One of the heptapods reciprocates the action, placing a tendril against her hand from the other side of the screen. Later on, Louise even enters the heptapod’s misty enclosure, seeing their true size with the veil of the screen removed.
Once she learns their language and begins to have future-memories of her daughter’s life, Louise lives in time differently than the other human characters. She grows in the realization that her choices are less like forks in the road of her life, more like stage directions in a play. Every moment of her life, and her daughter’s life, is pre-determined. There is no cause-and-effect at play between her actions and resulting experiences. Though this determinism might sound suffocating, none of the characters who experience time in this way express anxiety about it. Louise begins to shift out of her previous shell-shocked state into a sense of calm. In the midst of a rapidly developing global nuclear crisis, she appears almost tranquil compared to the panicked military personnel around her. She simply feels an urgency to do what she knows she will do.
A Sovereign Force
This sense of calm is perhaps the most striking characteristic of those who have a non-linear experience of time. Both Louise and the heptapods bow in reverence to the sovereign force of time in their lives. Even when the experience reveals terrible things, like the tragic death of Louise’s daughter, she expresses no resistance to it. Louise’s lack of resistance might ironically spark resistance in the audience as clashes with the more common Hollywood trope of defying the fates and mastering one’s own destiny. Even the writers and producers of the movie fall victim to this temptation by focusing on Louise’s choice to get married and conceive her daughter (the father of whom we eventually realize is—or will be—Ian), even though she knows the sorrow that awaits her. The original short story is even more strictly deterministic, emphasizing that Louise doesn’t actually choose; she simply obeys. Louise is neither the master of her fate, nor the captain of her soul.
Christians will recognize Louise’s posture as familiar. We are in a similar position of acknowledging a far mightier force at work in our lives. We, too, are not the captains of our own souls, but instead “belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to [our] faithful savior Jesus Christ.” For Louise and the heptapods, the force acting on their lives is the cold, impersonal movement of time. For Christians, this force is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. This force has made covenants with us. This force is a person named Jesus, and he died and defeated death for us. We have no cause for alarm or resistance to this force, but rather cause for celebration, love, and devotion.
Though Arrival clearly falls within the bounds of science fiction, it is also the story of one human woman. All the best sci-fi does this, telling normal human stories with strange, often non-human tools. Intelligent alien life teaches us about humanity. Extraterrestrial settings have us pining for our earth-home. Technology advanced beyond our imaginations reminds us of our fragility and all-corrupting hubris. In the remainder of this series, I look forward to exploring these themes in different science fiction films and how Christianity speaks to them.