A movie review of
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
(Paramount Pictures, 2016)
Arrival is classic “hard” science fiction in the tradition of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov novels from the 1950s and ‘60s. What makes it science fiction is not that it depicts the arrival on Earth of alien spaceships but that it attempts to imagine this scenario in the context of real-life science. Like all the best sci-fi stories, Arrival takes a theoretical scientific hypothesis and extrapolates the implications of that real idea into a fictional future.
One thing that puzzles physicists is the “arrow of time.” In quantum physics, certain mathematical formulas are symmetrical, meaning they work both forward and backward with regard to time. In real life, we all know that time “flows” in only one direction—you can’t change the past—but there is no mathematical reason for this. Arrival asks the question, what if it is only our language that prevents us from understanding time differently?
The idea is that since human language is spoken, it happens in time. Every sentence has a beginning, middle, and end, and the meaning of the sentence is determined by the temporal order in which the words are spoken. (Even languages like Latin whose word order can be very flexible, especially in poetry, still has a typical word order in ordinary contexts where real-time communication is the goal.) Written language works the same way, because written words are symbols of spoken words. Arrival imagines an alien civilization with a completely different kind of language.
Sci-fi Linguistics. In the film, Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor hired by the U.S. military to help figure out how to communicate with the mysterious alien arrivals and to discern their purpose for visiting Earth. Do they come in peace? Banks discovers that, unlike human language, the aliens’ language is based only on writing, not on speech, so it is independent of time. It can be read both backward and forward. Sentences in the alien language are written in a circle, and must be understood all at once with the words existing in a kind of timeless relationship that has no beginning or end.
Furthermore, Arrival speculates that if humans could read this language, we actually would be able to experience time itself in a different way. The idea here is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, which says that the structure of your language determines how you think and the way you experience the world. For example, some linguists claim that people who know more words for different shades of colors are actually able to perceive more shades of color than those of us who know fewer color words. Language enables them literally to see things other people do not. Likewise, Arrival imagines that having a nonlinear language would enable us to experience time nonlinearly as well. Thus Arrival imagines the implication of combining a problem from quantum physics with speculations from modern linguistics. But what makes Arrival even more interesting is that it uses these sci-fi ideas for a theological purpose.
Welcoming Life. Being a movie about the nature of time, Arrival is told in a nonlinear fashion. It opens with the death of Louise’s daughter Hannah and ends with Louise becoming pregnant with Hannah. It is thus a story about affirming the value of a child you know is going to die tragically. In this sense, it is deeply pro-life.
Louise asks her husband in the film, “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” She is like someone who knows, for example, through prenatal testing, that her baby has an incurable disease that will mean a life of suffering. Will this knowledge lead her to decide not to have a baby, in effect to abort her daughter? No, Louise realizes that preventing her daughter’s suffering would mean also missing out on all the good parts of her life as well. She says, “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it and welcome every moment.” Even though Hannah will suffer and die young, she is still worth bringing into the world.
Eternity as Theodicy. Theologically, Arrival is about theodicy, or how to respond to the problem of evil. Arrival suggests that our attitude toward tragedy is a result of the fact we experience time narratively. Our lives have a beginning, middle, and an end. Seen as a narrative, the meaning of one’s life as a whole is determined by how it ends. So when a life ends tragically, we are tempted to think that this ending invalidates the meaning of that life as a whole.
But learning the alien language teaches Louise how to see her daughter’s timeline all at once. In the film’s opening moments, which are chronologically just before she gets pregnant with Hannah, Louise says, “I used to think this was the beginning of your story.…Now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings.” Instead she believes there are just “days that define you.” Life is a series of moments, good and bad, that make you who you are and should be cherished. If you changed any one of them, the whole would be different, and you would not be the person you are.
It is probably not an accident that each sentence in the aliens’ language is written as a single circle that resembles the ensō brush paintings that Zen Buddhists make to symbolize the peace and enlightenment that is supposed to arise from experiencing the present moment. But we might also interpret Arrival’s theodicy here in relation to the Christian idea of eternity. If God is outside of space and time, then He can see every moment of your life’s timeline all at once. From that eternal perspective, God sees infinite value in every life, even those that end tragically. Christians can affirm this pro-life viewpoint enthusiastically.
John McAteer is associate professor at Ashford University where he serves as the chair of the liberal arts program. Before receiving his PhD in philosophy from the University of California at Riverside, he earned a BA in film from Biola University and an MA in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology.