Written with some spoilers by Gene Gosewehr, editor and writer at Reel World Theology.
If you aren’t mesmerized and transfixed on the screen within the first ten or so minutes of Arrival, you may not be for the rest of it. It’s one of those films that grabs you from the start with the score and the reflective scenery, then keeps you hanging on for the slow reveal of the plot. Fortunately, the majority of people are indeed drawn in by this film and are finding deep connections with the characters. Primarily that of Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the military to assist in communicating with aliens who have just landed.
Amy Adams is our professional linguist, Louise, and from the beginning of the film we learn there are deep emotional scars that Louise is dealing with as she embarks on the unprecedented task of developing full-fledged communication with another species. She is paired with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a scientist tasked with examining the alien craft and technology. There is nothing spectacular about the chemistry between these two on screen, but that actually goes to serve the narrative of the film. If they hit it off right away then the audience is pulled from the scenes of loss and suffering we have already seen from Louise. This is a loss that we are meant to feel right along with her throughout the film as she experiences it.
Communication with this alien species is, as one would guess, quite difficult. Verbally, there is little distinction to be made in the sounds made by these two creatures they encounter in the spacecraft. Appropriately called Heptapods, after some measure of trust and relationship is built they come to affectionately be called Abbott and Costello. Unable to rely on verbal communication, Louise must begin to interpret their written language. This also proves to be a unique challenge, as their language is in a nonlinear format. It appears as circles that are seemingly random blots, which serve as triggers for certain words or phrases. As Louise makes progress in learning the language of the Heptapods, we begin to see a change in her memories of this loss she has experienced. She is working long hours on dissecting this language, and her exhaustion leads to daydreaming or intermittent naps where the audience is shown new segments of her memories. Only now they are coming in greater detail and are progressive in nature. Almost as though Louise is learning of the events, not just remembering them.
Louise is not the only person attempting to communicate with the Heptapods. Eleven other spacecraft have landed, or rather hovered, in various locations across the globe. Near egg climax of the film communication breaks down between not only these other nations and the Heptapods, but between the nations themselves. China has interpreted something their duo of Heptapods said to be aggressive and has ceased all communication in order to plan an attack. Louise believes this to be a misinterpretation. Her understanding of their language has become more than an academic one. She is beginning to imagine and dream in their language. In fact, her mind is being shaped by this nonlinear language such that she begins to realize that these memories of pain and suffering she is having are not memories at all. They are glimpses of future events.
This moment provides an immediate shift in the treatment of the film. What the audience has been shown as the joyful for sorrowful moments are now seen to be things that Louise will one day experience. The film moves forward with this revelation under the assumption that Louise can choose her future path. She can decide whether to endure this suffering along with this joy. It is within the headspace of this decision where the film has its greatest impact.
Ask people if they want to know when they will die and you’re likely to get a near even split between two answers with a variety of explanations. Ask people if they want to experience the death of a loved one and you’re almost guaranteed to get a resounding ‘no’. Who would want to endure such pain if they could avoid it? This is something like the choice that Louise is presented with, only hers goes further. Her choice is such that if she decides to avoid this emotional trauma, she will also miss all of the love and joy that she has received glimpses of as well. So the question boils down to this; is the experience of love worth the pain of suffering? This sounds eerily familiar to the crux of the “problem of evil” argument against God. Why does God allow suffering in the world? Isn’t he a powerful enough to stop it? Doesn’t he love us enough to stop it? One answer a Christian could give, and the implication we can draw from this film, is that love is worth the pain in suffering.
There are a couple of directions to go with that proposition. We could talk about the reason for God creating in the first place. We could discuss free will and the necessity of it for our faith and obedience to be genuine. But I would like to look at the cross for a moment. Scripture tells us in one of the most popular verses (Jn. 3:16) that one of the most brutal and excruciating deaths ever known was intentional by God because he loves us. He offered his son as a sacrifice, in our place, so that we would be reconciled with him. Through great pain and suffering, love was shown. This shines a light on something I think most people know in their hearts, or they are at least inclined to agree with; love is worth it. In the film, Louise chooses to endure the future pain and heartbreak because she also knows there is love present. This is something that Nate Sala and I dive right into when we explain How Arrival Affirms a Christian Worldview.
Arrival is beautifully filmed, narratively compelling, and emotionally intense. It is a perfect example of how Christians can use apologetics through film, and draw on people’s emotional engagement of an idea in ways that intellectual arguments alone cannot usually accomplish.