Arrival, 2016. Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
One of the most difficult realities to teach is time. Whether one is trying to convey what Plato means when he writes that “time is a moving image of eternity” (Timaeus) or when Augustine writes that the present always is and that time is “extendedness . . . of the mind itself” (Confessions), students have a tough time even beginning to imagine what those descriptions could mean, as we moderns tend to think about time as a series of empty and static moments lined up continuously, in which events happen to occur. Modern time is hollow and meaningless unless and until we fill it up with such meaning as we choose.
The film Arrival uses this modern framework both to lead the viewer through the narrative and ultimately try to shake of him of his simply linear and modern conception of time in a way that it seems to me only possible through the medium of film. Arrival is about as close to perfect a movie I’ve ever seen.
Boiling Arrival down to its central plot is a bit misleading: aliens come to earth, we have to figure out how to communicate with them, and in so doing we also figure out how to communicate with each other. There is however so much more to Arrival—the film is saturated with symbolism such that I pick up more each time I view it. The main character, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is a linguist enlisted by the military to help it communicate with aliens who have landed in Montana, while also coordinating with the countries who are attempting the same with eleven other alien ships that have come to earth. Louise is joined by a theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who cockily proclaims at the beginning of the film that it is science, not language, that is the cornerstone of civilization. Louise thinks differently.
The movie makes quick work of Ian’s claim, showing how ridiculous it is, and how little what we call science matters when one shares no context or language with one’s interlocutor. Ian and his team are of no help whatsoever until Louise makes first contact.
We are shown that as a linguist, Louise sees clearly that one must enter into a people’s way of seeing the world in order first to understand and then to translate. She also sees how dangerous it is when one doesn’t take these necessary steps: mistranslation is miscommunication, and miscommunication leads to violence. Proper interpretation of a language requires knowing the culture and context in which that language has arisen. In short, it requires a desire to understand the other as a whole rather than simply getting information out of him. The former leads to real communication; the latter is ultimately manipulation. We see Louise clash with the military over precisely this: the military wants to know what the aliens want, and Louise tries to make her supervisors understand that “want” may not even be a concept for this culture. The military, however, cannot conceive of not wanting something out of an interaction, because it cannot conceive of any interaction as anything but a zero-sum game, that being the only context in which the military operates. The lens through which we view the world affects our interaction with it. Mistranslation is first a problem of a narrowness of vision. The whole matters. We cannot communicate with the other if we do not treat the other as a whole—we have to show our own face if we wish the other to show his.
It becomes clear at some point that in learning the aliens’ language, Louise has begun to think differently, which is unsurprising to anyone who speaks more than one language. What is surprising, however, is that this alien language causes her to recall memories she doesn’t know what to make of. Late in the movie, it all comes together, both for Louise and the viewer: the language, written as variations on circles, is a time-less language. The alien language allows one to see the whole. It is not devoid of time, but is rather so overly saturated with time that it elicits glimpses of the whole of one’s life, all at once. The whole is entirely in the present, because the present is informed by past and future. Louise is, to coin a phrase, remembering forward.
Metaphysically, any Christian knows this to be true: time is not just moments that happen to be stacked against one another, but in fact a created whole that has meaning beyond the actions we take. Time is the gift that the finite is given in order to express the perfection of eternity. The whole is—whether we can see it or not—present in every moment. This is what Augustine points to when he describes God as the eternal now.
Trying to understand the whole, then, is at the core of Arrival, and language is both a unique and incredibly appropriate avenue by which to explore such a theme because we humans cannot help but express ourselves in such a fashion. We are context- and time-bound creatures, who often feel the frustrations of these very boundaries. What better way to demonstrate our being strangers to ourselves than to transmute that frustration into an attempt to communicate with beings who don’t even share our humanity?
A coda: at its close, Arrival leaves us with one more question to ask, based on this revelation of wholeness: the question of freedom. If the whole is known all at once, if we can to a certain extent see what lies before us, will this change our actions? Do we then try and manipulate our lives such that we never have to experience pain? This is the premise of a lot of time travel films, after all. But Arrival is not a time travel film, rather a film about time. The former type of sci-fi rests on the modern notion of time, whereas Arrival is premised on the understanding of time as a present which is saturated by past and future. And because of that, freedom also looks different here. Freedom is not the ability to do what we want, but rather the capacity to embrace the whole as it is given.
Rachel M. Coleman is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Assumption University in Worcester, MA.