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This month (and next) we take a look at the DVD released movie, Arrival. Arrival, based on the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, portrays the arrival to Earth of a number of mysterious alien ships. In an effort to open communications, the United States government enlists the services of Dr. Louise Banks, a world renown linguist. Through the story, we follow Dr. Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly as they parse through the intricacies of both the alien language and the government bureaucracy. In the process, Dr. Banks receives a gift for all humanity—one that defies explanation.
Arrival is directed by relative newcomer and director of the upcoming Bladerunner 2049 film, Denis Villeneuve. It stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. The haunting and eerie score is by Jóhann Jóhannsson, with the theme “On the Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter.
Eve and I were firstly divided regarding how enjoyable the story was. As with most cases where literature is translated to the big screen, many changes needed to be made. Eve and I disagreed on if the changes resulted in a movie better than the book, or vice versa. No matter which side of the discussion you come out on, though, there is no doubt that this science fiction movie is a very cerebral drama. It lacks much of the more common fair of today’s big budget science fiction movies. Unless this is the type of movie you go out of your way to watch, you might well find Arrival a pleasant change of pace.
If you have any questions regarding the content, we encourage you to check out Focus on the Family’s PluggedIn review of Arrival. Not only do they provide a superb synopsis of the movie, but they also breakdown the positive and negative elements so that viewers like us can make informed decisions.
Starting at the End
Arrival is odd, and that oddness is the fulcrum of the movie. The entire concept of Arrival‘s story is epitomized in the alien writing that Banks and Donnelly work so hard to decode. The reveal is not what happens, or what has happened. It’s more an understanding of Louise Bank’s relationship to the happenings of the movie. The secret of the movie is contained in the alien writing. When the aliens begin to put thoughts to written word, they know every part of what they are writing, how it will be received and what the response will be. They have already experienced the effect before they create the cause. Despite this foreknowledge of what is to come, they unerringly play their roles—even until death.
Since the source material was so heavily intellectual and had so many elements that simply would not translate well to a visual medium, Arrival includes a political commentary on the state of the world and its reactions to the arrival of the aliens and their ships. Global reaction was all but completely missing from the story, but in the movie, global panic ensues, with riots and military action around the world, usually shown in the locations where the alien ships have come to rest. Still, all this unrest was used as background for the true story of Dr. Bank’s work towards understanding the heptapod language.
Some of this background flavor took the form of pundits espousing increasingly severe views regarding the aliens, why they were here and what “we” should do about them. I would like to complain that this rhetoric is portrayed as almost exclusively from right-leaning speakers, but it is difficult to envision how traditionally liberal philosophies might have been portrayed to present the same tendency towards violence. Perhaps we should consider why that is?
The movie takes consideration of these perceptive differences a step further. The perception of the listener colors what they hear. As Eve points out, what Banks translates as “offer weapon,” the Chinese site translates as “use weapon.” Perhaps this is why Eve and I heard the background commentary as being skewed against conservatives? This speaks to a truth of fallen man—people will hear and recount what they want to hear—it is not malicious, just the nature of our imperfect ability to communicate and a direct result of the events of Genesis 11:
“The whole earth had the same language and vocabulary. As people migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, ‘Come, let us make oven-fired bricks.’ (They used brick for stone and asphalt for mortar.) And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered throughout the earth.’
Then the Lord came down to look over the city and the tower that the humans were building. The Lord said, ‘If they have begun to do this as one people all having the same language, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let’s go down there and confuse their language so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So from there the Lord scattered them throughout the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore it is called Babylon, for there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth, and from there the Lord scattered them throughout the earth.” (Genesis 11:1-9)
The curse of Babel is one that still affects us today. We see it in every misunderstanding and miscommunication. It is a curse we bear because our ancestors chose to gather in one place and raise our standard, ignoring the directive of God:
“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” (Genesis 1:2)
Another commonly considered source of miscommunication is genders. let’s face it: men and women sometimes speak—and hear—different languages. But does the gender difference influence what kind of fiction you do and do not like? Eve posits that at least part of our difference in our appreciation for the source story, “Story of Your Life,” is gender related. I’m not so sure. If you’ve read the story or are willing to read it, we’d really appreciate your feedback in our Facebook group.
Aliens Among Us?
Does the truth of the Bible preclude the existence of extraterrestrial life? If you believe it could exist, do you think that it would be a testament to the wonders of creation or an element of Satan’s deception? How would the arrival of intelligent extraterrestrials challenge your faith, if at all?
Why Did They Come?
An interesting difference between the source story and the movie is that Arrival actually addresses the question, “why are they here?” The movie, in fact, uses it as a tag line on much of the promotional material. This was an interesting choice, given that the story not only leaves the question unanswered, but even unasked. The answer that the heptapods give in Arrival is that, in 3,000 years, they will need our help. In order to help them, we will need this “weapon.” We found this interesting because it is a common, recurring theme in our science fiction (And I wonder, is “our” American or human?). Humanity is often the great salvation—all of the universe is at risk, and it falls to humans to provide the fix. We see it in everything from comic books to science fiction master works to summer blockbusters like Interstellar (which we discuss in AYJW episodes 55 and 56). It seems to be the greatest lie that all aspire to—that humanity is the source of salvation. The truth, of course, is much more sobering. Not only is humanity not the source of salvation, but humanity is the REASON we need saving! We were created perfect, in the image of the Creator himself, yet we rebelled, resulting in the fall of all creation! In no time at all we’ve convinced ourselves (and been convinced) that we’re not broken; we are better than fine. We are creation’s only hope, we tell ourselves. It’s a lie that we want to believe, yet we don’t even listen to what creation tell us:
“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1)
Unknown? Get Used to It!
In Arrival, like in much of science fiction, when humanity is facing the unknown in the arrival of the alien ships, more than a few panic. As much as we might like to argue that this wouldn’t happen, it would be a tough case to make. It seems like less-than-peaceful demonstrations break out every time something happens that one group or another do not like. Everything from Confederate monument removal to decidedly unjust verdicts can spawn levels of violence up to and including out and out mob riots.
As Christians, though, we should remember that the unknown is part of God’s mysteries. The words of Zophar to Job are not far from the mark when he says:
“Can you fathom the depths of God
or discover the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens—what can you do?
They are deeper than Sheol—what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
and wider than the sea.” (Job 11:7-9)
We are told that we will never be able to perceive all the works of creation:
“I observed all the work of God and concluded that a person is unable to discover the work that is done under the sun. Even though a person labors hard to explore it, he cannot find it; even if a wise person claims to know it, he is unable to discover it.” (Ecclesiastes [8:17])
But the mysteries that we need to know are revealed to us through scripture which speaks, “God’s hidden wisdom in a mystery, a wisdom God predestined before the ages for our glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:7)
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