Can we learn to communicate from an outside intelligence?
Spoiler Alert! If you have not yet seen the movie, this article may provide you with a great deal more information than you wished to know at this point.
Since the 1999 film The Matrix received careful scrutiny on many fronts regarding its possible underlying Christian message (complete with names like Trinity, Nebuchadnezzar, and a death and resurrection scene in which The One is raised up in unassailable power) many have wondered just how covertly the story can be brought to screen in a twist of genre and retelling. I must admit that I am often struck by sequences and sometimes entire movies that are laden with almost unmistakable Christian subtexts. The modern movie, Arrival, seems to be just such an example.
Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, revolves around the premise of a highly-advanced, other-worldly intelligence seeking to establish communication with humankind. It is asking two primary questions: (1) How would such an intelligence seek to establish communication with us?; and (2) How would we, as a planetary population, respond? With a little modification we can ask similar but much more important questions about God’s contact with people.
The film opens with professor and linguist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), speaking narratively to her daughter. During this short introduction she says, “Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time. By its order.” These words about memory will eventually become keys to understanding the movie’s premise, but there is no hint that such a conclusion should be drawn at this point. The scenes we see are of Louise at various points in her daughter’s life, from her birth to her death as a young teen.
Following the introduction is a short sequence highlighting the appearance of alien spacecrafts at twelve locations throughout the world. In the course of seeking to determine the aliens’ intentions the governments of several powerful nations involved begin trying to establish communication. The militaries from the various nations become an ever-present entity throughout the interaction process, primarily to guard against an assumed potential threat.
Not unlike the movie, there is a great skepticism among a large portion of the human population that God—the other-worldly intelligence—would seek to communicate with us for our benefit. We have our guard up about exactly what God (if he exists) is asking of us and what the ultimate end-game will be. Even when we approach God our communication often begins with guarded optimism.
Because the government is doing miserably in its own attempts to communicate, Louise is recruited to help in establishing at least rudimentary interaction. She and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) become a team as they seek to set up fruitful initial dialogue.
With regular interaction for a small delegation entering the alien ship (referred to as the shell) for a short time every eighteen hours, progress continues. During this time the delegation attempts to decipher enough about the aliens to gain clarity about their intentions.
In the room of the shell where humans and aliens meet, a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, transparent barrier prevents direct contact. Communication must take place under these parameters.
When communication between God and people is first established in a cultic way, in the tabernacle, it is with very precise timing and with ritualistic precision (Ex. 12:6, 18; 25:9; 39:43; Num. 2:34; cf. Lev. 10:1-2, 29). The priests had certain sacrifices to offer on given days and under certain specific conditions. Also, on certain days each year other specified rituals required observance (Lev. 23), all of this being non-negotiable. In this first pattern for ongoing communication, a thick, floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall veil separated the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence was manifest over the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat, from the Holy Place where the priests served daily (26:31-33). The veil could only be crossed on one day per year and only by the High Priest who would then meet directly with God. If the High Priest entered at any other time, he would die (Lev. 16:2).
One learns quickly that the aliens are heptapods (having seven appendages). Two of the heptapods are all the audience sees as Louise and Ian approach for their initial interaction. They are soon dubbed “Abbott and Costello” for simple identification.
In her first interactions with the aliens, Louise realizes the confining nature of the precautionary radiation suit she wears is a hindrance to communication. She spontaneously removes the suit to the surprise of all but is not injured in the atmosphere provided by the aliens and a trusting relationship begins to evolve. With the writing of her name on a small whiteboard—Ian following suit—Louise is understood by the aliens who then share their own names in their “written” language.
As stated above, people’s communication with God is generally tentative at first. We protect ourselves, as it were, with our word choice and simple rote prayers, being uncertain about where full exposure before this other-worldly and exceedingly powerful intelligence might lead. Would we be accepted or harmed? Could such exposure lead to our rejection and even war with the great Other? We quickly calculate that if the intelligence thinks in similar ways to us, it would be better to refrain from complete display lest our relationship end before it has a chance to begin.
Over time, Louise’s progress is obvious to all. Hundreds of words are discovered, primarily due to Louise’s superior linguistic ability. All alien words are formed using a basic circle as a beginning point—a subtle allusion to the alien’s non-linear existence which is still unknown to humankind and the audience.
A primary way that God has chosen to communicate with humankind is through the use of a written language. Though we might, at first, balk at this means of God speaking with humans, as if it is too rudimentary or too subject to misinterpretation for the God of the universe to use, we should perhaps rethink this stance. Something written is tangible and, therefore, harder to deny. It is in front of us and demands we make a decision about its validity. Also, the very interpretive process, itself, forces interaction. It engages us and even in the process of deciphering, we are in conversation with the Author, seeking help for understanding.
As Arrival continues, many governments approach the shells at the various twelve geographic points of interaction where they are in a continuous hovering pattern. The governments share information with one another, though members of certain governments are less convinced of the aliens’ pure motives than others, particularly China’s General Shang. The U.S., too, continues to push to discover if the aliens have ultimately harmful intent wanting Louise and Ian to ask direct questions in this regard, even though the linguistic understandings are still basically elementary.
Not being in a movie and not having the other-worldly intelligence before us in such a way that a response is demanded immediately, we tend to put off making a decision about the motives of God. Many simply say they do not believe the words we have are from an other-worldly entity. Those who admit to the possibility of such a being often say that these words (the Bible) describe an entity that is capricious and vindictive and would not be trustworthy even if he did exist. Skepticism is a default setting for many. This position leaves us in a way of thinking not unlike the government representatives on Arrival. We wish to communicate in hopes of positive—even overwhelmingly positive—outcomes, yet our desire to stay in control of what may turn out to be a difficult situation keeps us in a defensive and veiled posture.
While Louise continues to decipher the aliens’ strange language, she seems to be having an ever-increasing frequency and intensity of flashbacks to life with her daughter. Oddly, she comes across as mystified by these scenes going on her head as the audience, though one assumes this is primarily because of their odd timing. The frequency and intensity builds as the interpretive process with the aliens continues.
Certainly, this mirrors our own early communications with God. We find ourselves in difficult places emotionally and psychologically. It forces us to think differently about God, ourselves, and others. We come to understand the world differently and question our actions and decisions not based on the acceptable norms of society or family but on God’s will and truth. This can be disorienting as we process the great amounts of new input we receive.
When a word is used by the aliens that could be understood as weapon, virtual chaos ensues. Louise asserts to those in power that weapon may simply be a way of saying tool at this point. However, an inalterable escalation has begun leading to the distancing of governments and the movement of China into an attack stance.
This is not so different from those who read in God’s Word that which seems to speak of genocide or of misogyny. An immediate revulsion arises and sometimes ends all communication. Even if it is not a revulsion, but instead the opportunity to hear in the Word the call to take up arms against enemies, many are only too eager to act on these undeveloped interpretations. God is held at arm’s length as the interpretation is substituted for true meaning. Also, people may tend to break off relations with other people, citing in the language a reason to feel suspicious and guarded.
In an attempt to avert almost certain conflict, Louise and Ian quickly return to the shell before the day’s window for communication closes. They hope to discern the aliens’ true intentions and a better understanding of their recent dialogue. Unknown to the couple a few military members of the delegation that regularly enters the shell, having become increasingly paranoid regarding alien intentions, has left a bomb inside to detonate shortly. Upon entry, Louise and Ian speak with Abbott and Costello. Costello soon leaves Abbott to finish the conversation as the bomb silently counts down. Ultimately, Abbott “pushes” Louise and Ian from the large room just before the bomb detonates, sacrificing his life in order to render another vital piece of understanding.
Here we have the crux of things—from our Christian perspective. The aliens were well aware of the bomb’s imminent detonation. Yet Abbott remained in order to communicate necessary information and form a critical link in the nascent union between the aliens and humankind, saving the lives of Ian and Louise in the process. Of course, virtually no imagination is necessary to draw links to the Christ story at this point. Jesus sacrificed his life with complete foreknowledge of all that was required and he did it in order to form a critical link in our ongoing relationship with God the Father.
After Louise and Ian are safely returned to the military installation, the aliens move their ship to a much higher point from the surface of the ground. A pod is sent to the surface specifically for Louise who is transported alone to the shell for the last time. Upon entering, she is in a similar setting to before, but where there is noticeably now no barrier between her and the aliens. She is immediately in the presence of an alien she has never seen but who is immensely larger and with seemingly more authority than either Abbott or Costello.
Again, the meaning seems self-evident. No barrier existing between the aliens and Louise following Abbott’s death can be connected to the tearing of the veil after Christ’s death, symbolizing the removal of the barrier between people and God (Matt. 27:51). That she is now present with the largest and most authoritative of the three and speaks to him personally is a reminder of how Jesus told his disciples that they would soon speak to the Father personally, referring to their access to the Father after his death and resurrection (Jo. 16:26).
When Louise asks what happened to Abbott after the explosion she is told he is in the “death process.” She seeks the help of the aliens to reestablish communication with other nations but she is informed that she has the weapon and she can use it because it “opens time.” Louise tells the alien she does not understand and even has a vision of the same little girl we have seen from the beginning and, to the audience’s amazement, asks, “Who is this child?” She is given no answer and the alien leaves.
Death process is a strange way of referring to the violent removal of such a central alien character. It also leaves the event in the present tense, which is odd to human, linear thinking. However, it is not unlike John’s language in his first letter regarding the blood of Christ cleansing our sin (1 Jo. 1:7), or of the Hebrew writer’s assertion that Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for us (Heb. 7:25).
After returning to the ground, Louise has a vision of herself meeting General Shang for the first time eighteen months in the future at a multi-national unity celebration. He tells Louise he actually came just to meet her and that when she called him eighteen months ago on his personal number and the specific words she said to him—both of which he gives to her in this vision—that is what made him rethink military engagement.
Following the vision, a short but very tense sequence occurs. Louise risks her and Ian’s lives using a satellite phone at the installation to call China. Though faced with threats and the business end of American military rifles, Louise, aided by Ian, manages to tell Shang the message that he will not tell her for another eighteen months which leads to the rapid de-escalation of the impending worldwide military engagement.
During Arrival’s final scene, Louise again reflects from her narrative position upon the things that the audience was earlier led to believe had already transpired in her life—her daughter’s life and early death. Instead, the viewer now realizes that she is describing what will happen as she marries Ian and they have a daughter together.
It turns out that the weapon/tool the aliens were giving to humankind was their language, in its oddly written symbols, that in learning fully would open one’s mind to a completely different way of perceiving time and even life. The beginnings and the endings are no longer what Louise thought they were. They are much more fluid than being bound only to linear perception. Life still comes with difficulties and challenges to be sure but with the knowledge of her daughter’s future death—even before the birth—Louise is not dissuaded from living the life before her, because its joy and glorious moments will far outweigh its momentary hardships (cp. Rom. 8:18).
Knowing of the daughter’s eventual death to cancer is not enough to keep Louise from the joys of having and loving and being transformed by the family that means so much to her. She knows the daunting task ahead but she sees the joy on the other side and for that reason she plunges in headlong, convinced of the value of every life-affirming moment.
To tell the story of the Bible from the movie’s perspective: Arrival begins with the appearance of an other-worldly intelligence in the form of three powerful beings who divide the earth into twelve parts, reminiscent of the twelve tribes with whom God chooses to initiate his salvific plan. Though progress in communicating is made, a giant step forward comes when one of the three sacrifices himself at the violent actions of humans in order to provide a way forward for the entire world. A barrier is removed, and a series of events reveals that the aliens were aware of the eventual death (-process) that would occur and yet chose to interact with humans anyway. The discordant situation of humanity is solved peacefully through the use of the weapon given to mankind in the alien words. In the process, those who learn the language fully are renewed in their minds to no longer be bound by linear understanding but to have an entirely different way of comprehending life as they are now able to communicate with the other-worldly beings.
In the end, Louise is a linguist. She has written a book that is going out into the world about the language of the aliens. It is a manual for understanding so that humans can be prepared for the aliens’ return in the long distant future.
I feel sure the connections are not lost on the thoughtful viewer. There is more to Arrival than simple entertainment, as with almost any good film. Even on the level of numbers, with its incorporation of 3, 7, and 12, in such starkly obvious ways, we are forced to ask what writer, Ted Chiang, must have had in mind. Chiang is known for having no qualms about adding a mystical flavor to his work, though I would not speculate on his detailed implications. But if the images on the screen imply anything at all, it forces consideration of what would happen if an other-worldly, vastly powerful intelligence might wish to communicate with humankind. It will involve great sacrifice on the part of the other-worldly beings for the language they use to be imparted. Ultimately, though, it will bring those who truly learn this language into a place of tremendously greater understanding about their own lives and the capacities of people, as well as the future to which all are headed. Ultimately, many will come to realize that the future is worth the tribulation of the short term because the final consummation will be glorious beyond compare.
Arrival gives us another way of considering what God is doing for us as we approach his word. His desire to communicate with us is so strong that he has written his language down for us in a way we can decipher and understand. By learning it our minds are transformed (Rom. 12:2). We see time and all of life, for that matter, differently. Are we seeing the future? Well . . . we do know how it ends.
Eric Robinson lives in Lubbock, Texas, and is the author of Jesus in the Shadows.