Spoiler alert: This review contains spoilers. Reader discretion is advised.
Based on the 1998 short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Arrival is a 2016 science fiction film starring Amy Adams as linguist Louise Banks and Jeremy Renner as physicist Ian Donnelly. The film begins with what seems to be a flashback scene in which Louise cares for her young daughter, who dies of a rare disease. After a cut to the present, 12 extraterrestrial spacecraft suddenly appear on Earth. Louise is asked by the U.S. Army to join Ian on a team to decipher the alien’s language and figure out the reason for their arrival.
In Montana at the military camp established around the spacecraft, Louise and Ian board the spacecraft and encounter two large, seven-limbed aliens, which officially come to be known as “heptapods” and which Ian nicknames Abbott and Costello. The alien’s limbs produce complicated circular symbols in what appears to be black smoke or ink floating in the air. As the team regularly meets with the heptapods, Louise determines these symbols to comprise their language. While she finds in the intricacies of the symbols a basic vocabulary and syntax, Louise dreams clearer images of her daughter and her strained relationship with the child’s father.
When Louise asks what the aliens want, their answer is “offer weapon.” Other nations translate “use weapon.” The international community closes communication in fear of an impending attack, although Louise argues that “weapon” might alternatively translate as “tool” or “technology.” After the military bombards the spacecraft with explosives with Louise and Ian aboard, Ian works out a relationship between the heptapod language and the concept of time. With China planning to attack the spacecraft in its territory, Louise boards the spacecraft for a last time as the military evacuates. Costello tells Louise her visions of a daughter are glimpses of the future and that the alien language is the “weapon/tool” they have come to share. With it, Louise convinces China to call off its attack, the international community resumes contact, and the spacecraft disappear.
Leaving the camp, Ian admits to Louise that he has fallen in love with her. Louise realizes that Ian will father the daughter of her visions, leaving her after learning of the child’s disease. In one of the film’s final scenes, she agrees to have a baby with Ian.
I often judge a film’s quality by its capacity to make me think. By that rubric, Arrival should have won the Oscar for Best Picture. It stayed with me for days after watching it. While in 2016 I reflected on the internal logic of time and determinism, today I find theological value in the movie’s careful treatment of language and communication.
Language is a powerful apparatus. As the translational challenge in the movie attests to, the words we use and the tone we adopt can serve as tools with which to build or weapons with which to attack. Indeed, our language can even deceive, inconsistent with our intentions or actions. Jesus recognized the power of words; they have the power to justify or condemn us (Matt 12:37).
In other words, our words affect those around us, whether we intend them to or not. Whether they simply act as a “thought germ” to transmit an idea or directly address someone else, language is an inherently communal enterprise. For trans people, for example, words as simple as “she” or “he” can instantly change the quality of their day. I’ve witnessed the ability of a small compliment to brighten someone’s entire demeanor. Even the choice of whether or not to communicate holds momentous consequences. The moment a possibility of danger arises, when communication arguably becomes most important, the different nations visited by the heptapods stop working together. Violence erupts as a result.
Arrival has invited me to meditate on the responsibility and importance of open communication. I plan to deconstruct more carefully my language choices. How do my words symbolizing God affect my understanding of the Divine? How does what I say affect other people? Myself? I hope you join me in this project and share with me often our common gift of language.