Warning. Major spoilers ahead for the movie Arrival.
I recently watched Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and it effected me in ways I didn’t expect. If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that my faith is a central aspect of my life. It’s the lens through which I view and interpret the world. However, it is not common for a film or television series to resonate with my beliefs. Most of the time entertainment media is just that, entertainment. However, there have been a few films over the years that do touch on deeper parts of my life. Arrival is one of them.
In Arrival, linguist Louise Banks learns to communicate with newly arrived aliens (heptapods) in their symbolic language. The tension in the movie ratchets up when they interpret the heptapods’ message to be “offer/use weapon.” We learn as the movie progresses that, rather than a threat, the heptapod is telling the humans about a future event that the humans themselves will instigate. The heptapod written language does not use time in the same way humans do and by learning this language a person’s concept and cognizance of time changes.
We realize that the flashbacks of a child that dies from an untreatable illness, and a broken marriage that Louise has been experiencing are actually future events that she is able to see because her understanding of time has been changed by the heptapod language. The idea that language itself can expose temporal mysteries and rewire our minds is fascinating. I learned Spanish on my 2 year religious mission, and I know firsthand how learning a new language in a new culture changes the way you think and see the world around you. Seeing the future, as well as the past, is an extension of this idea.
In the climax of the film, Louise realizes that these future memories begin at the moment she decides to pursue a relationship with her new physicist colleague, Ian. Ian will be the father of their daughter who will die as an adolescent from an unnamed disease. Louise will tell Ian about their daughter’s future death and it will drive them apart. Shortly after their relationship begins, not knowing what is to come, Ian will ask Louise if she wants to make a baby. Despite foreknowledge of heartbreak, Louise says yes.
This is where faith comes in. As a Latter-day Saint, Mormon, I believe that this life is a time of testing and probation in anticipation of greater blessings in God’s presence. We believe that before we came to earth we lived as Spirits with Heavenly Parents. We knew we had to come to earth to progress and learn, often through painful experience, so that we could develop the empathy and divine attributes that God has in mind for us.
Opinions vary on how much we knew of our future lives before we came to earth, but it is common to hear Mormons speak about accepting specific trials and tribulations before their earthly incarnation. Knowing that what lies ahead brings heartache and pain, yet choosing to move ahead anyway in anticipation of greater knowledge and blessings, is central to the drama of God’s plan for Latter-day Saints. Louise’s choice brought these same aspects of my faith powerfully to mind.
Louise’s ability to see all the moments of her life at the same time are also evocative of how a shift in perspective can change how we relate to our lives. Despite the heartache that Louise knowingly confronts, she also has every moment of joy and love before her. In this calculus, suffering, is obviously a fair price for the fulfillment that this new family will bring her. After we have passed on from this life, will we have a similar perspective? We learn about the necessity of opposition from scripture. In teaching about the Fall of Man, a Book of Mormon prophet clarifies that this was not a tragedy, but a necessary step in humanity’s progression.
For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
… But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.
Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.1
Although Latter-day Saints do not seek out pain or suffering and we seek to minimize it when we can, this broader perspective, similar to Louise’s widened view, helps us to accept the bad along with the good as necessary and important parts of life.
Is Arrival an overtly, intentionally religious film? No. However, it is a great work of art. Great works of art are great because they make us reflect. They touch on the deepest questions and desires of our souls. When so much of entertainment only skims along the surface of the human condition Arrival is not afraid to swim in deeper waters.
Louise names her daughter Hannah, a palindrome, the same forwards and backwards.
2 Nephi 2:11, 24–25 ↩