“In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” – John 1:1
What makes a narrative more interesting for me is when there is a deeper story within the story itself. Thus, I have to admit that one of my favourite aspects of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is how allegorical it is. But what’s most impressive is that it’s not allegory for allegory’s sake. The medium, plot and overall message of the film focuses on the intrinsically religious concept of transcendence, suggesting that a religious allegory is only a natural fit. While other reviewers describe the film as a humanist story that praises a linguist and physicist–not religious characters nor spirituality in any form–for the salvation of Earth and the acquisition of humanity’s new ability to transcend the limits of time, we cannot deny the fact that extra-terrestrial beings endow this supernatural and transcendental gift to humanity. And though this linguistic power is definitely grounded on the very human study of language and culture, let us consider a religious perspective of the characters and story.
Upon discussing the concept of non-linear language and thought, and how finite time does not exist for those who speak and understand “Heptapodese,” one must conclude that those who think non-linearly (like the Heptapods), have achieved a sort of timelessness. They are no longer bound to being in one single moment in time. Instead, they experience life non-linearly, with no beginning, middle and end. My previous post elaborated on this concept, which is akin to omniscience. So one must ask, are the Heptapods metaphorical of God or a higher power?
While there is no evidence of Villeneuve’s religious leanings, one can infer that the Quebec born man may be influenced by a Catholic worldview. Furthermore, the short story that Arrival is based on, “Story of Your Life” is written by Ted Chiang, whose other titles include religious allusions such as, “Hell is the Absence of God” and Tower of Babylon.” The religious allegory of the film may not be too much of a stretch.
While Arrival has no explicit references to Christianity, the evidence of allegory becomes clearer and clearer upon further thought. Consider this: The Heptapods (God), come to Earth to give the gift of language (the Word of God or “Good News”), in order to teach the humans how to transcend their human limits and achieve omniscience. By the end of the movie, we realize that the Alien’s were a peaceful species who only wanted to help humanity transcend their limits and achieve peace. This is akin to God’s desire for humanity to transcend its human shortcomings and “get to heaven.”
The 12 Alien ships alludes to Christ’s 12 Apostles, which can be interpreted as the Church, the institution responsible for distributing The Word of God (and the keys to heaven) to humanity. One can even argue that the human characters’ initial anxiety and negative responses to the “Good News” are similar to humanity’s tendency to often misinterpret God’s word. Furthermore, Louise’s face to face encounter with the Heptapod in the climax of the film can be viewed as a sort of Pentecost, which in Catholic tradition is the day in which the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, empowering them with the sudden ability to speak many languages so that they could spread the Gospel (or the Word of God). It’s important to note that in the final montage of the film, Louise is in a lecture theatre teaching this “Universal Language” to a class, implying the spread of this sacred text (and supernatural ability to transcend time) to others who want to learn it.
For an allegory to have more authority and meaning within a text, it needs to be found within most of the details. While we can definitely attribute the Colonel and the Captain as characters that represent our human nature to fear death, act aggressive, assume conflict, (as discussed in my previous posts), what allegorical significance does the theoretical physicist played by Jeremy Renner have?
Simply put, Dr. Ian Donnelly represents the physicist perspective. Science fiction films often highlight the significance of physics, like in Interstellar which explores the possibility of time travel and theories regarding 5th dimension, all of which can be seen as a metaphor for man achieving godliness or omniscience. However, it’s interesting that Villeneuve contrasts Louise’s character with Ian’s because it further emphasizes the religious allegory and perhaps, Villeneuve’s leanings.
Dr. Donnelly’s failure to fully understand the Heptapod’s language is what hinders him from being able to understand Louise’s decision to have a baby (knowing she would die of cancer). He says, “you made the wrong choice” and leaves his family. Both this failure to understand her decision, leaving her, and the fact that Donnelly the physicist, plays second fiddle (throughout the entire film) to Banks the linguist, further emphasizes the idea that language, not physics, is the key to transcendence. While Physical Science can definitely help us understand many mysteries of the universe, it can only take us so far. In other words, it seems that Villeneuve is suggesting that one cannot comprehend timelessness, transcendence and God through physics and science, but instead with language, and specifically, sacred language, also know as the “The Word of God.” This Judeo-Christian interpretation suggests no matter how advanced, human language nor science can ever be enough to achieve transcendence, let alone, achieve lasting peace and unity.
The Medium is the Message
In my Media Studies 12 class we discuss Marshall McLuhan’s ideas regarding the significance of a medium upon a culture; how the medium more so than the message, can affect the way we think and behave, and that a medium’s characteristics can change the way we perceive the message. Villeneuve’s 2015 film Sicario is a great example of using the style, pace, tone, and other aspects of the medium of film, appropriate for the story he is telling. The hyper-realistic manner in which he depicts real world drug wars, seeks not to entertain but rather disturb us. Instead of a fast-paced action thriller, he gives us something more like a documentary or news story. With Arrival, Villeneuve decides to explore metaphysical ideas such as existentialism and transcendence, but balances the human and spiritual aspects of these themes quite wonderfully. What’s most impressive, however, is how fittingly he uses the language of film to deliver a message about the power of language. In short, his film exemplifies the idea of the medium being the message.
Without a doubt, one of the best features of the film, is its narrative technique of jumping back and forth to different moments in the Protagonist’s life, focusing mainly on what we perceive as present day, “the day they arrived.” For Villeneuve, time travel, or rather the state of timelessness is not merely a neat plot device as portrayed in successful science fiction films like Edge of Tomorrow, Terminator, or Back to the Future, but rather a crucial ingredient for the existential meaning of the film and a reflection of the protagonist’s perspective. While initially thought to be the common and manipulative cinematic technique known as the flashback, this jumping back and forth was all the while allowing us to experience the events through Louise’s eyes. As she learns more of the Heptapod language she experiences life in a sort of timelessness, and is thus aware of her entire life within every moment she lives. She does not live linearly, with a beginning, middle and end, but rather, experiences all the moments of her life at once, which explains the jumping back and forth between scenes with her daughter and scenes of the Arrival and departure of the aliens. While we initially see the death of her daughter as a tragedy that might have simply added to the backstory of her character, these scenes with her daughter are not merely plot device, but rather significant moments in her life that happen after the Alien’s arrival. Though we see them as flashbacks, it is only because of our linear thinking that we assume they are such; in fact, we were not watching flashbacks, but rather, moments in which she already has the power to transcend the human limits of time. Villeneuve’s decision to jump back and forth through these timelines, and to also show Louise’s disorientation throughout suggests that while she knows the Alien language, she is still learning more, and that perhaps, it is her humanity that disables her from fully understanding omniscience, hence her confusion (Amy Adams balances a look of subtle “knowing” with a look of confusion, like a deer in headlights).
The disorientation of the non-linear narrative structure, Villeneuve allows his audience to feel is akin to Louise’s disorientation, and further suggests the timeless and transcendental quality of non-linear thinking. There are other nuanced details within the narrative that help to emphasize this theme, however. For example, upon arriving at the military base she asked by a doctor if she’s pregnant. The subtext in this scene is key, as Villeneuve makes it a point for his protagonist to mysteriously linger with this question before simply saying no. Though she is not pregnant, and has only just met Ian (Renner), she looks at him knowingly, as if there’s more than meets the eye. Because she eventually learns the non-linear language of the Heptapods, and therefore achieves a sort of omniscience and timelessness, one can argue that at this point in the film she already knows that the pregnancy question and Ian are of some significance to her “future,” despite not fully knowing. Feel confused? That’s okay. We’re limited by our linear language and thinking.
Villeneuve’s ability to use the medium of film to show, rather than tell, these high-concept ideas, demonstrates his masterful ability as a director. Far too often do directors resort to expositional dialogue to clarify the mind-bending plot twists they create. What’s more is that his plot twist is not merely a manipulative “bait and switch” but rather appropriate for the meaning of the film. Screwing around with the narrative structure emphasizes the idea of non-linear thinking and timelessness.
Villeneuve impresses even more with the subtle, nuanced subtext and minimalism of his science-fiction masterpiece. While his contemporaries focus on the mind-bending physics and advanced technology of the genre, the French-Canadian seems to create something subdued. He seems to want to make us think and feel, as opposed to merely entertain and stimulate our senses. One might say he desires to transcend the tropes and trappings of Sci-fi thrillers and use the language of film (of showing as opposed to telling), as a vehicle for transcendence itself. Arrival is deliberately slow in pace and deep in thought. The characters are pensive, never explaining too much, and thus we too are challenged to ponder the events taking place. Furthermore, Villeneuve goes against the grain of creating films with quick cuts, fast moving cameras, and elaborate set pieces. There is very little action and violence, and he uses visual metaphor such as the logograms, the 12 ships, and non-sequential editing to challenge the viewer and deliver his message. In short, he shows and doesn’t tell.
His dream-like sequences and atmospheric music that are vague enough to be interpreted as both foreboding and fortunate further emphasizes the limited human perspective we have as viewers. To further mystify his audience, he uses plenty of fog to cover the alien ship and the cryptic aliens themselves, suggesting a duality, as the possibility for either destruction or peace can be found beneath the mist. Whether we see these as hints of identifying the film as faith-inspired or humanist, his realistic, hopeful and human film, nevertheless emphasizes our need to engage with the unknown, something we often are too afraid to do.
The Relevancy of Arrival
On a very human level, the film suggests the importance of our language and discourse. As we move into a new era, where the World’s most powerful country will be led by a divisive man who grew to power because of several factors including misinformation, discrimination, and most of all, humanity’s inability to engage in real discourse, Villeneuve’s film has become even more meaningful. Now more than ever do we need to relearn the art of discourse, for while it is a gift, it can also be a weapon, and perhaps the only weapon we can and should use to improve the state of things. As the film shows us, it is language and discourse that leads to peace.
Take for example, the character of General Shang. While we initially meet him through security monitor footage, which may have created a negative, narrow and limited view of the man, it is quite profound how easily humanized he is when Louise meets him at a party (post-arrival). Though she seems confused at his statements, the audience should realize that he too plays a huge role in the salvation of humanity and acquiring of the new language from the aliens. He provides her with his phone number and the last words of his dying wife—“war has no winners, only widows”—which she ends up using “in the past,” to convince him to not attack the Heptapods. This bait and switch of a character is more than fitting considering the current xenophobia, nationalism, and narrow-mindedness we are guilty of as a society.
Why is this film worthy of three posts in a few nights?! Never before has a film highlighted the importance of language not merely for its transcendental abilities (which is original and epic in and of itself), but for its real potential to empower humanity to strive for peace and unity. Rarely does a film deliver this important message in such a quiet, graceful and lyrical way. Villeneuve explores the transcendental power of language, expertly using the language and medium of film to bring a such a spiritual theme down to Earth. And while many filmmakers have created beautiful visions that challenge us to stretch our imagination and hope for a better world, Villeneuve does them one better, grounding his ideas in reality while pointing to the heavens with his camera, reminding us of our limits but showing us the endless possibilities within our reach. With Arrival Villeneuve challenges us to think about our language, our culture, our humanity, and perhaps, our divinity.