The new film Arrival, based on a story by Ted Chiang, is unlike most any science fiction blockbuster at the box office these days. It’s a tense, thoughtful, somber meditation on the human condition and the nature of a higher reality. In many ways, it is a religious film that deals with eschatology (the end times or judgment day).
Unlike Chad Orzel, I haven’t read the source material, so I experienced the film with fresh eyes. I was immediately reminded of Philip K. Dick and his real-life experience of being ‘touched by an angel.’ Dick, both a life-long Christian and prolific author of fantastical science fiction scenarios, felt that he had come into contact with the Logos, which he alternately identified as Jesus Christ, and so experienced a deeply personal revelation about the nature and meaning of time. Dick had many names for the entity he came into contact with, including VALIS (for Vast Active Living Intelligence System). VALIS proved to Dick that temporal causality flowed in both directions, both from past to future and from future to past. Note that Hollywood loves adapting Dick’s work, having done so with Blade Runner, Minority Report, Paycheck, Total Recall, and others. Dick’s fiction is also the basis for Amazon’s series The Man in the High Castle. After coming into contact with VALIS, Dick came to believe that all his work, which had once seemed to him fantastical, was actually a deep metaphor for reality. Part of his insight was the idea that ancient Rome never ended; that the world as we know it is really a black iron prison.
In Arrival, the central character of Dr. Louise Banks seems to flashback to the death of her child from cancer. It appears that random moments from her past begin to make sense in the present (as they do in Signs by M. Night Shyamalan). This would be a synchronistic scenario, a view that everything happens for a reason, and well-aligned with what Dick experienced. In the moment of his revelation he felt that he had been programmed from birth by VALIS with seemingly random signs, symbols, and cosmological ideas, which only later made sense as part of a grand design.
But it turns out Arrival is not quite Dickian in its conception of cause and effect; Louise isn’t remembering important moments from her past, she is witnessing important moments from her future. This places her in the same vein as a prophet or oracle. Her ability to flash-forward is not well explained and she seems to be the only human being capable of precognition. Her exceptional nature has religious connotations as well; her indispensability in the salvation of Earth is akin to the return of Christ itself. She is, in fact, a messiah.
The film begins with twelve alien ships positioning themselves around the planet, proximal to different cultures with different languages (compare this to Revelation 12:1, ‘A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head’). The aliens are menacing, squidlike, incomprehensible. As a linguist, Louise is sent to speak with them. The nature of language is central to the thesis of the film, and according to Chad, language issues feature much more prominently in the source material by Chiang. Louise explains that languages are not neatly interchangeable, and in fact the language(s) one speaks determine the way one thinks. For example, early in the film she comments that the Sanskrit word for ‘war’ is best translated into English as ‘a desire for more cows.’ When the aliens in their twelve ships express a concept that she translates into the word ‘weapon,’ Louise is quick to note that they might really mean ‘tool.’ When she further deciphers the alien’s message to mean ‘give weapon,’ she has reason to believe that they are offering humanity a gift. But the Chinese, half a world away, believe that their aliens are saying “use weapon.” Distrust and fear from military types on all arcs of the globe quickly threaten to lead to war. The future hangs on by a thread.
It is only Louise realizing that she can remember the future that allows her to prevent global destruction. Arrival is solved with a paradox: Louise has a memory of the future in which the Chinese General tells her what she said to him in the past in order to avert the war. This is the only way she knows what to say to him in the present. Does that make sense? Of course the aliens have come to Earth for paradoxical reasons as well; they are giving a tool to humanity because they will need humanity’s help 3,000 years in the future.
All this differs from Dick’s conception of reverse causality; Dick did not experience visions of his personal future, but he realized that the future was nonetheless communicating with him, and had been all his life. It was not Dick’s memories of the future, but VALIS’s memories of the future, that created orthogonal axes of cause and effect in his mind.
As Louise ultimately asks, with the knowledge that falling in love will eventually lead to the death of her child from cancer, “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” For that matter, could you?