Good science-fiction consists of more than just alien invasions, body-snatchers, and “Take me to your leader.” Done well, sci-fi tells us deep truths about ourselves and our world. The Oscar-nominated filmArrival most definitely falls into this type of good sci-fi because of the way it takes the viewer deeper into the emotions of human experience. As film critic Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker, “What lingers, days after you leave the cinema, is neither the wizardry nor the climax but the zephyr of emotional intensity that blows through the film.”
Director Denis Villeneuve is the wizard behind the wizardry of Arrival, while Amy Adams plays the main character: a respected linguist named Dr. Louise Banks. The United States Army seeks out Dr. Banks and her top-notch translation skills so she can help them decipher what a group of mysterious, newly arrived aliens want with the human race.
Arrival doesn’t begin with the aliens, however. The opening sequence of the film shows us intensely emotional scenes from the life of one person, beginning to end. In a matter of minutes, we feel boundless joy, soul-twisting loss, and the agony of sorrow. Villeneuve masterfully crafts this sequence, helping us see and feel the fleeting nature of time from a distance, and all at once. We are voyeurs on the outside of time, looking in.
This isn’t how we normally experience time, of course. We live in time. It’s something happening to us in a specific moment, like a dot on a timeline. In the first few minutes of the film, we are seeing one person’s timeline all at once, which highlights the brevity of life and causes us to feel as Solomon did, that life is a vapor and a vanity.
We live in the balance of human responsibility and God's sovereignty.
The film’s aliens—who possess seven, symmetrical tentacles—are termed heptapods by Dr. Banks and her partner, a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). For fun and as a reflection of growing intimacy, Banks and Donnelly come to call two of the heptapods Abbott and Costello. We soon learn that these squid-like creatures, who emit symbols of ink as their form of written communication, experience time much like we did through the film's opening. Like God himself, the heptapods view time all at once: they are above it, and outside it. As C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, "If you picture time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn... God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all."
Unlike God, or the heptapods, our perspective of time is humbling. Bound by our linear experience, we are powerless to change the past or control the future. But what if we could? Arrival goes on to pose this question. If we could make decisions with knowledge of the future, would we choose pain and suffering? As Dr. Banks asks Donnelly in one of Arrival’s closing scenes, “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?"
But we aren't God, or heptapods. Instead, we live in the balance of human responsibility and God's sovereignty. We plan our life, as God directs our steps. We cast lots and he determines where they fall. God alone sees our future and he won't share that with us for good reason. He knows we are but dust, and he will not let us know today what he has for us tomorrow. It’s too heavy a burden for our human frailty. He knows, at times, his will is difficult for us, so he shrouds the future in shadow and beckons us to walk forward with him.
Our comfort is this: that the one who created time, and is outside of it, invaded our planet and became part of our timeline. He limited himself in the ways that we are limited. He experienced the tragedy of human existence. The one who has no beginning and end assigned himself a beginning and end. Lewis expounds on this in Mere Christianity, "It is really, I suggest, a timeless truth about God that human nature, and the human experience of weakness and sleep and ignorance, are somehow included in his whole divine life." We can walk forward in time, knowing this forerunner has walked before us, and he walks with us. He's leading us to a place where time is swallowed up by eternity. The place of real arrival.