Answering the big questions with “Arrival”

“What is your purpose on Earth?”

This is the central question of director Denis Villeneuve’s alien invasion thriller, Arrival. Villeneuve is known for slow-build, tense storytelling like Prisoners and Sicario and with Arrival he applies that expertise to a 300 level Comm Theory class. The film isn’t so much set around asking that question to the audience or the aliens as much as it is the journey to understanding how to ask this question, “What is your purpose on Earth?”

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This is the job of famous linguist Dr. Louise Banks played with care and intensity by Amy Adams. That’s right, Arrival is about the super sexy field of linguistics. It is Dr. Banks’ job to ask this question to alien visitors who showed up unannounced to 12 random places around the globe. Have you ever had a problem communicating with someone who speaks your language, maybe even someone in your own family? Where in the world would you even start with a brand-new alien race?

Here the tension of Arrival begins. What if this is an alien military invasion on a global scale? What if this is an elaborate plot by this alien race to pit Earth’s military powers against each other? What if the aliens have discovered we are the only planet in the universe to master having “pizza anytime” and have come to partake in some sweet, sweet Bagel Bites? Until we figure out how to communicate with the aliens, we will never know.

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If you’ve never thought about how complicated human communication is, Arrival will make your head spin. We live in a time with some of the most widely accessible and powerful communications technology, so why is it that we still find it so hard to talk to one another, to understand one another?

At its core, Arrival, is about learning to communicate with the “other.” The timeline of our history is littered with the consequences of fearing those who are different from us. Fear comes from the aliens’ unpredictable behavior. Is their behavior truly threatening or is it scary because it’s not what we would do? Tensions come from the frustration of not being able to talk to the aliens. Is this language barrier an act of war or does that frustration come from our belief that the burden of communication lies on our visitors? We would be put at ease if they just spoke our language. They came to us after all.

When we reach a comfortable cocktail of confusion and fear in our communication with others it is easy to find any number of meanings in their actions. If you watch Arrival, and I recommend that everyone should, allow the movie to reveal the barriers you have in communicating with people different from you. Do they look very different? Do they not speak your language? Do you fail to understand why they do some of the things they do the way they do them?

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Discovering these barriers and breaking them down are a worthy exercise. Intimacy with the “other” is something God calls us to in our human relationships. An easy example might be marriage, though this is not the sole relationship where emotional intimacy and support is possible. The further we get into our marriage, my wife and I continue to understand our biggest obstacle is that we are two different people.

We think differently, we perceive differently, we experience differently, and we respond differently. To me, a clean bathroom looks visibly clean. To my wife, a clean bathroom involves bleach. To me, laundry is separated into whites and colors, hot and cold wash. To my wife, laundry instructions are a humble suggestion. Yes, at times, the fact that we are the “other” causes pain, fear, and confusion but as we live into our otherness we experience some of life’s most profound beauty.

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Do we ever really know ourselves unless we experience ourselves through the eyes of the “other”? Do we ever really experience the love of God unless we have been loved by someone who objectively knows us…and loves us anyway? When we make space in our lives for the “other” we open ourselves up to the deeper mysteries of how God loves us. That is what we offer each other if we can learn how to talk to one another. You might just find your purpose for being on this Earth.

Breaking down these barriers is difficult and is the hard, emotional work we see Dr. Banks go through in the film. It requires strength, it requires grace, and it requires an open mind. We are always more comfortable with people that are most like ourselves. It is easy to love those with whom it is easy to communicate, but imagine how much bigger your love could be. Imagine how much bigger a love you could receive. Having your space invaded can be scary, but just imagine how terrifying you are to the “other.”

While you watch:

Most countries are finding it difficult to communicate with the aliens, what makes Dr. Banks different? How does her approach differ from her scientist and military co-workers? What are her beliefs behind her methods and why is it more successful?

Who do you have the most trouble communicating with? What are the barriers that make that difficult? What could you do to break those barriers? How does Dr. Banks break down barriers in the movie?

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