Note: This article contains spoilers for the movie Arrival.
Arrival landed in theaters just days after the end of the heated election cycle in 2016. Many took the science fiction film as commentary on the importance of language and the need for deep and sincere communication with one another during the post-election season. Language and communication have always been gifts to us, from the Garden of Eden where humans learned how to name and describe the world around them and to communicate with God, to our contemporary society, where the ability to communicate sincerely with others beyond ideological differences is an ever increasing necessity. Arrival helps us reflect on both the importance of language for communicating with one another on earth and God’s use of language to communicate Himself to us.
Arrival is a reminder of language’s ability to put words to immaterial realities and share with others the great joy we have in Christ.In the film, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an expert linguistics professor, is invited to a military base set up near a recent landing site of an alien species. There are twelve locations across the world where the alien—named the “heptapods” for their seven tentacles—have touched down on earth. Banks is instructed to go through the door, every 18 hours, for the purpose of trying to decipher the aliens’ verbal language. It is a series of unfamiliar rumbling vibrations and clicks.
She is given a partner, a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to work with. And during their first encounter with the heptapods, she discovers that the aliens also have a written language, one that is composed of complex circles that have no apparent meaning in English. They are separated from the creatures by a thick transparent wall that lets humans and heptapods interact but not touch. The humans can see the heptapods moving about, enshrouded by a thick mysterious mist. Louise and Ian struggle to make any sense of the dark circles the heptapods create in the mist, and the heptapods seem to be equally confused by the spoken language of human beings.
Learning a new language is a form of deep cultural immersion. Through language, we get a glimpse into the mannerisms, thought patterns, and values of a culture; we can literally begin to perceive the world in a different way. A new language may require you to pay attention to different details than your first language. French, for example, like many other languages, attributes a gender to nearly every noun, person, or place possible. As a result, the endings of adjectives and verbs must agree with the gender of the subject; if a sentence has a feminine subject, an “-e” is added for the singular feminine subject, and an “-es” is added if the subject is plural. When constructing a sentence, the speaker must bring the content of the sentence into agreement with the identity of the subject.
Some philosophers go so far as to say that until we have a name for something, like a color, it doesn’t really exist to us. We are not really aware of something until we have a way to describe it in our language. In looking at four different shades of blue, we may just describe all of them as “blue” because they seem so similar. But the paint store employee knows each of the shades, probably by name. They each take up separate places in various color schemes.
As Louise progresses in her study of the heptapods’ language, she begins to see vivid dreams and flash-forwards of a future life with her husband and their daughter. The dreams and visions grow increasingly more vivid the deeper she gets into the language. As the language lessons advance, she is able to ask the heptapods about their purpose on Earth. Their answer, translated into English is, “offer weapon.” Louise tries to explain to the military officers that such a phrase could have multiple interpretations like “tool” or “technology” in the heptapods’ language, but the base becomes anxious anyways. Two U.S. soldiers, acting out of fear, place an explosive into the heptapods’ spacecraft. Louise and Ian enter the spacecraft to continue their work, completely unaware. During the work session, the heptapods give Louise and Ian a much longer message before ejecting them from the spacecraft when the bomb detonates.
Often, when we think of hearing God’s voice, we have certain preexisting expectations. We want Him to use plain English and our own understandings of time—which He absolutely can. But sometimes, He may reveal Himself in signs, wonders, numbers, or words that stretch our previous conceptions of Him. When we first start getting to know God, we begin with a lens of pure human understanding. Often, we want to continue with this one lens we have prepared, forgetting that we were designed to sound increasingly like Him, to dream His dreams, as we learn His “language.” The army unit hears “offer weapon” and does not pause to make sure they know heptapods personally, like Louise does. Instead they jump to their own conclusion, which misses out on the true nature of the heptapods’ visit. Until we know the speaker of the language personally, we remain vulnerable to misinterpretation. Thankfully, God has opened the door into that personal relationship that is so necessary.
When Louise and Ian regain consciousness, they discover that the military crew is preparing to evacuate and the heptapods’ spacecraft has moved up above ground to prevent another violent intrusion. Another country is preparing for an attack against the heptapod spacecraft nearest to them. The heptapods send a miniature craft down, only for Louise, and she steps inside. It carries her up into the spacecraft and the hazy mist in which the two aliens have been residing. She is no longer separated from them. A heptapod explains that Louise has been seeing the future, not the past or an alternate version of reality. Similar to the circles of ink they draw in the mist to communicate, the heptapods see time as happening all at once, in a circle, not in a distinct linear pattern; they can see the future, remember the past, and live in the present all at once. The heptapods explain that they will need human help in 3,000 years, and they have brought their language, with their different understanding of time, as a gift that is also a tool to help humans see the role they need to play. Louise has a vision of the future that explains exactly what she needs to do in present time to stop the escalation toward an attack on the heptapods and a war between countries.
The movie paints a clear picture of how important language is to forming and sustaining societies. Language brings people together, bound by shared methods of describing the world and communicating needs. Whether we choose to communicate through visual, written, spoken, or non-verbal language, our communication incarnates immaterial thoughts, emotions, and beliefs into the material world. God used language to bring the world into existence from nothing. Everything around us came into being by the power of God’s spoken word. And the language of Proverbs reveals that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
The words we speak and how we form those words matter greatly to the Kingdom. Learning the heptapods’ language is what enabled Louise to see her present situation in a different light. If language is cultural immersion, then it is of extreme importance that we are soaked in the language and culture of the Kingdom. God has told us, “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” Through studying God’s language and learning to hear what His voice sounds like in our lives, we come a little bit closer to seeing those “great and hidden things” that He speaks of. Arrival is a reminder of language’s ability to put words to immaterial realities and share with others the great joy we have in Christ.