Science-fiction shows and movies in the 21st century have become increasing dystopic and violent. Based on the short-story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, "Arrival" is a film of depth and power with a story told on both global and personal levels without being either violent or dystopic. Just the first five minutes alone tell a heart-breaking story of loss that would be an Oscar contender for best short film. From the earliest moments of the film, the audience is haunted by a question: If you could change the past, would you?
Good fiction brings out the truth. Good science fiction brings out human truths. In "Arrival," these are presented by a plot that is neither congested nor simplistic, two issues that often plague action films. The protagonist, Louise (Amy Adams), is a linguist who experiences the pain and loss of her only child. That loss, however, becomes meaningful, powerful, and salvific in light of the whole of her life, which culminates with a series of extra-terrestrial encounters. "Slumdog Millionaire" used a similar type of flash-back story-telling, but not nearly as well as "Arrival." The question of finding meaning in pain grows deeper as the audience slowly pieces together Louise's backstory.
"Arrival" is appropriately filmed in a foggy style with an ethereal score that adds to the story's slow-drip clarity. Louise's elucidation on her past suffering is a great entre into the human condition. We all have things we regret, yet as Shakespeare writes in "Measure for Measure,"
They say the best men are molded out of faults, and we become the better because of some evil that we do.
The miracle of the Paschal Mystery is that God reconciles human beings in a way that restores us beyond our original condition. The Paschal Mystery does not make evil things (whether we commit them or they visit us unbidden) good, but rather it guides us along a process of transforming suffering into empathy, understanding, and depth which can be a source of healing for others. In addition to the theme of healing-through-suffering, the main story arc of "Arrival" is something that most inter-galactic films ignore or address in a facile way: communication with the other.
"Arrival" handles human-alien dialogue in a sophisticated way. The Earthlings must overcome their own barriers and collaborate internationally, while simultaneously attempting to bridge the language gap and avoid violent conflict with the Heptapods. The Heptapods are a totally original alien race with a compelling language system. If you thought Klingon and Elvish were cool, you're going to love Heptapod.
Louise employs a method for communication with the Heptapods that is essentially a scholastic principle formulated by the disciples of Thomas Aquinas: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur, meaning, "Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver." This principle is intuitive. Babies can't understand philosophical essays or Russian novels. Parents usually start with single syllable words like "mom" and "dad."
This communication principle, like all things human, has religious implications. Scripture and tradition are our best collective attempts to interpret God's communication with humanity. Through covenants and prophets, people recorded and transmitted the Lord's ongoing forays for intimacy with humanity. The Incarnation is the strongest possible example of this. God desires relationships with human beings. God enters into humanity to share relationships in a human way to establish and maintain these relationships.
"Arrival" was worth my $10.50, because it gives a two-sided example about how people communicate with each other and with God. The film has a great twist that took me back to M. Night Shyamalan in his heyday. Also, when you see Forrest Whitaker in this movie, don't be confused. He also appears in another science fiction movie playing at the moment. Whether in Montana in "Arrival" or in a galaxy far, far away, he has chosen his films well.
[Erik Lenhart is a Capuchin Franciscan Friar ministering at St. Pius X Parish in Middletown, Conn.]