Faith, Film, and Philosophy: The Arrival and the Texture of Life

This post contains spoilers. It is suggested that you only read it after having seen the film.

There is a short story titled “The Appointment in Samara”, if that sounds familiar it is because it was mentioned recently on an episode of the hit BBC television adaptation Sherlock. A brief telling of the story goes as follows:

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

The story is about inevitability, not just of death, but of all of life. It is an example of the philosophy of determinism. For in order for the servant to meet his fate circumstances must conspire to get him to the right place at the right time (or wrong place at the wrong time as it were). In one sense the film The Arrival presents a similar philosophy, it is not pure determinism as it appears that the heart of the story turns on a decision. All events past, present, and future emanate from one decision that falls to Dr. Louise Banks, one decision that has an important question for us today.

Plot as Philosophical Vehicle

Before getting into precisely what the decision is, it is interesting to note that The Arrival, unlike any other film I have seen, is almost uniquely unconcerned with the actual plot of the film. This is a film about extraterrestrials coming to Earth for reasons that are unclear (due to communication difficulties), they could be friend or foe, they could bear greetings and gifts or a message of war. Yet any concerns that would be fair play in ndependence Day or other such films are made subservient to the psychological development of Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks. The plot of the film is a mere vehicle to prompt the weighty decision that Dr. Banks must make. Delaying the philosophical discussion just a bit longer, let’s consider the plot. FYI, this is where the spoilers come in.

The What

As The Arrival begins we are presented with the attractive, albeit bland, Dr. Louise Banks. She is a university professor, a foremost expert on linguistics, clearly single, lives in a nice house, and does not socialize much. This is supposed to be a result of the recent death of a teenage or pre-teen daughter whom we are shown in a montage that Adams voices over with a bit of dialogue about time.

The relevant scene ends at about 1:43. You might note the light and dark exposure of the shots and how the music sets the pace of feel of the scenes. They grow increasingly dark as we move from high exposure with the baby to the “tickle guns” memory and then grow darker as we see the memories transition to medical assessment and the eventual death by a kind of childhood cancer (assumed due to the shaved head). As we then see Dr. Banks in the present, the darkness still pervades the shots, even those taken outside. 

As with the film in general, Dr. Banks is relatively uninterested in the dynamics of the events taking place. Namely, the arrival of twelve egg-like objects around the globe. Smooth, white, and standing lengthwise some feet from the ground. Where we might be tempted to think that the clear insinuation of loneliness would drive her interest, it seems to have created apathy instead. Thus she calmly dismisses class, has a nonchalant conversation with her mother, watches the news with mild interest, and returns to work the next day with some surprise (we might expect) that none of her students (nor any students at all) are there. Rather than returning home—as you would expect someone to do (especially if they had a home like hers)—Dr. Banks watches the news on her computer in her office. This is where she gets invited into the plot of the film.

Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) arrives and plays a recording of the aliens, inquiring how Dr. Banks would go about trying to translate it. After negotiations, Weber decides to bring Banks to Montana. On the ride there, we meet the final headliner Jeremy Renner playing theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly. Both doctors meet their teams and get the climatic opportunity to meet the aliens. Their primary goal is to figure out how to communicate and find out what the creatures want. Once a breakthrough happens we get interspersed montages of Banks and Donnelly building a relationship with the creatures they have named Abbott and Costello. The primary focus of the film is still the psychological state of Dr. Banks which appears to be deteriorating with the increased frequency of memories about her deceased daughter and a weird dream. 

Beyond the budding relationship of Banks and Donnelly with each other and with Abbott and Costello, there is the tension of global decay. The objects are present in several countries and not all are responding as measured as the United States (which is still very uneasy about them). Communication between the scientists that are working for their various governments is severed. China and Russia withdraw from the video chat and begin mobilizing military forces. Then comes the big reveal. As military groups across the globe begin to act Dr. Banks calls China on a stolen CIA satellite phone and is able to talk the Chinese commander down by remembering his personal phone number (needed to call him) and his wife’s dying words. A few hints may have pulled the reveals punch for observant viewers, but the key here is that she can remember an event before it has happened. She can see the future. Why?

The aliens came to bring a humanity a gift, this gift was their language, which is written in circular ink blots, they have no discernible beginning or end, just symbols. The idea is that in learning their language (just like in learning human languages) part of her brain was rewired to perceive life without time. She is able to save the day, but now she has to answer a critical question—knowing what she knows, will she choose to walk the path shown to her?

Dr. Banks’ Story

Dr. Banks is alone. As it turns out, she has always been. The dream/memory sequences about her daughter are not technically memories as they have not yet taken place. She is viewing future memories from the present. Her daughter has not died because she has not yet lived. Her husband has not left her because he has not yet married her. She is able to see a path in front of her and she has the ability to walk it or walk away, toward the unknown (though presumably she will see where that path leads as well). 

As it turns out, the daughter she has seen in her future-memories, Hannah, is the daughter she will have with Dr. Connelly. When their daughter is young, she will reveal to Ian that their daughter will die young due to a rare and untreatable condition. Heartbroken, Ian leaves her telling her that she made the wrong choice as her ability meant that she knew this before accepting Dr. Connelly’s proposal and deciding to have a child. 

This then is the question Dr. Banks is faced with: what would you do if you knew all the joy and all the pain of one life path? This is the existential question, but there are other moral questions as well: is it moral to have a child when you know the child will die early? Is a short life better than no life? 

There is an easy answer to some of these questions, but as with easy answers it is often over simplified and unrealistic. I think many would say that Dr. Banks should not pursue a path that brings such depths of pain. However, such an swear would reveal a view of life and a teleology for pain and suffering that may not be true. What if life is not about happiness and comfort? What if it is about something else, like growth and transformation? What if the purpose of life is to make us into a certain type of person and joy and suffering both have an important and irreplaceable role in that development? Further, how would you know that any other path has more or less joy and suffering respectively?

Dr. Banks chooses Dr. Connelly and chooses Hannah knowing the hurt both will bring. I am not sure that there is a better display of love. She chooses to walk a path that has texture to it. It has highs and lows, love and loss, pain and pleasure. She cannot have the joy of Hannah and the romance of Dr. Connelly without the loss of each. She has to endure the losses in order to embrace the love.

The Christian Story

In many ways the story of Dr. Banks displays an aspect of the character of Christ. It is a common refrain in churches that Jesus invites sinners to come to him as they are. Unfortunately this needs to be said because a common lament is that we forget this. We get comfortable and we neglect to fight shame of sin with the gospel, as such we put on a good face, trying to clean ourselves up when we meet with the people of God or even approach God in prayer. Paul Miller, author of A Praying Life, laments the inauthenticity with which we approach God in prayer. We try and find the words which make us sound the best and we often neglect to pray for what is really on our hearts. We are concerned that putting back the curtain and saying what we mean and feel will lead to either self loathing or cosmic rejection. Miller fights this by pointing out that it is not our strength and wealth that has brought us intimacy with God, but our poverty and weakness. Miller writes, “We don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; we just need to be poor in spirit. Poverty of spirit makes room for his Spirit. It creates a God-shaped hole in our hearts and offers us a new way to relate to others.” It is our poverty which brings us to God, a poverty which he is well aware of before we approach.

So we try and clean ourselves up, we push our sins under the metaphorical rug, and we become inauthentic with Christ. We may even lie to him in prayer or ignore talking to him altogether. This, I imagine, is deeply painful to a Jesus. The Bible tells us that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That Christ did so because he desired a relationship, because a he desired intimacy and joy in fellowship with us as individuals and as the community called the church, because he loves us. Like Dr. Banks, but to a much greater extent, Jesus knows our sin. He knows it past, present, and future. He chose us anyway. He knew the texture that our relationship with him would take on. He knew the highs and lows. Yet he choose is still. It cost him dearly to do so. 

I deeply appreciated this film, in my books Amy Adams gets the oscar, for its reveal of the true texture of life and a significantly more realistic display of the riskiness of love. 

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h. 

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