I don’t know if I liked it” rarely communicates high praise. Yet, after sitting dumbstruck all the way through the ending credits, “I don’t know” means Arrival deserves four out of five stars on my Rotten Tomatoes rating.
I knew the movie was well done, but I felt uncertain in my affections because of the plot’s distortion of time. Any movie that displays time travel or non-linear progression forces me to think, rethink, and over-think how the director must have messed up the time portrayal. Keeping up with the plot’s use of a circular display of time left my mind dizzy.
Note: If you have not seen the movie Arrival, don’t read this article. Unless you enjoy spoilers. Do go see the movie. If you want. Don’t let an internet stranger tell you how to live your life.
The Creation of Relatable Omniscence
But I was wrestling with something else too, an odd sentiment I didn’t expect, one birthed from the ability of Louise and the director Denis Villeneuve to humanize the journey into omniscient understanding—the paradox of a divine trait possessed by a human being. I would have expected an overplayed sci-fi trope, with cold, calculating AI, but they gave me something different. Instead, they miraculously merge omniscience with the finite fragility of the human mind.
Louise gets to know her story before it happens. Then she chooses to live her life knowing it will end in tragedy. She marries and has a child knowing that her husband will leave her and that her daughter will die of a rare disease.
This choice instilled in me a sense of awe and respect. There is a certain nobility in knowing that your fate is damned with terrible consequences but still choosing to forge ahead.
This sounds familiar. It sounds like Christ. He incarnated as a man knowing the plan set for him—his substitutionary death on the cross—and still chose to dwell among us, for the sake of love and glory.
And, as I am wont to do, I instantly began to ask myself, “Were these writers believers?” I don’t know why I ask myself this every time I see a piece of the gospel in something, but I do. They wouldn’t have to be for the shadows of the gospel to creep into the themes. And regardless of gospel intention, it is a beautiful thing to affirm the love someone has for another, knowing that it will end in death.
However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the depths of love weren’t the point. I began to wonder if that really was the goal of the movie—if that is truly what Villeneuve was affirming. And I don’t think it is. I think it’s existentialism. In particular, a kind of the Martin Heidegger variety—one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, who profoundly shaped our understanding of meaningful life in a post-religious world.
“To be or not to be?” isn’t the right question.
Admittedly, existentialism as a whole can be difficult to define, and I am not a philosopher. In fact, most of the philosophy I know has been acquired in an effort to sound insufferably smart—you can ask my wife how that is working out for me.
This novice philosopher might define the existentialism of Arrival as the treatment of the meaning of human existence. In particular, existentialism focuses on the idea that in every situation human beings are free to act in whatever way they see fit. To do so is to live authentically. Conversely, to live an inauthentic life is to forfeit a personal definition of right and wrong.
Heidegger contends that, instead of distracting ourselves through pleasure today or the false promises of an eventual heaven, the authentic existence is one in which a person, seeing and fully acknowledging the limits and futility of his own life, still chooses to live meaningfully.
And here we find Louise. In some ways, she is a prophet. She speaks on behalf of the aliens, representing their interests to earth, and then intercedes on behalf of humanity. In other ways, she becomes a messiah figure, taking upon this gift of foreknowledge, using it to save the human species.
Prophet and messiah, yet her most relatable and lasting quality is her willingness to live the tragedy of her life knowing what will come—making the choices although she sees their tragic ending.
“What’s the other half of half the truth?”
Serious secular culture praises this kind of thinking. They cheer it on saying, “That’s right, Louise. Don’t distract yourself with empty pleasures! Don’t delude yourself with empty promises from a far away God! You can make the choice to live meaningfully for yourself.”
The regenerate soul cheers too. There is a beauty present in the martyrdom of Louise, one that the viewer wants to emulate. But there’s danger in this desire. It is not because something is obviously wrong. It’s dangerous because truth in this proclamation, but only a hint of it. And with a wink of what’s true we are encouraged to imitate Louise with a love that does not hold itself back on account of death or loss.
While Louise’s choice to face her daughter’s death seems noble, it is incomplete. Christ gives his disciples a similar call—take up your cross and follow me, he says (Matthew 16:24).
On the surface, both actions appear to express the same truth—both Christ and Louise call out to embrace the certainty of death, yet live nobly in spite of it. But that is not fully the call of Christ. Christ calls his disciples not to a beautiful despair, but to a hope too stubborn to be banished even by mourning.
Louise makes a heartbreaking choice, yet beauty accompanies her pain. Without knowing Christ’s return and the future we are promised, perhaps the beauty of the gospel would be filled with as deep of an ache as Louise’s. Instead, it’s full of something much better, it rings with the song of hope and joy.
Everyone is seeking substance.
Existentialism is a master at sleight of hand. It seems to answer the question, ”Is there meaning?” But instead, it side-steps the inquiry by cleverly pointing out the emptiness of a pursuit of only pleasure.
Yet in the end, existentialism misses its own emptiness. For how can we say there is beauty in death when there is no hope for that death to be redeemed? How can there be a glory in sadness if sadness wins out in the end?
Existentialism recognizes the basic human desire for our lives to be meaningful, but in refusing to acknowledge that a desire for meaning comes from the fact that we were made for more than this world, it lies to itself.
And so, as I sit here, considering the admiration that I have for Louise in her willingness to live the authentic life, I am frightened. I am frightened in seeing how easy it is to believe a partial truth, one that shows that there is indeed meaning in martyrdom, but fails to point me to hope. The true hope, Jesus.
The siren’s song of secularism is not attractive for its call of individualism, but rather for its ability to so closely mimic the truth that our hearts long for—that there is hope in the person and work of Christ Jesus. Hope to reconcile and restore a relationship to the one who gives meaning to existence.
By no means do I intend to say that we avoid media with a message that Christians can not wholly endorse. It’s good for the discerning Christian to watch, and even enjoy, media that sings the song of secularism. Even when it does it unknowingly, culture often articulates pieces of the truth. It should renew our gratitude in our own salvation and embolden our witness knowing that even the existentialist among us long for the meaning the gospel gives.