Arrival – Movie Discussion
Arrival may not be what you’re expecting. I think this reviewer on IMDB summed it up nicely when he wrote, “Actually what you get is a film that approaches the grandeur of ‘Close Encounters’ but interlaces it with the intellectual depth of ‘Inception’, the mystery of ‘Intersteller’ and a heavy emotional jolt or two of ‘Up’.” On the surface it’s a sci-fi alien movie, but really, that’s just the delivery message for a very serious, intelligent and poignant movie about communication. Of course, a movie about communication can help us communicate with each other better, but where I think it really shines is as a metaphor for our communication with God.
When the aliens came to earth, naturally there was a lot of fear and questions. Why did they come? Were they friend or foe? Not to mention the scientific questions. Where did they come from? How did the space ships work? How could they leave no footprint (physical, digital, etc.) whatsoever on earth? The questions were endless. The problem was in the language barrier. How could they learn to communicate with the aliens so they could get the answers they needed? And how long should they wait on that communication before they made decisions about what to do? Were they putting the world in danger by waiting? Or were they creating a battle where there didn’t need to be one? No one wants to start a war, but equally so, no one wants to be the fool.
Louise was called in as a language expert to try to communicate with the aliens. I don’t want to spoil too much of the movie, so I won’t recap the storyline much beyond this, but instead let’s look at some lessons about communication we can learn from this movie, and how they apply to our communication with God.
- The aliens and their ships are immense and mysterious. They are both tangible and real and also wholly other. They defy the laws of man and earth (physics, gravity, etc.). They leave no footprint, no waste. They require nothing of earth to exist. They are foreign and unknown, but they are knowable. And yet, it’s doubtful they can ever be fully known, the depths of their beings and knowledge fully comprehended by mankind because they are so immense and mysterious and so wholly other. They are very much like God in all of this.
- The aliens invite but never force. The aliens don’t force themselves on man. They show up on earth, yes, but they don’t force man to get to know them. Instead, they seem to extend an invitation as their ships open each day. Louise goes into that opening and the way is up into their presence. Even later, when man attacks the aliens and they gently remove themselves a space from earth, they don’t completely leave. The ships are then too far up for man to easily enter, but Louise goes to them to talk, and immediately they send down a pod for her and welcome her back into their presence. They are gentlemen, so to speak, and though the invitation is there, they don’t force themselves on anyone. Again, they are very much like God in this. He too came to earth but didn’t force anyone to know him or believe in Him. He simply extended the offer. And, like the aliens, the way to know God is always further up and further in. It’s intimate and personal and deep…but not forced. If we push God away, He will respectfully keep a distance, but the moment we come to Him, He is generous and ready to bring us back into His presence. He makes a way for us, even when He seems too far off to reach. We have only to seek Him, and when we do, He promises we will find him (Jeremiah 29:13).
- Language is foundational for civilization and communication. This seems obvious, but the movie drives it home in profound ways. We have nothing if we cannot communicate. This applies not only to our relationships here on earth, but also to our relationship with God.
- There are multiple ways to communicate and sometimes we need to be willing to try plan B. Louise realized she would never be able to speak their language (if they even had a language). She couldn’t form the sounds they made. So she instead tried written communication…and that’s where the breakthrough happened. So often we are locked in to our own ideas about communication and aren’t willing to flex. We require others communicate with us in our way and on our terms. The same is also true with God. God communicates in a variety of ways, but sometimes we are guilty of wanting him to communicate with us in one way and not recognizing that he is trying to communicate in another. Maybe we want the miraculous, the writing on the wall, or an audible voice, say, but maybe He is speaking to us through written language (His Word) instead. Remember the story of Elijah listening for God. God wasn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. Elijah finally heard the Lord in a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19:11-12). On a similar note, this is why the Love Languages book is such a revolutionary idea. There are multiple ways to communicate love and we need to be sensitive to how others communicate love. Sometimes we miss that someone else is telling us that they love us. Sometimes we give love in a way that doesn’t communicate love to someone else. We have to be willing to be flexible in how we communicate. The goal of communicating isn’t just being heard, but also hearing. It’s both giving and receiving and that requires some flexibility. We often think of the love languages in our human relationships, but have you ever thought of this in your relationship with God? If we are the bride of Christ, should we be surprised at all to find that we may have to do a little work with Him on our relationship and our love languages? God may communicate His love to you differently than He shows it to someone else. What made Louise such an effective communicator with the aliens was that she was humble enough to communicate in any way rather than insisting it be verbal. She was committed to communication itself, in any form. We would do well to come to God with that same humility and desperation. We would do well to be willing to receive whatever way He chooses to communicate.
- Come without agenda. Another thing that opened the doors so fully between Louise and the aliens is that she came without agenda. Everyone else wanted something. They had agendas. The military. The scientists. The politicians. Everyone was demanding answers to their own questions. This is how they wanted to approach the aliens…with agenda and questions, demanding answers. Louise was different. “How about we just talk to them before we start throwing math problems at them?” She came seeking to know and understand the aliens themselves. No agenda. No rush. Just a desire to get acquainted. Louise’s approach was rare, but it was the one that was required to open the doors of communication. The problem with agendas, besides being off-putting to the person we are talking to, is that it colors what we hear. It makes us more biased in our interpretations. This is what almost catapulted the world into war with the aliens. The military guys had one agenda, to find out if the aliens were a danger to them. So the moment they heard the word “weapon” they were immediately ready to go to war. Louise, however, heard “weapon” and searched for greater understanding. Could the word mean something else or be translated wrong, etc.? Her approach is as rare in the spiritual world as it is in the natural. If we are honest, we are probably all guilty of coming with our agendas more often than we come with a simple desire to know and understand God. We know what we want to hear from Him, but we don’t know what He wants to say to us. May Louise’s example inspire us to become more eager to simply hear what He has to say.
- Language is the first weapon drawn in war. This is a fascinating idea, but think about. Wars are generally fought over hate or power. Hate is certainly spread first through rhetoric…until tensions rise to a fever pitch and violence breaks out. As for power, who would support a change in power if they weren’t first aware of a new leader? Again, that starts with language/communication. It’s also the primary weapon Satan uses in his attacks against us. That’s how it started in the Garden of Eden—Satan making Eve question God’s goodness and His Word. He uses our own thoughts and the hurtful things others say to us to wound us, to get us to wound others.
- In order to really connect and communicate, we have to be willing to be exposed. Louise and the other scientists went to meet the aliens covered in protective gear. They basically were encased in a hazmat suit for their own protection. This is a little ridiculous as they had no idea what they were dealing with or what the aliens were capable of. Who was to think that those suits could have actually protected them from the aliens had they been hostile? But the suits made them feel a little bit more safe and protected, anyway. The problem was, all that “protection” was actually a great hindrance to meaningful connection and communication. Louise knew that to really get anywhere in communication with the aliens, she had to be willing to bare, vulnerable, exposed, without her “amor”. They had to be able to really see her to understand her. This was scary and against the better judgement of the people around her, but it was the only way. True communication is always this way. It always requires that we put aside our armor and protection and that we risk being vulnerable, exposed, laid bare and fully known. And because of this, true communication is always a risky, scary thing at first (or maybe always)—whether we are talking with each other or with God.
- Our actions are contagious—for better or worse. When Louise risked everything to communicate with the aliens and wasn’t immediately hurt in doing so, Ian followed her lead. When the two of them not only survived it, but also made meaningful progress in their relationship with the aliens, other scientists and linguists around the world also began to take off their suits and start to communicate with the aliens in their area. (The same is true in the negative, however. For example, when the Chinese cut off communication and prepared for war, the rest of the world immediately followed suit.) We all long for this, to be vulnerable and exposed and safe with each other and with our Maker. When someone among us dares to take that first step, we find courage to do the same. When someone among us says that they have a real relationship with God, others begin to have hope that they can, too. These things are contagious.
- Fear divides and impedes communication. Just as vulnerability and risk are contagious, so is fear, but at a faster rate. When the Chinese first thought there was a real and present danger with the aliens, they isolated themselves and cut off communication. The moment they did so, others felt they had to do so too in order to keep themselves safe. Fear divided the world and all communication stopped. Communication is a sign of hope. It’s a sign that you think progress can be made with talking and not only with action and force. When talking stops it’s a bad sign. It’s a sign that people are afraid and will start protecting themselves; therefore it’s a sign that force is coming. God said he didn’t give us a spirit of fear. He gives us a spirit of love and love casts out fear.
- Communication is confusing. Even when you think you are on the same page, things can be misunderstood. The aliens used a word, “weapon”. Of course, people got scared and defensive the moment they heard it. Louise, however, searched for greater understanding. Are they saying they will use a weapon, or offer one? The aliens used another phrase, “Many become one.” This was ambiguous, too. Were they saying the many alien ships would become one? Or were they talking about the “weapon” they were possibly “offering” and saying that some assembly would be required? Or, was it a statement that they wanted to help the humans learn to work together? Communication is confusing and it’s further complicated by our expectations (back to point number 4: Come without Agenda). Just because we can translate the words someone has said, doesn’t guarantee we know what they actually mean. Seek for understanding, beyond the actual words. We need to seek to understand what is meant, not only what is said. This is a matter of grace and wisdom. In a way, this is what Jesus was fighting when He came to earth. His people (especially the really religious ones) had gotten very caught up on exactly what the Bible said, and had completely missed God’s heart and what He meant. He points out what the law says and then points out the heart of the law and how people had missed it. Things like, the law says don’t murder, but even hating someone is murdering them in your heart because God wants us to love one another. (See Matthew 5:17-48.) The prophet Isaiah was doing the same thing in his time, pointing out that fasting isn’t just about not eating certain foods while you’re a jerk to your fellow man, but about having a right heart before God and man. God would far rather us eat foods while we care for the homeless than the other way around. (See Isaiah 58.) The problem is, people throughout time have heard the words God has said without trying to understand what they meant. To understand what they mean, we really have to know and understand the heart of God…and that takes some time and willingness to clarify what we think we understand, much like Louise did in the movie.
- Language isn’t meant to be a weapon, but a gift. The aliens were giving the world their language. It wasn’t meant to be a weapon; it was meant to be a gift. That’s the thing with language, though—it can be either depending on how it’s wielded. This is why James writes so passionately about the power of the tongue. “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (James 3:8-10). God created the world with a word. As we are made in the image of God, should it then be any surprise to find that we too have the power of life and death in our words? We were intended to follow after our Maker and speak life into others and into our world. Language was intended to be a creative, life-giving gift to us, but used wrongly it can become a weapon.
- When we learn a culture’s language, we see the world the way they do. The movie discusses theories about languages and one such theory is that our mother tongue shapes the way we see the world. Anyone who has ever learned another language can see this to some degree. The way we order our sentences shows what is most important to us. Do people come first, or action, for example? Cultures that have a word for “god” in their language see the world differently than those that do not. Just to name a few examples. (It’s really fascinating to listen to people from Wycliffe Bible Translators talk about some of these challenges as they work to translate the Bible into unknown languages!) In Arrival, Louise explained that because our language is linear, we see the world and time (all things, really) in a linear way. We see a beginning and an end. The aliens’ written language, however, was not linear; it was circular. That revealed a critical difference in how they saw the world. They didn’t see it linearly. They saw things as a whole. They saw the end from the beginning (except, it’s not a beginning and an end to them at all). So, the more Louise learned their language, became fluent in their language, the more she thought like the aliens thought. She would encourage people, “If you learn it, really learn it, you see the way they do.” This is a brilliant reminder to us why we need to really learn the Bible—it’s the language of God, put down on paper for us. The more we learn to speak the Bible, the more easily it pours out of us, the more we also learn to think like God, to see the world and even time the way He does. He, too, is without beginning or end. He is timeless and He sees the end from the beginning. Once Louise was able to see the world through the alien way of thinking, peace broke out in the world. When we are able to see the world from God’s way of thinking, we too can bring peace into our surroundings and into our world.
Arrival is really both such a simple and obvious movie on the one hand and utterly brilliant on the other. It is my sincere hope and prayer that it will help you as you communicate with the Lord, and will give you some great ways to talk to others about God. And I do so pray that the analogy will help all of us to see the power of learning scripture and becoming fluent in the words of God, that doing so might help us have the heart and mind of God.
Questions for Discussion:
- What to you were the most powerful lessons about communication in the movie?
- When it comes to communication, who in the movie are you most like?
- When you communicate with someone, is it a struggle to come without agenda?
- Are you more interested in being heard, or in hearing what others have to say?
- If learning another language helps you see the world as that culture sees it, then how important is it to really become “fluent” in the Bible?
- How are the aliens like God, or a good metaphor for God? How are they different?
 bob-the-movie-man. (2016, November 8). User Reviews, ”Wow - what a surprise". Retrieved from IMDB.