“The Liturgical Year in Cinema” is an ongoing series, a personal exploration of the thematic connections between the Christian calendar and films. Advent is the final chapter in this exploration as we celebrate the season of Christmas and Christ coming to Earth as a human being. Read Mayward’s previous reflections on Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, and Ordinary Time
If an alien came to your home, how would you respond?
Would you run away and hide? Shoot first and ask questions later? Attempt to communicate? Give a hug or high-five?
The sci-fi subgenre of “alien arrival” movies invites self-evaluation as we navigate the fantastic experiences of encountering extraterrestrial visitors. These are not stories of invasion or menace (I’m not talking about Independence Day, The Thing, War of the Worlds, etc.) but of an encounter with the ultimate Other: a being which transcends our world and yet chooses to approach ours to intentionally make contact with us. (Caution: Spoilers ahead.)
In the most recent of these films, Arrival, the alien contact begins when 12 large “shells” appear across the globe: The American government charges linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) with learning how to communicate with the heptapods, the creatures’ name derived from their unique seven-sided form. Through many painstaking back-and-forth conversations, Louise discovers that these aliens experience reality in a non-linear fashion; from their language to their physical dimensions to their perspective on time and reality, the heptapods are circular and holistic, a stark contrast to our human way of thinking and being.
The communication barriers explored in the film aren’t restricted to the human-alien relationship, as various nations experience a breakdown in collaborative efforts due to a heightened suspicion of both the aliens and each other’s motives. In fact, even as the aliens’ purpose comes to light, misunderstandings and knee-jerk reactions only increase the tensions among the humans. In one scene, a wall of screens in a global communications center streams the word disconnected on the video feed, a striking contrast to the wide-open space where the aliens and humans converse, viewing one another with genuine sense of curiosity. Even as communication between the human and the alien Other evolves and matures, the human beings seem to remain stuck in their misinterpretations of each other.
In Arrival, salvation comes not from militaristic strategies or systems, but from incarnate one-on-one communication between two beings. When both parties forge a connection in spite of linguistic, cultural, or species’ barriers, they find themselves transformed and enlightened. But this change hinges on vulnerability. Louise opens herself up to the alien beings, removing her protective helmet in order to let the aliens see her face. The move might have ended her life. Instead, Louise’s willingness to choose reception over self-preservation allows her to gain insight into the heptapods’ intentions and motives with far more clarity than her fellow researchers. Indeed, this openness ultimately leads Louise to reach out to another individual—in this case a leader from an estranged nation—to change his perspective. Every time Louise chooses to have a direct or difficult conversation, it’s depicted as counterintuitive to the majority around her, as well as a costly act of courage. Sometimes having a conversation with another dynamic being is the riskiest adventure we could undergo.