The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Advent

Movie aliens aren't real. That doesn't keep them from raising thought-provoking provoking questions for us today.
The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Advent
Image: Paramount Pictures

“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.

In Arrival, salvation comes not from militaristic strategies or systems, but from incarnate one-on-one communication between two beings.

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.

Arrival’s advent in our current political climate speaks to the better nature of humanity. The film openly addresses our tendencies towards fear and violent retaliation while it nevertheless paints an aspirational picture of whom we could become if we would only listen to and receive the Other.

A Little Child Will Lead Them

God came to Earth not in a spacecraft, but in a young woman’s womb as a child, confounding all of us who might have expected the divine to remind of us his might. Instead, the presence of a baby disarms us as we encounter the unbelievable story of God with us. This motif of the neutralizing effect of the presence of children also prominently appears in many arrival films.

While Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) obsessive search is the primary story arc of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the film pays considerable attention to Barry (Cary Guffey), a young boy who forms a unique bond with the alien presence. While the aliens unnerve or frighten most people in the film, Barry always appears calm, at times even joyful or delighted. In one terrifying scene, perhaps foreshadowing films like Poltergeist or Signs, Barry and his mother (Melinda Dillon) scramble about their house trying to the keep the aliens out as unseen forces try to make their way to Barry with a fervor that leaves everyone rattled. This is horror that pierces the heart of any person—an outsider comes to disrupt your home and take away your children!—and it’s the same fear that encroaches upon our contemporary society. We fear the Other, whomever that Other might be. We obsess with figuring out who They are, why They are here, and how to stop Them from… well, we’re not really sure of Their intentions, but we’re certain our interests are in jeopardy.

In all this, Barry remains unalarmed, a non-anxious presence in the midst of what should feel like chaos. It turns out Barry’s posture reveals a surprising wisdom, as the aliens appear not to be motivated by malevolence, but by curiosity. Barry’s optimism suggests another Spielberg alien arrival movie, E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Where Close Encounters featured a father abandoning his family for the aliens (something which bears further criticism for another essay), E. T. brings a paternal stability to Elliott’s (Henry Thomas) troubled childhood. While Elliott’s parents’ marriage falls apart—another image of disconnection between two people—E.T. becomes a stable relationship for the boy, a companion and shoulder to cry on, a healer and a friend. In the climax, this is E.T.’s simple-yet-profound message to the world: “Be good.”

In The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is befriended by a young boy, Bobby (Billy Gray). Earlier, Klaatu had been shot by the military after attempting to give a gift and share a message with the world. Bobby welcomes the alien and offers a tour of Washington, DC. As Klaatu observes humans alongside Bobby, he notes their heightened sense of danger, their anxiety and propensity for conflict and war. Klaatu can be considered a Christ figure as an outsider coming to earth with a message of peace, who is killed by the human beings he intended to save and subsequently comes back to life. While the rest of the world lives in fear, a child welcomes Klaatu. Perhaps this relationship serves as an expression of the naiveté of youth. Or perhaps the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

From Elliott and E.T. to Bobby and Klaatu to Hogarth and the Iron Giant, it’s young people who welcome to the Other. In contrast, the military forces and political authorities—the “powers”—assume defensive postures and employ pre-emptive strikes. In The Iron Giant, the military is mobilized to destroy the mechanical Other it has deemed a weaponized threat. After all their usual weapons fail, the military takes the conflict a step further by firing a nuclear weapon at the robot as they attempt to drive him into the ocean. But their eagerness to crush the Other only proves self-destructive as the bomb is launched at the town itself. The people can only watch in horror as the missile is launched high into the air, leaving only minutes before they will all die. Yet in a beautiful act of redemptive love, the Iron Giant launches himself into the air, flying directly into the rocket and destroying himself to save the people below, including the very enemies who were aiming to destroy him.

Aliens in Our Midst

There are a myriad of emotions involved in the encounter with the Other—fear, excitement, curiosity, anxiety, aggression, hope. We can empathize with these responses, as we too would likely share in these reactions. Notably absent is the non-response—we could not remain apathetic or indifferent should such a remarkable and wondrous event occur in human history.

We could not remain apathetic or indifferent should such a remarkable and wondrous event occur in human history. Or would we?

Or would we? In the midst of the busy season of Advent, how often are we struck with awe, pausing in the midst of shopping and Christmas parties and decorating to be truly amazed at the profundity of it all, that the ultimate Other is truly Immanuel—God with us? Alongside Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, the shepherds and the magi, do we recognize the majestic wonder of the ordinary-yet-transcendent Other present in our lives? Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear, not only the Other who is Immanuel, but also the alien and stranger, the Other who bears the image of God across all political, national, and social media boundaries?

Roger Ebert once described the movies as a “machine that generates empathy. It lets [us] understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.” Film serves as a distinct artistic medium compelling us to encounter the Other in our everyday lives as we watch characters—both human and alien—encounter Others on the screen. Just as Louise took a risk and opened herself up to genuine conversation with an alien heptapod, just as Barry and Elliott and Hogarth befriended someone from another planet out of childlike curiosity and compassion, we are invited by Christ to step into the unknown future with a hopeful confidence.

So this Advent season, go to the movies and learn from the curiosity and openness of these on-screen models. Emulate what philosopher Martin Buber called I-Thou relationships. Eschew I-It relationships, an orientation towards another person in which we view the other as a dehumanized foreign object and remain at a distance. Embrace I-Thou relationships, connections characterized by sharing reality, an act of vulnerability which both recognizes one’s personal individuality and boundaries while also truly seeing and knowing the Other as a whole being. Perhaps the most concrete practice of I-Thou relationships is listening—giving one’s whole attention to the Other’s stories and perspective with a genuine willingness to truly see and hear them. This step towards togetherness can be risky, but isn’t that what each of these sci-fi adventures reveal? The stem of our word “adventure” is “advent.” This Advent season, let’s embark on an adventure with and for Others, recognizing the Divine Other who entered our world as a child, whose law is love and whose gospel is peace.

Joel Mayward is a writer, pastor, and film critic living in Portland, Oregon. The author of three books, he writes on film and spirituality at www.cinemayward.com.

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The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Advent