Communication and Faith in Arrival

There’s a moment in Arrival where Louise (played wonderfully by the always perfect Amy Adams) is in the alien spacecraft and, acting against military orders, she removes her protective suit. The soldiers accompanying Louise’s mission to find a way to communicate with the aliens—dubbed the heptapods—don’t know how to respond. Do they stop Louise? Abort the mission? Something worse? Despite knowing the air is breathable and the atmosphere is harmless, the soldiers are still stunned by Louise’s decision, and they are absolutely unwilling to follow her lead. They don’t share her impulse or her willingness to take a risk.

But, most of all, they don’t share her faith.

Faith, of course, is a very tricky thing to discuss. When I think about faith in the context of a movie like Arrival, I’m not drawing on the binary discussion “do you or do you not believe in God?” To me, the idea of faith is more general in the sense that it covers any devotion to a higher being or spiritual power. It could be anything, from a religion-based god to alien overlords to the Force. The point is that you believe in something outside yourself that, in some way, shapes, influences, or even controls the nature of our world. Yet somehow, regardless of the faith, the path to getting there is always the same: you have to hear the call, and then you have to take conscious steps to overcome that adversity within and without to reach its source, taking you from a non-believer to a believer.

What’s interesting about Arrival in this faith-based context is how directly it deals with the first half of the bridge to becoming a believer—hearing the call. The movie is centered on this mission to learn how to communicate with an alien race who may or may not want to destroy all life on Earth. As one of the world’s foremost linguists, Louise is presented with the challenge of understanding what, exactly, the heptapods are trying to tell humanity. While her expertise is the defining reason for her ability to crack the heptapod language code, her most remarkable success—preventing a nuclear attack—is the product of her willingness to take steps no one else will. The removal of her suit, as mentioned above, is just one of those steps on her path to crossing a threshold between skepticism—and maybe even fear—to belief and trust. In fact, much of her journey over the course of the movie can be seen as an allegory for faith. The closer she gets to the aliens, the more she begins to change and be affected. As Louise’s ability to communicate with the aliens gets better and better—as she hears their call more clearly—so, too, is the profound change happening within herself. By the end of the film, we learn that the aliens have gifted Louise an ability that aligns with what many commonly associate with the attainment of belief: clarity of vision, purpose, and thought. Louise transforms from a skeptic to a believer over the course of Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant sci-fi drama.

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This process of evolving with your faith isn’t anything new. Christians have a tool called the Bridge to God (or sometimes called the Bridge to Life), which is more or less a model that guides people from lonesome wandering to the holy embrace of their god. In this model, you start on one end of the bridge, removed from god. But despite this separation, you still hear the call—like the heptapods calling out to humanity in Arrival. The journey, then, is akin to Louise’s, and it’s a conscious decision to travel a path, guided by faith, that leads you closer to god.

Similarly, Joseph Campbell illustrates this growth in his deconstruction of the hero’s journey, and we see it in practice in Star Wars (Campbell’s writings were hugely influential on George Lucas). At the end of A New Hope, Luke literally hears Obi-Wan’s call, urging him to trust in the Force and destroy the Death Star on his instincts alone. Like Louise removing her suit when everyone else advised caution, Luke also took that first, important step toward believing in something he could hardly comprehend. From there, he embarked on a journey that took him to the swamps of Dagobah, the gallows of Bespin, and, finally, to a full Jedi where he embraced not only the power of the Force, but also the spirit of his own father.

The underlying idea of this call to faith is that anyone can hear it. In the 1997 film Contact—which I read as a spiritual cousin to Arrival—a brilliant scientist determined to prove humans aren’t the only sentient life in the galaxy comes in, well, contact with a message beamed from a faraway race of aliens. Based on the Carl Sagan novel, Contact, like Arrival, deals directly with decoding a message. What this scientist (Ellie, played to perfection by Jodie Foster) hears way out in the Vega system isn’t a simple bit of text; it’s a layered transmission containing sound, video, and information. And, like Louise in Arrival, Ellie is surrounded by people who remain both skeptical and even fearful of the message they, too, are hearing. They don’t know the intention of the call, and that makes them hesitant to trust its source. But both Ellie and Louise pursue their belief that something vital, something profound, is in the message they are trying to decipher, and they’re both rewarded for their steadfast dedication: Louise communicates with the heptapods and not only betters the world because of it, but she also comes to terms with the greatest tragedy of her life; Ellie speaks with the aliens, in the form of her father, and has her existential journey, that she—that humanity—isn’t alone, confirmed.

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(It’s worth noting that Contact is also dealing with the intersection of faith and science, but in a different way than discussed here; the text in Contact is more about proving belief, whether it’s belief in science or god, and it is excellently presented throughout the film.)

Thinking of how the path to embracing faith is woven into the fabric of Arrival, it’s interesting that so many people have watched the movie and have said how it has restored their faith in humanity. For many people in this country, and around the world, there’s a sentiment that we’re about to enter in a period of frightening uncertainty, and regardless of whether you agree with this concern or not, one thing is for certain: Divisiveness amongst people over culture, over politics, over everything is at a zenith. That’s why Arrival has become the perfect movie for this time. As a story about the power of communication and how it can unite people and races despite their differences, it couldn’t have been released at a better moment in history. But not only that, like Contact before it, Arrival is a movie about the journey of faith and how, through taking that journey, we can shed light on even our most existential questions. Both films serve to remind us that, no matter what, life is always worth living.

It just needs to be believed in.

Michael Moreci is the writer and co-creator of several comics series, including Roche Limit, Hoax Hunters, Curse, Burning Fields, Transference, and ReincarNATE. Four of his properties are currently in development for TV and film, and he is currently working on two sci-fi space adventure novels coming from St. Martin’s. Moreci lives in Chicago with his wife and two children, his greatest co-creations of all.

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