The hidden dilemma at the heart of “Arrival”

It’s not the aliens or the plot twist that will make you come away from Arrival with a sense of disappointment…

The sci-fi movie Arrival was released in November of 2016. After being nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, I decided to watch it over the weekend to see what it was all about.

[WARNING: Spoilers ahead.]

Someone on Facebook had said, months ago, that it reminded them of Interstellar. That film featured a somewhat cerebral investigation into the nature of the universe. The fact that this investigation was carried out by Matthew McConaughey, who isn’t necessarily known for his soft touch, was also a pleasing twist. That movie also inquired about a very basic theme: what it means to be human. It did this through asking a simple question: what is love?

Arrival explores these same themes. Roger Ebert provides a good summary:

Amy Adams gives a confident, affecting performance as Louise, a linguistics expert brought in on the day that 12 unidentified flying objects enter Earth’s orbit. Despite what they’re telling the public—which is not much of anything at first—the governments of the world have made first contact with the creatures inside, beings that look vaguely like some higher power merged an octopus with a giant hand.

Working with the military and a scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner), Louise seeks to find the answer to a very simple question: What do you want? The Heptapods, as they’re eventually called, speak in sounds that echo whale noises at times, but Louise quickly learns that written language is the way to communicate, even deciphering the complex way the interstellar tourists write. As she gets closer and closer to being able to convey that crucial question in a way that it (and its answer) will be understood, the world’s uneasiness continues. Will man’s protective instinct kick in before its science and language leaders can figure out a way to stop it?

Louise also has darkness in her life. The opening scenes detail the birth, brief life and death of a child.

I can understand why Arrival is compared to Interstellar. It probes the same questions, but from a different perspective. The basic sci-fi elements are the same: manipulating time in some way, and the consequences it has on the past, present, and future. But where Interstellar’s angle is distinctly Western — literally, quite mechanical in its ideas of how higher dimensions and imperceptible gravity waves may link past and future with the present — Arrival takes on a much more Eastern flavor in how it handles time travel. It takes more of an “all is one” approach to the concept of time.

In fact, it reminds me of the way LOST handled time travel. (For a refresher, watch the Season 4 episode titled “The Constant.”)

But looking past the metaphysical plot twist that the movie dazzles us with, the heart of its dilemma is ethics: what’s the right thing for Louise to do once the aliens leave?

The New York Times characterizes the movie as being optimistic:

“Arrival” is a science-fiction parable in a distinctly more idealistic hopeful key than most movies in this genre, one in which the best solutions don’t necessarily materialize in a gun sight. It has a little action, a bit of violence and clenched-jawed jittery men. Mostly, it has ideas and hope, as well as eerie extraterrestrials who face off with a soulful linguist-heroine, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), the story’s voice of reason and its translator.

The NY Times interprets optimism the same way all liberals do: through the lens of utilitarianism. The sacrifice that Louise must make to save the fate of all humanity, as well as the alien visitors, is severe, but it’s for the greater good of preserving the peace and survival of a newly unified humanity. And, thankfully, she didn’t use guns (those evil things) to do it.


Could I make the same sacrifice she must make? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone could. That’s why humans are incapable of possessing the powers Louise receives in the movie.

Despite an ostensible presentation of optimism achieved by the triumph of the human spirit, the movie’s conclusion is sad. It’s not optimistic at all. It tricks the viewer into leaving with a sense of hope because it plays out the sad story in reverse. The sad stuff comes at the front of the movie, but chronologically in the character’s life it comes after the movie ends.

The character Louise, played by Amy Adams, has nothing but tragedy to look forward to: a marriage that yields a single child. The marriage ends in divorce, and their daughter will contract a fatal disease and die when she is just a young lady.

By playing out this sequence of birth, life, and tragic death at the beginning of the movie, the movie tricks the viewer into thinking these are events that have already happened in Louise’s life before we met her. In fact, they don’t happen until after the movie ends.

It ends on a hopeful note by teasing us with the joy of two people in love, coming together in marriage, and giving birth to a child. But despite this hope, we know there’s no happy ending in sight.


The mysterious alien race teaches Louise a new language. The language is visual. Unlike the English language, which respects time by observing sequence and order of events, the alien language kind of combines all of that together. The more Louise studies the language in order to better communicate with the aliens, the more she starts thinking like the aliens. One character describes it as “dreaming in their language.”

The alien language expands Louise’s mind and unlocks a hidden power: the ability to see the future. She attains enlightenment.

One of the dramatic moments in the film’s climax, for example, hinges on her dialing a phone number that she was only ever given in the future. But now, in the present, Louise is able to access that information by “remembering” that future moment because of her newly unlocked time-travel powers.

The ethical dilemma presented is this: divorce is undesirable. It breaks apart families and creates emotional pain for everybody. Sometimes it is unavoidable, but it is at least recognized that children suffer when their parents divorce. The movie acknowledges this. No matter how one might feel about divorce, nobody likes to see two love-struck characters get divorced in the movies, especially when their child wishes they’d get back together. It’s sad.


Amy Adams, by the movie’s end, has become fully aware of her predicament. She wrestled with these vestiges of what appeared to be memories for most of the movie, but by its end she understands she had been glimpsing the future. Louise comes to realize that she would get married. She would have a daughter. But she also knows she would get divorced, and that her daughter would die. If she disrupts this sequence of events, the fate of humanity will be called into question. It is that sequence of events which allowed her to save the day in the first place.

This is the conundrum of time travel and the butterfly effect.

But now that she knows better by the end of the movie, why shouldn’t she change it? Why shouldn’t she try to save her marriage, knowing what’s coming? Why not have more than just one child? Why not have as many children as she and her body can handle? Or why not adopt?

Can Louise try and avoid this tragedy that she knows is coming?

Louise becomes imprisoned by her inevitable fate. It’s a terrible fate: one which you know is coming, and yet which you are powerless to avoid. This is the pain that Christ took with him to the cross. Much like Christ, Louise sacrifices much for the benefit of humanity. She chooses to embrace her tragic fate so that humanity can survive.

As her grasp on the flow of time loosens, she becomes like God: she was, she is, and she will be. All at the same time.


If there are any hopeful elements in the movie, it’s because Louise substitutes as Christ in a world that lacks a belief in God. But unlike Christ, her sacrifice ultimately has no meaning.

At the end of the movie, she writes a book that acts as a manual for teaching the alien language to others. As other people learn the language, and as they learn how to slip through time with their minds, will they be as devoted as she was to preserving the course of history?

The movie wants us to conclude that it would be immoral for Louise to attempt to change her future. That’s because, if she did, she would put everyone else in danger. But if you knew your marriage was heading for shipwreck, wouldn’t you try to alter its course?

If you didn’t, even though you knew where it was headed, do you now become guilty of its breakup?

The Bible teaches that with greater knowledge comes greater responsibility. This is true in life. If you have detailed knowledge of why your marriage is going to break up, and yet you do nothing to stop it, then your responsibility for its failure increases.


In Arrival, Louise is forced by fate to wreck her marriage and her family. This is not optimistic. There is no hope in this course of action. Her husband’s words become true: she made the wrong decision.

But could she have made a different one? The movie suggests “No.”

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