Having read Ted Chiang’s short story collection Stories of Your Life I was eager to see the cinema adaption of the eponymous story from that collection, re-titled Arrival for the big screen. I was blown away. There is so much craftsmanship to this movie. It’s beautifully shot, and the acting is subtle yet powerful. I only realized in preparing this review how much is conveyed without saying a word, which is a good sign of a well done film. Because I’d read the story ahead of time, the big twist of the film was not a surprise to me (for which I was moderately sad), but the emotional depth of the story had found an incredible new resonance and it left me deeply moved. I’ve seen Arrival twice, and I cried harder the second time I watched it. There’s so many layers to pick apart from the movie, but I came away with one thought that I’m sure the author never intended: the main theme of Arrival makes for a profound theodicy.
What follows is filled with spoilers from the film and if you plan on seeing the film at all just stop here. Seriously, don’t read further, because the film will be utterly spoiled. This is one of those movies you want to go in completely unprepared for because the ending will be a delightful surprise. So if you haven’t seen it yet, shut the computer down, walk out the door and strut up to your nearest theater now. Then come back (with your mind assuredly blown).
Seriously. Last warning before spoilers.
Now that you’ve seen it, you know that the conceit of the film is that Louise, a philologist, has learnt the aliens language and in the process has assimilated the non-linear way the aliens process time. Somehow, this allows Louise, not to “see the future” but to actually live her life non-linearly so that events in the future are happening concurrently with the present, and those events actually interact since they are effectively occurring concurrently. It’s a pretty high-concept idea, and it makes more sense watching it in the movie than describing it, but what makes the story so resonant is that Louise witnesses the life of her daughter, in total, life and death, all at once. That moves the story from being merely academic, to incredibly emotionally wrenching.
Close to the end of the movie, Louise asks, “If you could see your life from start to finish, would you change things?” She leaves her own question unanswered, at least verbally. But, apparently knowing the choices that will lead to the existence of her daughter, and the requisite joy and deep pain that her daughter’s life would entail, she chooses the path that will bring her daughter into this world (though it is not apparent that there was available any other path). When she, somewhere in her non-linear time line, reveals to her husband that she knew her daughter would live a relatively short life that ended in suffering, he tells her she made the wrong choice. But Louise doesn’t think so. The movie beautifully portray’s her love for her daughter, her sense that every moment with the girl is precious simply because she exists. What Louise seems to be saying is that her daughter’s life is worth the pain it will cost Louise to bear her. I found this incredibly profound for me, with a child only one year old. If nothing else, I left the movie wanting to come home to my son and drink in every moment with him.
How does this make for a theodicy? It occurred to me that if the movie could argue that a life lived was worth living, even in spite of great pain and loss, that the sum of that life was a good thing, then it could be argued the same for the totality of human existence. There have been many attempts at answering the question of why there is evil and suffering in the world in spite of the supposed presence of a good God, some better than others, but one of the answers may be that this world of pain and suffering is the only way to get at human beings as they are (beings capable of great love and good) and that the evident inevitability of pain to get at that is actually worth it in the end because the sum of life is a good thing. In other words, God chose to make our world, knowing all of human history and the evil that entails, because he considered the unique results of that world (you and I) to be more exceedingly precious and good than that evil.
That, in a nutshell, seems to be what the movie argues for with Louise’ daughter Hannah. At least through Louise’s eyes. Her husband denies that Hannah’s life was worth it if it entails loss in the end. Even to the point of fleeing the loss and apparently leaving Louise to mourn death by herself at the end of Hannah’s life. Some might feel that way. But the movie left me wondering if Louise provided some insight into the mind of God. What if, from God’s perspective, the sum total of human existence was this beautiful thing that, despite the depths of evil, reached heights of love and joy that far surpassed any blight? That’s where I arrived at.