A Different Arrival

Having arrival-movie-poster-803349read 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.

A Flood of Criticism

The reaction noah-movie-posterfrom many friends who have seen Darren Aronofsky’s Noah can pretty much be summed up as, “What the heaven was that?” They walked away disappointed, frustrated, and even angry at the movie. When I ask friends why they have disliked the movie so intensely, reactions have generally been that it did not reflect the Biblical account closely enough. While using the bathroom in the theater after I saw the movie, I heard one guy (who I did not know from Adam) mutter to no one in particular, “I don’t remember any rock monsters in my Bible.” Can’t argue with that one.

In fact, some Christians have walked away suspicious of the movie. Where did this stuff come from? One article I’ve seen circulating on Twitter among Christians is this one from Dr. Brian Mattson. He pulls out a number of significant parallels to Kabbalistic, Gnostic teachings that appear throughout the movie. Further, he berates pastors and Christian leaders for not seeing these influences and actively peddling the movie for studios (to which I would say, shame on pastors for peddling anything for studios). At the same time, I’m not entirely convinced of the connections he makes. Especially after reading this Jew’s take on the likely influences of Jewish Midrashes on the film, which explains the “zohar” in a far more banal light than Dr. Mattson gives. Then here’s an interview of one of the screen-writers defending their take. He sort of sidesteps the question about gnostic texts, but he also explains some of the details of the movie in a way that contradicts Dr. Mattson’s gnostic interpretation.

So is it really a veiled screed to gnostic teachings or not? Actually, I think that’s the wrong question to ask. Continue reading “A Flood of Criticism” »

Ambiguous Prometheus

Yesterday David 8 likes to play with stars. I had a hankering to re-watch Prometheus. The movie satisfies me on so many levels. Atmospheric tension, engaging performances (Fassbender is an excellent robot), special effect wizardry… it’s a movie that has stuck in my brain. But more then these things, it’s a movie with layers of meaning. And if there’s any kind of movie I love, it’s this kind of movie. Granted, the move has its flaws, for sure. There are any number of articles floating out on the internet debating whether certain plot elements were really significant or were simply macguffins or otherwise superfluous (though maybe not).  But that is what delights me about the movie the most: its ambiguity. It raises a number of questions and includes a bunch of themes that allow the view to make any number of interpretations. I got sucked into jumping from article to article on the internet with different people’s takes on this. One of my favorites was this take on the different thematic elements of Prometheus. This seemed more apropos than other interpretations, and it shows the depth of thinking that went into the movie. For many the ambiguity was a turn off. But for me it was a playground for the mind.

Soderbergh On Cinema

Finally got around to reading this little rant from director Steven Soderbergh on the declining state of cinema as opposed to mere movies. You’ll have to read his (fairly long) essay, but the gist of it is that cinema, as an art form, is simply a movie with purpose. “Cinema is a specificity of vision,” says he, and you don’t get that from much of the profits-driven dreck that floods theaters nowadays. This was actually my favorite part of the essay, because he points out that part of the human condition is a desire, nay, longing for meaning, for a story to “make sense out of all this chaos.” Thus, says Steven, we have art like cinema. When an artist (in this case a director) does his or her craft well,

“you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being—literally seeing the world the way they see it. Then, if you have a really good piece of art and a really good artist, you are altered in some way, and so the experience is transformative and in the minute you’re experiencing that piece of art, you’re not alone.”

And this is why I come back to movies again and again, and why I feel compelled to write about the experience now and again. It’s powerful stuff. Anyway, take a moment to read the essay.

The Meaning of Gravity

I have imagecome to a realization that I love movies that carry meaning. Conversely, I tend to despise movies that carry faux-meaning. In other words, if they try to be meaningful but are really devoid of any true substance. (Maybe I will post sometime why a flick like Fast and Furious 7 or XXX filled me with such loathing.) What do I mean by meaning? Simply, anything that touches on deeper aspects of the soul.  Grief, love, family, belonging, purpose; these are some of the subjects that make for meaningful films and books. Action flicks (like Mission Impossible 4), cartoons (like Finding Nemo), or children’s movies (like the Peter Pan flick from 2003) are great examples of movies that successfully provide meaningful elements while entertaining. Even if the whole aim of the movie was to entertain, I find that I enjoy it more if there is some part of the movie that engages me at a deeper level of meaning. Continue reading “The Meaning of Gravity” »