Chris Stuckmann warned me that upon watching Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, it’d take weeks — at least — to formulate one’s opinions of the film. The wildly popular and divisive film from the director of Sicario seeks to bring the viewer to his knees through compelling storytelling and convincing emotion. (2015’s Sicario, by the way, is superb — it’s a grisly film that seeks to investigate the line between justice and morality. It’s necessarily violent and dark and serious. I’d definitely recommend watching it.) And in one sense, perhaps, Villeneuve is successful. But, for me, Arrival marks the second science fiction film in the last 2 years that’s been ruined by my Christian worldview. (The first being 2014’s Interstellar, from visionary director Christopher Nolan. The film itself is breathtakingly beautiful, but the denouement leaves a lot to be desired and really falls short if your Christian ethic is at all active.)
Ever since seeing Sicario, I’ve been fixated on watching more of Villeneuve’s work. In addition, when the ads began claiming a “100% rating” on RottenTomatoes days after its release, with the accolades and acclaim began getting louder, I was naturally intrigued. I saw Arrival with my sister and expected the world. Perhaps those expectations were too lofty. After all, no film will ever be able to match the magic of Inception, right? (Nolan’s Inception (2010) is still my favorite movie of all-time. I’ve still never seen a movie that perfectly captures pacing, editing, storytelling, emotion, visual intrigue, and audible beauty. I could wax eloquent for quite a few more words on the amazing achievement of Nolan with this film. But I digress.)
Needless to say, when the credits began to roll, I was left dumbfounded, speechless. Mouth agape, I turned to my sister and puzzlingly said . . .
It’s not as if I can’t understand serious films. I actually enjoy movies that make you think and actually trust you as the viewer to keep up and put elements of the story together on your own. I get disgusted when a director doesn’t trust his audience. It’s then that he usually just spells everything out, as if to say, “Here’s what this means and this is this guy’s motivation and this is why this is happening,” etc. That’s sloppy filmmaking. Again, Villeneuve is a smart director and never wastes frame. His direction is sharp and crisp and deliberate. What you see on screen isn’t transitory but is there on purpose.
It’s that fact that caused me to leave the theater that night with a dazed and confused “Huh?” rattling in my head. I couldn’t figure out what this movie was trying to say. Every movie, whether you realize it or not, is saying something to you. The director, through the course of editing and stylizing and storytelling, is flat out manipulating you — his audience — to think a certain way or believe a certain thing. Either consciously or not, each film has a message it wants you, the viewer, to take away. Some directors are better at this than others, and you’re left chewing on the message well after you’ve walked out of the cinema. Thus, with each movie I see, I go into it asking the question, “What is this film trying to tell me?” With Arrival, I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around that.
And then it hit me.
Arrival is uniquely tied to Advent. This movie speaks to society’s collective frustration with the way things are and presents the only hope it knows: itself.
The film overall is gorgeous. Villeneuve’s movies don’t lack in the visual department. At the beginning of the story, 12 mysterious alien spaceships descend to earth, in 12 rather obscure locations around the globe. This isn’t Independence Day where the extraterrestrials somehow know to blow up the White House and the Empire State Building. And in good humanitarian fashion, governments around the world decide to unite in their attempts at communicating with these aliens in hopes of learning where they come from, why they’re here, and what they want.
Through a series of events, Louise Banks (Amy Adams’ character), a renowned linguistics professor, gets incorporated into the company that enters the spacecraft that sits above Montana, in order to contact and communicate with the aliens. After failed attempts at conversing with them verbally, Louise tries written communication. The responses are unique and strange, with the aliens utilizing a bizarre writing style. This forces Louise and her crew to continue writing and learning and studying this new language with the mission of finding out why they’re here and what they want, before it’s too late.
As with Interstellar before it, though, the 3rd act of Arrival seems to say that mankind itself is its own hero. In Nolan’s sci-fi epic, this was more literal, but in Villeneuve’s version of future events, we’re greeted by beings from the future that offer a gift to humanity that can save it from itself. With political tensions rising and world powers on the brink of war, Louise is enlightened to understand the alien’s language and see into the future, allowing her to convince the other nations to suspend their arms and remain at peace.
It’s almost as if America’s shared love for Arrival betrays that we’re almost there. We’re close to the Kingdom. And yet, despite being close, we’re not close enough. Almost found is still missing. Almost saved is still eternally lost. (Mark 12:34) We know that help has to come outside of us. Mankind knows there’s no fixing this on their own, but instead of turning to the incarnated Son of God, we turn to intrusive sentient beings from the future who promise gifts and abilities to lead us to our desired haven. It’s all very humanistic . . . and very hopeless.
Arrival’s universal praise belies the fact that we don’t understand the “reason for the season.” We’re in the midst of Advent, with a mere 5 days from the celebration of Christ’s incarnation. And yet, so persistent is mankind’s belief in itself, that even when we know we can’t give ourselves the hope we seek or the heaven we want, we stubbornly press forward with the prayer that some future self will save us. Mankind’s faith in its future self — a better, more evolved self — blinds us to the truth that a better Savior has already come.
Like the aliens of Arrival, Christ intrudes upon a world that doesn’t want Him. He comes subtly, humbly, and quietly. The incarnation is proof of the fact that God eschews pomp and circumstance, and ensures His promise that He comes to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:10) Jesus was born into a world that was broken, battered, and bruised — devoid of hope and blind to its own desperation. Into a world reeking of pain and guilt and suffering, Christ came, interrupting 400 years of silent nights. (Dunk, “Grace Came Down (Part 2)”)
On that fateful night, God intruded upon our world, unafraid of our vileness, our badness, our filthiness — in fact, more than that, He came willing to take all of that upon Himself so that you and I might be reunited with the Father. The incarnation of Christ is the greatest proof that God’s economy is completely upside down compared to ours. His glory is chiefly seen in descending, while we chase after glory in ascending. The incarnation is the embodiment of God’s grace to man, unsought, unseen, and unstoppable. God’s incarnation is His invasion of darkness — your darkness, my darkness. And by invading this darkness, we’re assured of a grace that comes to us. (1 Pet. 1:10) The strange fact of grace is that it cares not for who you are or what you’ve done, only that you believe in it. No life is so racked with sin that He cannot redeem it. God is not desirous of any soul perishing. (2 Pet. 3:9; Ezek. 18:32)
Advent is the prime season for reflecting upon the glorious truth that God doesn’t beckon us to climb to Him, rather, He comes to us. The remarkable reality of the incarnation is that it’s chock full of grace. In this event, that which we anticipate through Advent and celebrate on Christmas, God is meeting us. He doesn’t motion us to come to Him, somehow shirking our sin-ridden hearts in the process. No, God meets us — grace comes down, in search, on the hunt, of sinners like you and me. The infinitely pure, completely righteous, wholly perfect God entered His foul creation, engaging the very creatures that spurned Him in the Garden. The target of grace is sinners and its goal is salvation. Christ came in search of those who would soon spit on Him, even as He bled and died for them. The very blood drawn from the Savior’s side is the same blood God uses to cover our sins.
The assurance of Advent is that we can’t save ourselves, and the good news is that we don’t have to. A true and better Savior has already come, offering free deliverance, free relief, and free rescue from the splintered world we’ve made for ourselves. The gospel of God begins in a manger and culminates on a cross. And all along the way, we’re made to see that Christmas is an expression of the kind of God we have. A kind of God who meets us where we are. Advent is an invitation to realize our desperation and rejoice in a God who meets us there. A God who says, “No matter how many ruinous things you’ve done, no matter how many silly things you’ve said, no matter how filthy your soul or messed up your life, for you I’ve come.” For you He was born. For you He lived. For you He died. And for you He rose again.
Arrival places man’s hope in himself. Advent reorients our hope Godward. Advent reminds us that a baby’s first cry was the dawn of grace for a fallen world. And what the cradle promised, the cross would soon carry out.
Photo via Denis Villeneuve, Arrival