Short Essays on Film
The Question and the Message in the film ‘Arrival’
In the film ‘Arrival’, the Quebec director, Denis Villeneuve, poses an intriguing question. The aliens have arrived on earth but ‘Arrival’ is much more than a sci-fi thriller or a science and tech orgy, like so many recent films on the same or similar subject.
The question that Villeneuve has the character played by Amy Adams, a linguistics professor, pose is this: If you saw what would happen in your entire life, past and future, would you change anything? In the context of the film, Adams sees a future in which her baby daughter will grow up and, as a young woman, die of a ‘rare disease’ (which might be some form of cancer). Of course, she doesn’t choose that her child not be born at all. Clearly, she realizes that the joys of life include the other side which we define as pain and suffering.
But it’s an absurd, impossible question. We can’t change anything about our lives. We certainly cannot go back into the past and alter events that have already happened. And, as for the future, we might think we have the free will to choose what direction things might take but we are fated to make those choices that free will allows. In other words, fate and free will are the same. This is not quite the same as saying that free will is an illusion, for we are free to make choices but how we act on that freedom is fated. (Some might call this karma, but that’s another subject.) To realize that they are the same is to answer the question, No, I wouldn’t change anything in my life, past or future. I can’t change anything and I choose not to change anything. The image that arises for me is that, at the moment of death, we enter the mirror and realize that that moment is the perfect moment to die, that is the moment that, somehow, we choose.
All of which brings us to the question of Time. In the film, Adams is attempting to communicate with the aliens but nothing clicks until she realizes their language isn’t linear and temporal like ours. We go from one word to the next and the end of this sentence is in the future until it arrives. And then it’s in the past. And that relationship with language affects and determines how we think about Time. However, the aliens have a different view of language, and a different relationship with Time. Their language, like their sense of Time, is circular and holistic, not linear.
Past and future exist in the present. Let’s examine that. The present is nothing more than the process of the future becoming the past. The past no longer exists, the future does not yet exist. But, the truly shocking thing is there is no fixed moment called the present, there is only this process of future becoming past. Nothing to fixate on, nothing to hold onto. And yet, this process is always happening, future in every moment is becoming past. That shooting star never stops, never burns out. Because it isn’t fixed in a distinct, isolate moment, the present is eternal.