Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Chariots of the Hepta-Gods: Thoughts on Arrival, Aliens, and Theology

(Warning: some spoilers follow).

In so much as I followed this year's Academy Awards, I was curious about the fate of the one contending film I have seen so far, Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve.  I suppose best sound editing is a significant accomplishment, and honestly I wasn't expecting more of an ambitious and clever SF film made in the tradition of Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (CE3K).

Arrival is a clever, poetic film about complex issues such as human proclivity for irrational action and the very rational challenge of communication outside of any known linguistic framework with a very alien intelligence.  No wonder it didn't win more Oscars.

There are very clever reviews of the film, such as this one, which say more than I ever could.   I will simply offer one thought, which occurred to me long after I saw the film but was still processing it, which was this.  What a shame that we learn nothing about what the aliens believe.

Within the SF First Contact trope, there are two basic premises.  The first is that the aliens are hostile (think Independence Day, War of the Worlds, The Thing, Mars Attacks, and so on).  In this premise, it doesn't matter what the aliens believe.  The aliens are usually implacably hostile and it's us or them (the TV series Falling Skies might be included here, though the motives of the aliens, while hostile, are open to question).

The second premise is that the aliens are benign super-beings who offer humanity the possibility of rescue from our own fatal errors and ways (think Contact, CE3K, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Childhood's End).  In this premise, the challenge for humanity is to rise above our fears and ignorance and be open to the redemption that the aliens offer through their superior philosophy and technology.

In Arrival, the aliens, referred to as Heptapods, clearly fall into the second category.  Despite their totally alien appearance and their articulate tentacles, the heptapods arrival to a shocked Earth is
profoundly enigmatic.  What do they want? is the organizing premise of the film, and we slowly
learn, thanks to the efforts of a scientist and an astrophysicist, that they have something to offer us, technologically backward and benighted as we humans are.  What unfolds in Arrival is something decidedly like the theological idea of grace as an undeserved gift.

The Christian in me can't help but see this second kind of First Contact film as a kind of modern, secular retelling of the parousia, or the Second Coming of Christ, though the original Greek meaning of the parousia as the visit of a king or emperor may be more apt.  In Christian thought, as expressed most clearly in the Book of Revelation, Christ returns to Earth to judge the world, end sin, overthrow God's enemies, reward the faithful,  and usher in a new and unending reign of his Father's rule.  These ideas are grouped in the subset of Christian theology known as eschatology.

Eschatology for many Christians is something of an orphaned child of Lady Theology these days.  Mainstream Christians (like most of my fellow Anglicans) have largely yielded it to the custody of evangelical Protestantism, which looks anxiously for signs of the end times, and prefer instead to focus on the Kingdom of God in the here and now of life in the incarnational presence of the Son of God.   Indeed, as Church of England theologian Ian Paul notes, many Christians are decidedly uncomfortable with eschatology altogether.

I can see why.  Talk about the Second Coming is awkward around non-believers, because it feels profoundly coercive:  use what little time you may have left to get right with God before the Big Day.  Indeed, the whole notion that God will return and usher in an eternal age of His reign strikes at the very heart of liberalism: choice.  What if I don't want to live in the New Jerusalem?  What if I don't believe that God has any right to judge me?  What if I would rather the world doesn't end, so I can see my grandkids and work on my bucket list?

For these reasons, I suspect that the Good Aliens Come to Earth trope functions as a kind of secular substitute for the parousia.   The heptapods of Arrival hang over the Earth but do not announce their plan for humanity.  They offer possibility but not judgement.  They make no demands except that we be smart and figure it out, if we can.   Whatever redemption they offer is one of our choice and making. 

While Arrival feels like a parousia for our times, it is not a didactically secular version of this trope.  For that, see A.C. Clarke's 1953 novel Childhood's End, in which the arrival of the benign aliens, the Overlords, ends religion and superstition and ushers in a new stage in human evolution.   Denis Villeneuve, on the contrary, invests Arrival with a decidedly mystical air.  The heptapods seem to be free of linear time as humans experience it, which for me evokes the Christian eschatological idea of Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, who breaks into human time.

In their interactions with Louise, the linguist played by Amy Adams, they allow her to see her daughter, whose birth, life and death do not seem to have yet happened, and whose communications with Louise provide significant moments of insight and advance in understanding the heptapods.  

In suggesting that there is some non-linear existence which intersects with our own condition, trapped on the one-way track of human time, Villeneuve teases us with the notion that there may be more to life, death, and life after death.  At the same time the heptapods, so inscrutable, can display the grace of forgiveness, even up to the death of one of their own.  

None of which is to suggest is that the heptapods are gods, for all that they sometimes seem godlike.  Their sudden departure leaves us scarcely fewer questions, and, perhaps, even with more.   For my part, I would have liked to have known if the heptapods have the same questions as we do.  Are we created, and if so, why, and for what?  What is our purpose?

 In the warm, generous and unafraid character of Louise, and her decision to embrace that the life that the heptapods have partially revealed to her, we may see shards of answers to those questions.



nitpickergeneral said...

** big spoiler alert **

Isn't it most likely that the aliens have no need of beliefs? They have the ability to see events outside of our normal timestream, and so know both the past and the future equally well.

Kaptain Kobold said...

* Another Spoiler *

The aliens arrive because they *want* something as I recall. They advance humanity because in the future they know they will need humanity to save them.

Michael Peterson said...

@ nitpickergeneral
I suppose one could argue that the Heptapods, being outside of the normal timestream, have a kind of omniscience, in that they don't need to ask what has happened or what will happen, which are both questions central to some religions. On the other hand, does that automatically mean that they would have no need of beliefs? Would they not still need to believe something about purpose, morality, sources of meaning, what is the good life, and so on?

@Kaptain Kobold
I missed that detail, though I did notice it mentioned as well in another review. There is the sense in the film that the heptapods are manipulative, as in their ensuring that Louise is able to call the Chinese leader at a key moment. I would like to think that the aliens still have to believe, or hope, that the humans will do the right thing, because otherwise the premise of the film is deterministic, engineered by the aliens' interference in time, which is not very interesting (to me, personally).

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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