Warning: This article contains spoilers for the film ‘Arrival’ (2016).
Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is a poignant and visually beautiful sci-fi film which indirectly asks a deep philosophical question: should God have created the world knowing it would contain such agonising suffering?
The problem of suffering is sometimes offered as proof that no God exists or that God is not worth worshipping. As a teenager, I was told that God couldn’t exist because, if he were truly omniscient (all-knowing), he would know about every incident of suffering. If he were truly omnibenevolent (all-good), he would want to do something about it. And if he were truly omnipotent (all-powerful), he would be able to. So why doesn’t God stop all the suffering in the world?
This problem can find an answer in the existence of free will. An all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God who allows his creatures free will, provides them with the freedom to choose him and his goodness or to choose wrong which inevitably leads to suffering. A Christian understanding acknowledges that when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, one consequence of this was to steer the world out from God’s plan into disorder and suffering, but that God has been working for our undeserved good and restoration throughout history. And this will lead to the total renewal of the world.
If we acknowledge that a loving, powerful God could have created the world, the question of whether he should have done so remains. Arrival asks a similar question on a smaller scale and goes some way towards providing an answer. The film introduces itself with the main character, Louise (played by Amy Adams), and her daughter, Hannah. We see Hannah as a baby and as a child, laughing with her mother, and then later, when she dies as a teenager from an unnamed disease. We then follow Louise, a professional linguist, as she is enlisted to help translate the language of the aliens in one of twelve alien spacecraft which have landed around the world.
Slowly, we get to know Hannah as Louise has flashbacks to her life with her daughter. She’s a warm and vivid presence amidst Louise’s current struggle to piece together information while she lives a tense and bleak existence, alternating between a military camp and the alien ship. Hannah is bright, beautiful and curious. She’s delighted by the world. She explores creation around her, vibrant with life whilst writing poetry and making things. And we slowly watch her relationship with Louise unfold. Meanwhile, Louise absorbs herself in the aliens’ non-linear language; each phrase is created immediately, with no sense of a start or end, and no passing of time occurring as the sentence unfolds. Eventually, political tensions rise to a peak, as do Louise’s flashbacks and the two storylines converge in a brilliant twist. By immersing herself in the alien language, she has begun to rewire her brain and experience time as they do, in a non-linear way. Her memories are not flashbacks but flashforwards. Hannah has yet to exist.
The choice is startling. Does she choose to have Hannah despite knowing that Hannah will die? She knows that eventually her husband will leave her if she does, unable to accept that she began Hannah’s life while foreseeing the suffering to come. Yet despite knowing the consequences of her decision, Louise chooses to move forward into it and we, as the audience, are glad. We know the heartbreak to come and yet it seems more unbearable that the girl we have seen should never exist at all.
Louise herself, with intense and wonderful love for her child, wants to know Hannah and knows that the world will be better for her existence. Similarly, out of his fierce love for us, God, although he knows there will be struggles and pain, wants us to exist, wants to know us and have a relationship with us. And, of course, he will ultimately do what Louise cannot, and make right the wrongs which have taken place.
There is that within us which cries out that that life is worthwhile even though there is hardship, that creation is good and that it is good to be alive. Arrival is a surprising and moving affirmation of this. With haunting cinematography, it presents a beautiful piece of visual storytelling, and a punctuation mark of hope amidst sadness. It provides no real intellectual answer to Louise’s future husband’s accusation that she “made the wrong choice”, it simply shows us a child whom we want to live.
Bronwen Steele is currently studying for a BA in Philosophy and Theology at the University of Oxford. She also has a Foundation Diploma in Art and Design. She grew up in different places throughout the UK, takes her tea weak and listens to copious amounts of Taylor Swift.