On New Year’s Eve, my family and I went to see Arrival, a film by Denis Villeneuve that contains a familiar story: UFOs arriving on earth. That much I was prepared for when I sat down in the theatre. I was not prepared, however, to be confronted with my regrets and challenged to live in the moment by a science fiction movie with seven-legged aliens.
Amy Adams stars as linguist Dr. Louise Banks, tasked with the daunting challenge of communicating with aliens who have arrived in twelve, black, shell-like spaceships at twelve seemingly random places on the globe. As would be predicted, this event has worldwide impact and director Villeneuve gives us glimpses of the panic, tension and anxiety that it causes. But the movie centers on Dr. Banks and her perspective. I don’t want to be any kind of movie spoiler so I won’t go farther into the plot. I will say that this film is Oscar-worthy and a must-see for anyone who wants to be treated like an intelligent, thoughtful adult at the movies. Arrival is that rare gem that respects you as a viewer.
But I will reveal one aspect of this movie: Time and our relationship to time. We are people who view time in a linear fashion (especially those of us in the Western world). There is beginning, middle and end in our concept of time; a flow along a continuum that we see as past, present and future. Arrival presents the idea of time as cyclical, as not having a beginning and an end; i.e., instead of seeing time as a long line stretched out in history (as we so often see timelines illustrated) time is an unbroken circle, no discernible start date, no discernible “best before” date.
This concept proves crucial in the movie to understanding the heptapod aliens and their language. But it also provides the challenge and the inspiration; at least it did for me.
At one point Dr. Banks asks her counterpart, Dr. Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), if he would change anything about his life if he knew the whole story, that is, if he knew the future, if he knew where his choices would lead him. I can’t remember the exact wording of his response, but it was something like this: “Maybe I’d tell people how I felt more often.” His answer had nothing to do with changing certain events or choices in his life that he may have regretted. Instead, his answer had everything to do with living in the moment, with embracing the moment.
I was so deeply challenged by this because I have struggled with tremendous regret in recent months. I rue choices made in life, directions taken, and it has caused me a lot of angst and some sleepless hours in the middle of the night. In other words, an unhealthy perspective on my past has taken root. At the same time, I am more and more worried about the future, where my life is headed and how, at my age, it is so hard to change the course you are on. The irony is that I do not live in the past nor in the future. I live in the present moment, right here and right now.
The movie poses the question: If you knew the whole story of your life, would you change anything or would you, instead, embrace the moment you are in more and more? Would this knowledge cause you to love more deeply? Would you be present for the precious time you have?
Villeneuve makes the challenge run deep because he illustrates it with lose, with pain, with grief. If we knew what we would lose, what kind of agony we’d go through, would we change things? Or would we realize that the joy is always paired with the sorrow, the happiness always tied in to the sadness?
My sister lost her husband to leukemia this past year. He was 56 and the father of three children, grandfather to a newborn grandson. Together, my sister and brother-in-law had effected literally thousands of lives by planting two churches and mentoring and coaching people. They had experienced together so much and their gifts had been used, together, to affect change for the good to so many. But what if my sister knew, even before they were married, that he would die at such a young age in such a painful way? Would she have not married him? If so, they would not have those three beautiful kids or that beautiful grandchild. If so, thousands of lives would not have been touched by their grace and humour and wisdom.
As we mourned the death of my brother-in-law, I was struck at how deeply I felt love and joy in the midst of that sadness. In reality, I was embracing the moment so much more than normal because I had experienced loss. This happens to us at these crucial events in life. We see our moment with clarity. We see the people we love with clarity. We realize that they are what matters. We realize that all the shit we fret and worry and agonize about is nothing when compared to what we have in relationships, in experiences, in moments shared of joy and pain.
Denis Villeneuve has given us a work of art in the movie Arrival. It is challenging, thought-provoking and inspiring. But more than any of that, it is art because it is compassionate and because, when you leave the theatre, you want to embrace life more, love more and be present more.
This is art of the dangerous variety: Compelling people to become more of what they are meant to be; compelling me to be present to the ones I love and to express that in words and actions.
Is this all possible in a science-fiction movie with huge spaceships and leggy ETs? Art says, “Yes”. And so say I.