By Michael Leaser
Few filmmakers engage theological and metaphysical topics with as much dexterity and thoughtfulness as Denis Villeneuve. His 2013 psychological thriller Prisoners grappled with a father who recites the Lord’s Prayer at the film’s opening but then makes increasingly ethically questionable decisions as he struggles to find his kidnapped daughter. Only when the father opens up in prayer again and puts his daughter’s fate in the hands of God is she rescued.
Arrival deals with another parent-daughter relationship but this time surrounding the concept of kairos time vs. chronos time. Villeneuve’s opening shot and several other succeeding shots emphasize the lines in overhead ceilings, drawing our attention to the concept of chronological, or linear time, that human beings experience. Using cinema’s capacity to show different points in time in an non-linear fashion, Villeneuve helps convey the concept of kairos time where events occur that have an eternal feeling to them, unbound by the structure imposed by a clock.
Lead character Louise Banks (Amy Adams) experiences such moments when the U.S. military calls upon her linguist skills to help them communicate with the inhabitants of one of the 12 alien ships that have mysteriously appeared on Earth. In her encounters with them, she starts seeing images that she learns are from different points in time, that help her make important decisions in the present.
The film ostensibly deals with the mystery of how to communicate with an alien race and to determine whether or not their intentions are peaceful. Similar to M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, where the alien presence essentially served as the B story to healing a former pastor’s anguish, Louise’s relationship with her daughter is the real focus of the film. As such, the film asks important questions about how human beings would make decisions if they had a kairos, or God-like, view of time and whether those decisions should be any different, even if one knows that a decision may bring joy but will also bring great pain. As C.S. Lewis put it in William Nicholson’s Shadowlands, perhaps the happiness at one point in time is part of the pain at a future point in time. Compelling the viewer to ponder that question through Louise’s eyes along with the ramifications of her decisions is worth the price of admission alone.