I recently saw the movie Arrival in my local theater. Some have been touting this movie as a pro-life movie, and one of the protagonists, Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), as a pro-life ion. I'll be examining this movie from a pro-life perspective, but for an excellent analysis of the themes in the movie, check out this review from J.W. Wartick.
Obviously there will be spoilers in this review, since I'm going to be analyzing it. So if you haven't seen the movie and don't want it spoiled, go and see it before you read this review. It's an excellent film, well worth your money.
Arrival is a film about a group of alien spacecrafts that reach earth and hover over various locations around the globe, such as the United States, China, and Russia. Nothing is known about the aliens, so the United States brings in a linguist, Banks, and a physicist, Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), to see if they can learn how to communicate with the aliens. Banks eventually starts to learn their language (as well as linguists from the other powers which have their own alien spacecraft), but human paranoia starts to take over and the temporary alliance between these powers as they study the aliens starts to fracture. It becomes a race against time to understand the aliens' language well enough to learn why they are here.
Arrival actually snuck up on me. I hadn't heard about it until my friends were already going to see it in the theaters. I hadn't seen any trailers for it and hadn't heard any talk about it. So while this was a surprise for me, it was a very pleasant ones. Considering how many classic films there are in the science fiction genre, especially those in which humans discover they are no longer alone in the universe (e.g. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek: First Contact, and numerous others), it doesn't seem to me that first contact films have much of a punch anymore. I'm not even sure it will come as much of a shock to anyone if we one day do discover there are other forms of intelligent alien life because the oversaturation of these films will have probably prepared us for such an event. However, what set Arrival apart from these other films was that it really focused on the communication aspect of it and the challenges we would face if we did encounter an alien race. So like much excellent science fiction, the "science fiction" stuff was a backdrop to make a larger point. We don't just get a good science fiction story, we get a story that outlines the philosophy of language, and how it is that language helps us to communicate with others. Banks, a linguist, used her knowledge of linguistics to help humanity communicate. A physicist, Donnelly, was also there, but he was useless. It was Banks' show. (Though it was admittedly disconcerting to hear Hawkeye drop an "f" bomb).
Arrival is not a perfect movie. It leads to an unbelievable climax, that mastering the aliens' language can manipulate how you perceive the passage of time. Speaking of perception of time, the aliens are a race that don't perceive time linearly, as we do. Since Banks is learning their language, she begins to perceive time differently than we do, and as the movie progresses we discover that what we thought were flashbacks were actually flash-forwards, and we are seeing events from the future that have yet to unfold. An interesting concept, but as much science fiction does (especially as regards time travel), it takes many liberties with it and even ends up being unrealistic in its execution. A glaring example of this is when Banks needs to contact a Chinese representative to give him some crucial information, but she doesn't have his phone number. She gets his phone number because he reveals it to her at a future event in which they are celebrating their new worldwide peace brought on by a gift given to them by the aliens. But of course, if she had never had his phone number this event would never have taken place (since she would not have been able to contact him), and she would not have been able to get his number in the future. This really felt more like a cheap cop-out to progress the story rather than any sort of insightful comment about the non-linearity of time.
This brings us to the alleged pro-life theme in this movie. Essentially, we learn that Banks' daughter, Hannah, had a rare form of cancer that took her life at a young age. These scenes of Banks' home life are interspersed throughout the present events of the movie. We later learn that this condition was discovered while Hannah was in the womb. Banks' boyfriend/husband (it's not made clear if they were married) wanted to abort Hannah but Banks chose to give her life. This resulted in her boyfriend/husband leaving her to raise Hannah alone. We later discover that these scenes were not flashbacks, but flashforwards, due to the alien language allowing Banks to perceive time differently. So these events have not happened yet. We also learn that Donnelly is the father of Hannah, apparently becoming attracted to Banks through working with her, and this is Hollywood, who haven't quite learned that men and women can work together without hooking up. Since these are flashforwards, and Banks and Donnelly have yet to conceive Hannah, this leaves Banks with a choice: does she still pursue a relationship with Donnelly, thereby causing the events that would conceive Hannah only to watch her die, or avoid a relationship and avoid conceiving Hannah, a girl with a short life span. She eventually decides to let the events play out as she saw them, getting together with Donnelly, since she reasoned that a short time with Hannah is better than no time at all.
I'm always hesitant to try and see pro-life themes in a film or television show, unless I know for sure what the political leaning is of the writer(s) and/or the producer(s) (e.g. see my pro-life analysis of an episode of Doctor Who). This is no different here. I don't know anything about the people behind this film, so my default position on this is to not read too much into what may seem to be a pro-life message (one conservative commentator called Arrival the most pro-life science fiction ever made, even if it was unintentional -- a claim I would disagree with, partially for the reasons outlined below). In fact, broadly speaking, science fiction in general can be seen as pro-life, since many science fiction stories revolve around trying to broaden our conception of what counts as persons, and shows like Star Trek have tackled the question of pregnancies in difficult circumstances and seem to say that giving life to the unborn child is preferable). But that doesn't mean that just because they have loose pro-life themes that they are pro-life as we are, i.e. anti-abortion.
My contention is that given the information we received in the film, I don't think we're justified in calling Banks a "pro-life heroine" (as I've seen from some on social media). I first need to point out that what Banks did wasn't heroic -- giving her child life is not the heroic thing to do, it is the morally obligatory thing to do. She is not a hero because she refused to kill her child who had a fatal illness. She did what any parent is obligated to do. So she's not a hero in that respect. Additionally, we can't say for sure that she's pro-life. All we know is that she chose to have her child in a difficult circumstance. Assuming that she must be pro-life because she chose to keep her child, and calling this a pro-life film, is to tacitly imply that a pro-abortion-choice person wouldn't do that.
In fact, Donnelly, the guy who left Louise and Hannah when Louise decided to keep her, was a likeable character in the film. After he leaves them, Louise still takes great pains to tell Hannah that he's a good man. So it didn't seem like, to me, the movie believed he actually did anything wrong, like it was her choice to have the child and his choice to leave, and both were perfectly fine choices.
Finally, given the time aspect in the film, that raises other questions. First of all, we see that Banks decided to conceive and have her child because of all the wonder and love Hannah brought to her life. But what if Hannah didn't become a dancer, or any of the other things we saw in the flash-forward scenes? What if she, in fact, was confined to a bed for her entire life, or something like that? Would Louise, then, have chosen to conceive her child? In fact, while pro-abortion-choice people erroneously refer to an unborn child as a "potential" person, in the case of Hannah, she really was a potential person in that sense of the word. So really, unless we hold to a B-theory of time (the theory of time that states that all points in time are equally "real" and time passing is just an illusion), Hannah didn't yet exist. If we *do* hold to a B-theory of time, then Hannah already exists and none of the choices Louise made would matter (so all we have to look at is her intent, and in that case her intent would have been determined, so she didn't make a conscious choice). However, if we're talking about the A-theory of time (the theory that states that the past no longer exists and the future doesn't yet exist), then since Hannah didn't yet exist, would it have been wrong to prevent Hannah from coming into existence? At the very least, this doesn't seem nearly as wrong as killing her after she comes into existence. So in this case, we need to have a discussion of whether or not we have any sorts of obligations to future persons, and that's an issue that I haven't looked into too closely. My instinct is that we don't have obligations to future persons, but I don't have a firm opinion on that yet.
At any rate, those are my thoughts on it. What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments below.