This review contains spoilers—but those who can see the future know that already.
Arrival is a 2016 movie directed by Denis Villeneuve, based on a short story by Ted Chiang. It stars Amy Adams as linguistics professor Louise Banks and Jeremy Renner as mathematician Ian Donnelly. It shows how first contact with an alien race might disrupt human understanding of time and free will.
Arrival is a science fiction movie.
That is a trivially true statement. This review will not dwell on it.
Arrival is a horror movie.
That is also true—although not obviously so. Let me take a few minutes to try to convince you.
First, go take a look at the cover art from the movie. See that big lozenge  thing floating on its side a few feet above the ground? That’s the space ship that brought the aliens. Keep that image in mind as I tell you about a brilliant essay written by a Yale undergraduate about something he calls the Monumental Horror-Image.
Go read the essay. (Hat tip to Eve Tushnet, who loves to write about the horror sublime.) For an undergrad, even a Yale undergrad, the idea is really insightful. I would summarize it like this: in a certain type of horror movie—more atmospheric, less slashery—horror is introduced through a kind of image of an object which is “monumental” in the sense of being static, although not always large. It is always depicted in the middle distance: close enough to be seen clearly, but not so close as to be an immediate danger. It might be an actual monument, but it could be a human being. In any case, the thing just stands there, with (and this is my interpretation now) a kind of idiotic self-satisfaction. It refuses to engage with the observer, but it also (stubbornly) refuses to go away. It is always well lit; we’re not talking about the horror induced by shadows in fog, or things glimpsed only in the corner of the eye. While the monumental horror-image is contemplated, neither the object nor the camera move, and the sound track falls silent. Shadows and jump scares have their place in horror movies, but they are not monumental horror-images.
A list of examples read like a who’s who of horror classics: the dead governess sitting among the weeds in The Innocents; the eponymous monument of The Wicker Man; the two ghostly sisters of The Shining; Regan levitating in The Exorcist, and the crows on the monkey bars in The Birds.
Now go back and look at that cover art again. Something there which should not be there. It’s the size of the Empire State Building, showing up out of nowhere in Montana, and just to make it more wrong, it floats a few feet above the ground. Oh, yeah! That’s an MHI, all right.
Now consider aliens. The aliens of Arrival have seven legs and no head—but for me, the formative encounter with aliens occurred in a bookstore in the late 80s. I saw the cover of a book called Communion, an early alien abduction account. For me, it was the first sighting of what became a stereotype: the pale, egg-shaped face, lacking any human expression, and staring out with impossibly large, black, pupilless eyes. It was more than a little monumental horror-imagey.
I recall a thrill of revulsion. The book cover had a face…but not a human face. I was feeling Eve Tushnet’s horror sublime—but in this case, it was a purely negative experience. I intuited that the space alien narrative could be, in at least some cases, back-door devilment. I wondered if aliens could be a gateway to the occult. (I am, apparently, not the only one.)
Let me explain: a friend of mine, religiously a skeptic but quite open minded, once observed that technology has brought about, among so many other changes, an ability for mentally ill people to blame their hallucinations on things other than spiritual beings. Visions of angels or demons gradually had to make room for paranoid theories involving space aliens or the CIA. (There were no tinfoil hats in the Dark Ages, and not just because there was no tinfoil.) This was my friend’s way of admitting that manifestly psychotic claims of angelic encounters or messages from God do not discredit religion any more than disprovable alien abductions inspired by science fiction disprove science.
I’ve outgrown my younger suspicions, but I still believe I was on to something. Space aliens are, like spiritual beings, a route to Rudolf Otto’s numinous: that nameless thing which is fascinating/repelling, beautiful/horrible, remote/immanent. The Other. The Still Small Voice. The Empty; the Silent; the Dark. The monumental horror image.
Denis Villeneuve, the director of Arrival, knows this.
Ted Chiang is a science fiction author who excels in the short form. He writes longish short stories, never novels, polishing them to a high sheen. In fact, each Ted Chiang story, intricately ordered and exhaustively edited, achieves a kind of perfection of the sci-fi ideal. I can’t think of any author who comes closer to realizing the full potential of science fiction, the literature of ideas.
Chiang’s worlds are perfectly constructed, but they are also weirdly stifling and ingrown. This is not, by the way, a criticism, although they certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. But Chiang’s worlds tend to be bounded in one way or another. And the people (or “people”) who inhabit them are usually emotionally constrained. The result are clockwork worlds full of clockwork people: “Exhalation” is about robots running on pneumatic power; “Tower of Babylon” is about (spoiler alert) a tower that reaches to the sky, which turns out to be a blue dome which, when penetrated, leads by some kind of curved dimension to the ground below. In “The Story of your Life,” on which Arrival is based, a woman (again, spoilers) learns from the visiting space aliens how to step out of time and observe her whole life from God’s point of view: seeing past and future as an array of equal presents.
In each of these stories, something happens to the apparently limitless fields of possibility in which we live: time and space are constrained, loop in on themselves. As a result of this change of perception, something human is lost. The vital human characteristic of free will, that thing that some people claim not to believe in but all people take as a fundamental given, disappears. It becomes clear the various alternate universes Ted Chiang shows us are places without hope, without futures. They are prisons.
I imagine some do not have that reaction to Ted Chiang’s fiction. And I must stress repeatedly that, despite the negative aspects, I am not passing a negative judgment on Chiang’s artistry. I’m the guy who, a few paragraphs up, described Ted Chiang’s stories as achieving a kind of sci-fi ideal. Ted Chiang is great—is arguably the finest author science fiction has ever produced.
But for me, at least, the bounded nature of Ted Chiang universes inspires a kind of suffocation on my part. Even more than science fiction, his stories belong, for me, to the genre of horror.
Psalm 39:4 says, “O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” Of course, no normal person would ever pray that verse.
Arrival, the movie, springs its trap in a way somewhat different from the book, and that’s due to the particularities of each medium. The film begins with what we come to believe is a series of flashbacks of Louise Banks’ life with a daughter who grows up, gets cancer, and dies. Meanwhile, through contact with the aliens, Banks learns to see time as the aliens do. She steps out of the present and begins to see all moments of her life as equally present. Talk about taking away the surprise! How do you say “spoiler alert!” in Alienese—and why wasn’t that written on the side of their spaceship?”
It is when we finally understand what is happening to Banks that we realize these “flashbacks” are really visions of the future. The father of Banks’s child turns out to be Ian Donnally, whom in the present Banks is just getting to know. The book is sneekier and more successful in handling the flashforwards, because it can be. Those passages are written in second person and future tense—e.g., “I remember in second grade you will…”—and the reader is forced to admit, when the surprise is revealed at the end, that the future tense was signaling the secret quite clearly.
Other readers may have had a different experience, but I assumed at the time those passages were some kind of goofy “experimental” writing technique of the kind one can safely ignore. The movie suffers by comparison because there is no equivalent film technique. It depicted the future as it must, but just as one cannot “dust for vomit”, one cannot “film for future tense.”
Both books and movies are inherently sequential, so neither can really depict Banks’ experience, once she is led out of the trap of the present. This can hardly be otherwise, since human life itself is sequential. But the movie is more explicit (necessarily, to avoid confusion) in depicting Banks’s insights into the future as visions impinging on present moments. The film shows Banks’ future knowledge altering her action in the present, but in that future event, she somehow has no memory of that action. This does not seem well thought out. Ted Chiang, the ever thoughtful craftsman, did not make that mistake in his story: Chiang suggests knowing the future would lead to acceptance and serenity, not an urge to game the stock market.
Is life in a continuously updating present a trap? The aliens certainly think so: leading us out of it is their sole purpose. Ted Chiang, by writing this story, certainly wants us to consider the possibility that seeing the future, and with it, the loss of free will (or, at least, the loss of perceived free will) would be a blessing.
Maybe Ted Chiang simply believes disillusionment regarding free will would be more honest. As an atheist, likely he regards free will as an illusion we’d be better off without. It’s hard to say; the story’s conclusion (not necessarily the same as the author’s) is that the local present and the eternal present are two equally valid views on the world. Chiang uses some very clever illustrations from mathematics to illustrate this conclusion—the most science-fictiony and impressive part of the story.
The sentiment behind John Lennon’s  song “Imagine” is opaque to me. No Heaven or Hell: a wave of atheistic belief would somehow end all war?—would repeal human nature?—would be nothing but delightful? I understand atheism is not without its consolations, but the loss of a shot at immortality is a pretty big negative, I think. And escape from eternal consequences leaves us with a world where—have you noticed?—an awful lot of evil goes unpunished. Does the nagging prospect of a Great White Throne, that whole Sheep v. Goats thing, have no deterrence? I can’t believe it. The lyrics of “Imagine” simply assume the tired idea that religion makes people crazy, when the truth is that people make religion, and crazy people make crazy religion.
A crisis of faith is alien to me. I simply don’t get religious doubt. The few times the prospect of a godless universe has seemed vaguely attractive to me have all coincided with periods where I was neglectful of my moral life. To be perfectly honest, periods of doubt in my life correlate strongly with periods of lust. If you think noticing that correlation did anything but reinforce a hundred times over my belief in God, think again.
Ted Chiang’s closed worlds are a perfect metaphor for his atheism. What is fascinating is his willingness to think deeply through the implications. He explores the various consolations of a godless, bounded world; he finds beauty and satisfaction (genuinely so, it seems) in the gift of life, fleeting and “pointless” though it seems to be (and despite the gift having no Giver). Chiang never gives into despair. There’s something admirable in his ability to recover pagan fortitude in the face of The End in the dawn of this post-Christian world.
But I am not tempted. Chiangian worlds fill me with dread. Consciousness, personhood, awareness, desire, love: these are either are at the heart of the universe’s design, or an accidental byproduct. It makes a profound difference which is correct. That difference may very well be the profoundest difference in all of human understanding. Like the Rich Man and Dives, a vast gulf separates Chiang and me.
Ted Chiang is a genius—a towering giant you can’t ignore. His atheism stands there, at a distance, posing no immediate threat, but also refusing to go away. Arrival is a horror movie, and Ted Chiang’s atheism is my monumental horror image.