Arrival & Exodus: the Sci-Fi Film’s Hidden Framework
“Then the LORD came down upon Mount Sinai,
on the top of the mountain.
And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain,
and Moses went up.”
In the 2016 film, Arrival, by Director Denis Villeneuve, we enter a world plummeting into chaos when twelve alien spacecraft mysteriously appear in seemingly random locations around the world. Humanity panics under the perceived threat of a more advanced race. Some people retreat into their homes; others succumb to looting and rioting. Humanity cries out for a leader to save them.
We find our hero, not in a mighty military warrior or powerful politician, but a linguistics professor named Louise Banks (Amy Adams). How could a humble teacher possibly save humanity without lifting a single laser blast? That is what this essay and the forthcoming series will seek to explain.
Arrival is like a musical arrangement sophisticatedly layering many movements and motifs together. The goal of this essay series is to identify the motifs and unpack the layers to show how they conjoin without subtracting one another.1
This preliminary essay will focus on the film’s foundational layer. Arrival is subtly structured by a story told for thousands of years that you may already be familiar with. In so many words, Arrival is an Exodus Journey. Louise is like Moses leading the twelve nations of humanity out of bondage, through the wilderness, and towards the Promised Land. Along the way, Louise and her priestly team must ascend the sacred mountain to encounter the Cosmic Stranger, the Great and Holy Other.
After an introductory montage displaying the birth, life, and death of Louise’s daughter, the story picks up with Louise working as a linguistics professor at an elite university. The university is the pillar, or “ivory tower”, of collective human knowledge that contains the principles and laws that uphold society.
She is comfortable in her surroundings, going about her routines in a realm of familiarity and security. However, like Moses, a traumatic event dramatically disrupts her world. When the twelve alien spacecraft suddenly arrive, civilizations fracture and their old mountains crumble. People flee in all directions. Louise tries to hold things together. She goes to class, but the room is empty. She walks the campus alone.
The Call to Adventure
“…after the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt,… they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.”2
Like Moses, Louise is called to leave the city and venture into the wilderness. General Weber (Forest Whitaker) invades her office to ask her to translate a recording of the alien sounds. She insists that a face-to-face encounter is crucial when learning a wholly foreign language, which prompts the General to seek other options.
Attempting to maintain normality, Louise returns home to the center of safety and comfort. General Weber intrudes once again with an invitation to travel to the nearest alien spacecraft in the state of Montana, USA. Louise accepts the call to adventure.3 They depart in a helicopter, where she meets her counterpart, a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Similarly, Moses partners with Aaron just before initiating the Israelites’ departure from Egypt.
Exodus is defined by James B. Jordan as “the process of breaking down and restructuring; transitioning from the old to the new.”4 Like Moses departing from the land of man-made pyramids to travel through the wilderness, Louise leaves the old, crumbling and ventures through the wild lands, where strange beings of unknown potential await.
The Sacred Mountain in the Wilderness
“They had left Rephidim and had come to the Sinai Desert. There Israel set up their tents in front of the mountain.”
As Louise approaches the site, she has a bird’s eye view of the landscape. Like Moses seeing Mt. Sinai, the alien spacecraft is a tall, dark structure shrouded in clouds. The vessel is shaped like a seed (perhaps a Brazil nut) or an egg standing on end hovering perfectly still 50 feet above the earth’s surface.
Louise sees the mountain that she must ascend to encounter the Great Other. What Mountain? You say. Let’s pause for a moment to discuss the film’s mountain symbolism. First of all, notice how the vessel is orientated vertically. Visitors must enter at the bottom and ascend upwards to the top, like climbing a mountain.
Secondly, The vessel’s composition is more mountain-like than a typical alien spaceship. Rather than being cloaked in advanced technology, the vessel is composed of a rock-like substance, something of a dark grey lava rock or meteorite.5 And like most high-peak mountains, the vessel is accompanied by the presence of clouds.
Thirdly, the arrangement of people is a mountain-shaped hierarchy of roles. As Louise approaches the spacecraft, we find the people organized like the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai: a multitude of people gathered at the base in the valley, then further up a group of specialists (priests) in tents, and an even more select group who make the ascension – from the many to the few to the one mediator, a social mountain.
Unconvinced? Lastly and most obviously, the writers couldn’t have spelled it out more clearly for us than the location of Louise’s alien encounter. Out of all the possible places in North America, the writers chose Montana, the Spanish word for “mountain.”
Why is it so important that the Alien space vessel is a mountain? Mountains are symbols of stability. They are the axis mundi, the central pillars that connect the world above to the one below.6 In this regard, mountains are symbolically associated with pillars, trees, and ladders to heaven.7 The mountain is where she must ascend to meet the Cosmic Stranger.
From the alien’s perspective, a few of them travelled great distances from their homeland to the edge of their world to meet humanity. From humanity’s perspective, the aliens’ journey is like a flipped mountain descending to planet Earth below. Why did the more advanced race “come down” from their higher levels of knowledge to make contact? Louise writes the most pressing question for the aliens on the white board, “What is your purpose on earth?” Louise and her team must climb the terrifying cosmic mountain to find out.
Ascending the Sacred Mountain
“When the trumpet sounds long, they shall come near the mountain.”
Climbing the sacred mountain is a dangerous endeavor. It must be carried out by the right people, at the right time, and in the right way. Interacting with the Great Other must be done with proper preparation. Louise, Ian, and the specialists put on ceremonial vestments (orange hazmat suits). This plastic material is a garment of death used as a protective layer from the aliens’ environment.8 Such attire buffers the intensity of the sacred space to allow humans to survive the encounter.9
Like at Mt. Sinai, the blasting of trumpets indicate the appointed time for departure, a fitting sound typically heralding the edge of death and rebirth.10 Moses waited three days before being allowed to climb. The alien vessel doors open every 18 hours for Louise.
The trumpets blast over the camp’s intercom, then the accompanying soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson. The team elevates from the ground to the opening in the bottom of the stone-like structure using an “aerial work platform” or “scissor man lift.” The platform enters through the “heavenly gates” you could say of the vessel’s base and reaches the limit of its extension. Their man-made, artificial devices can take them only so far.
The tunnel is a liminal place between the alien’s atmosphere and theirs, between the heavenly and the earthly. This mysterious point is shown in the confusion of opposites.11 When the specialists take a leap from the platform to the surface of the alien tunnel, gravity suspends and switches planes. It is articulated with Ian’s statement, “Holy F**k.” The saying is more than a case of a bad potty mouth; it combines the most sacred (Holy) with the most profane (f**k), the highest with the lowest. And it is demonstrated by the flipping of the vertical and horizontal planes. The specialists walk on the top of the viewer’s screen as they exit the tunnel and enter the wider space of the inner chamber, the trumpets blasting louder and louder.
“Now the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.”
At the far end of the chamber is a large wide opening sealed with a layer of glass. Behind the glass is a space filled with an ethereal white smoke that’s both watery and airy. Like the smoke filling the top of Mt. Sinai, the barrier acts like a veil or curtain limiting what the humans are allowed to see.
And then, the Aliens arrive. The two imposing shadowy figures have a numinous presence that is both terrifying and alluring.12 This is as close as the specialists had come prior to Louise joining the team. She realizes that something different needs to take place to move progress forward. Like the voice of the Angel of the Lord from the burning bush instructing Moses, Louise finds hope in the song of a winged creature.1314 It’s as if the chirping canary tells her that she is standing on Holy Ground and that, despite conventional reason, removing her garments of death would bridge the gap.
So Louise, acting in faith, removes her suit, like Moses removing his sandals, and draws near to the presence of the Great Other. The air is breathable. Louise steps closer to the glass. The cloudy veil lifts slightly and light shines upon her face, like the glory of the Lord upon Moses. “Now that’s what I call a proper introduction,” Louise says.
It’s only after this step of faith that the aliens draw closer and share their names and titles. The aliens secrete a black substance, like octopus ink, and shape it into circular “logographic” symbols.15 Louise and Ian cannot perceive these marks as discernable speech at this point.16 So Ian ascribes the aliens’ title as “Heptapod” and their names as “Abbott” and “Costello” – after the stage actors famous for their comedic miscommunications.17 It’s on the mountain that Moses learns he is speaking with “God” who reveals His name to be “YAHWEH” which commonly translates as “I AM what I AM” and is translated by Fr. Stephen De Young as “He who causes to be.”18 Later, God reveals another name from the mountain, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth…”
To this point, we know with some surety that the Heptapods are not the bad guys. So if the Heptapods are not Pharaoh, then who is? To a certain extent, Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma) could be called an emerging tyrant, rising to power by military might. Despite pleas from Louise’s camp to work together, Shang stiffens his neck, like the Egyptian Pharaoh. Shang closes off contact with the other nations and declares war against the Heptapods.
Interestingly, the people of Israel were also referred to as “a stiff-necked people.” Pharaoh is not merely a character with a name, but a state of being.19 Humans are “a people without a leader” who refuse to work together and speak the same language. Humanity is under the Pharaoh-like bondage of our own prideful disunity and competing purposes.
Forty Days of Transformation
Louise climbs up the mountain and descends to camp every 18 hours, seeking to learn the Heptapod’s language to understand Their purpose on Earth, before it’s too late.20 Between each trip she and her priestly team conduct ceremonial washings with water at basecamp. The old must be washed away to make room for the new. Louise’s exodus experience is breaking down who she was and restructuring who she is becoming.21 Learning the Heptapod’s language is reshaping Louise, pushing her to her limits.
In comparison, other alien movies depict this transformation in outward forms. Like District 9, the main character loses the outward human appearance and looks more and more alien-like; it’s a physical transmogrification. On the other hand, Louise’s transformation is non-material; she physically looks the same. Rather, it’s an internal, spiritual reconfiguration – an Exodus Journey. Every time Louise goes up the mountain, she does not come down the same. As she learns their language, Louise becomes more and more “Heptapod” in her worldview and her mode of being. She begins to experience time as the Heptapods – nonlinearly.
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.”
A group of specialists grows impatient with the language learning plan. Under the pressure of desperate people, they fear the potential of the Great Other as a dangerous threat.
Like Aaron and the Israelites molding Egyptian materials in the furnace to make the golden calf, military soldiers fashion a bomb by their own hands out of materials of war. As the Israelites lift up the idol to worship, so too the specialists raise their bomb-idol upward and praise it as the savior of humanity.
The soldiers make a false ascent up the mountain and conduct an unworthy sacrifice. Like Cain burning the wrong materials on the altar, the faction’s offering is displeasing. It’s the wrong people offering the wrong sacrifice at the wrong time.
In both cases, idol worship results in death.
Sacrifice and Passover
In the Israelite story, a sacrifice is made so that death will pass over the chosen people. Unaware of the ticking bomb beside them, Louise and Ian work normally. The Heptapods deliver the “Word” – that is, the totality of their language expressed in one message – like God’s finger inscribing the “Law” on tablets for Moses. Castello retreats and Abbott remains long enough for Louise and Ian to fully download the Word. Abbott pulses them into the tunnel and seals the door just as the bomb detonates, killing Abbott. As Costello later says, “Abbott is death process.”
Abbott is the sacrificial lamb that was slain so that death would pass over Louise and Ian. Abbott saves humanity by preserving our intermediaries.
The Mountain Top
“Now the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there.”
The spaceship elevates higher into the heavens and hovers several hundred feet above the earth. The only way to the mountain top is by an act of divine providence. A one-person pod is sent down from the spacecraft to transport Louise to the mountain top. Like the High Priest entering behind the veil into the most Holy of Holies, Louise emerges beyond the glass window and into the innermost chamber.
In this ethereal place, Louise gets a greater glimpse of the Heptapod’s glory. Though like Moses, she doesn’t quite get to make out the full glory of the Heptapod’s face. The presence of the Heptapods was in the clouds all along. The cloudy veils were intentionally guarding humans from the intensity of their transcendent being and lofty knowledge.
It’s on the mountain top that Moses learns his true calling and purpose. In the same manner, the Heptapods reveal to Louise who she is and what she is to do: “Louise is the weapon; use weapon… Louise sees future.” Costello also reveals the Heptapods’ purpose on Earth. They will need humanity’s help in 3,000 years. They came to give humanity the gift of their nonlinear language through Louise so that humanity can make ready for the Heptapod’s second arrival.
Louise’s exodus journey is complete. She has arrived at her personal promised land. She encountered the terribly wondrous Great Other, learned their transcendent language, and integrated Their mode of being. Louise is now the embodiment and transference of Heptapod meaning and earthly matter. The mountain above touches the mountain below. The Law has been inscribed upon the tablets of Louise’s heart. Like Moses, she becomes an unburnt bush, a thing of earth filled with transcendent glory yet not consumed.22 She carries with her the presence of the Heptapods as she now descends the mountain.
Coming down the Mountain
“So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the LORD commanded him.”
Louise’s vertical connection with the Heptapods is complete. The transfer of knowledge shifts direction, and so too does the spacecraft. The Heptapod vessels turn into a horizontal position parallel with the Earth’s surface. The horizontal orientation symbolizes the era of spreading the language down the mountain toward the four corners of the earth.
As Christ pointed out in the Gospels, the greatest of the Ten Commandments is one in two parts. 1a is to love the Lord your God, and 1b is to love others. 1a is the vertical union of heaven and earth; 1b is the horizontal union of humanity. Now that 1a is established, it’s time to work on 1b. Louise realizes that the mountain top experience alone is not enough. She needs to “spread the Word.”
Louise leaves the Holy of Holies and descends the sacred mountain. This is not a mere spatial movement. Louise must take the Heptapod’s knowledge down the mountain of humanity and disseminate it throughout all its members – from Ian to head leaders, to specialists to the multitude. This process is marked by three key events: a false descent, a miraculous sign, a true descent. Louise must first convince the leaders of Earth to receive the Law of the Heptapods.
When Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai, he makes two descents. First he came down with the Ten Commandments written by the Finger of God on pure sapphire.23 However, the tablets were too lofty to take in. This first set was destroyed because the people did not receive the Law into their hearts; they remained unchanged. Similarly, Louise’s compatriots are unmoved. She tells General Webber the solution plainly, “The weapon is their language. They gave it all to us. Do you understand what that means?” He brushes her off like she is a crazy person and proceeds with the evacuation plan. Ian is unsure what to make of it as well. The knowledge is too high; it’s over their heads. The first descent failed. What could give them eyes to see?
God commissions Moses to hue tablets from more lowly materials of earth that were within reach for the people to take in. He also performs various miracles to demonstrate the effectiveness of the divine power. Louise too performs a miraculous sign. By obtaining information from a future event, she turns the “stiffnecked” Chinese General Chang not with military might, but with the weapon of a whisper – his wife’s dying words – which she obtains by knowledge of a future event. Like water flowing from a desert rock, Louise’s miracle quickens the others to acknowledge the true power of the Heptapod’s “weapon.” This successful descent allows the good news to spread down the mountain and throughout the Earth. It marks the first step towards drawing all men to the Word of the Heptapod.
And then, the Heptapods vanish as mysteriously as they appeared, assumed in the clouds. Now that the Heptapods no longer inhabit the sacred mountain in time and space, Lousie must institute the Tent of Meeting.
Instituting the Tent of Meeting
“And see to it that you make them according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain. Moreover you shall make the tabernacle…”24
The heavenly patterns must be instituted and incarnated in the Earth. Louise does this in several ways. She installs rituals and infrastructure to host the presence of the Heptapod. Moses was given divine patterns to construct the Tent of Meeting, or Tabernacle. As James B. Jordan illustrates in his book Through New Eyes, the Tabernacle patterns the sacred mountain on the horizontal plane.25 It’s a “movable mountain” that hosts the Mt Sinai presence of God.
Louise returns to the old mountain again, the University, and restructures it according to the Word of the Heptapods. Like Moses and the Tabernacle, Louise fashions the University into an earthly structure that hosts the presence of the Heptapods. Louise’s classroom is now full. She teaches the rituals and principles to leaders who will teach their tribes and their families.
Louise expands upon the principles of the Word by publishing a book, The Universal Language, to further extend to the multitudes.26 Likewise, Moses and the priests expand the Ten Commandments into hundreds of laws for the nation. Thus the Word of the Heptabod fills the mountain of humanity from the top to the base through the intermediation of Louise, just like Moses and Israel.
Ultimately Louise restores the crumbled mountain of humanity by installing the Heptapod Word at the top as the organizing principle. The Word gathers the scattered people back together.
This process is not merely institutional but incarnational. Louise transforms humanity by becoming a mother. The knowledge must be embodied. She gives birth to a person, Hannah, whose name reflects the imagery of the Heptapods’ language.27 Louise knows that it will be a future generation who will lead them into the Promised Land, like Joshua, Moses’ successor, leading the children of Israel.
Towards the Land of Promise
“Depart and go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, “To your descendants I will give it.”
The end of Louise’s exodus journey is the beginning of humanity’s. Like Moses, her first individual experience becomes the proven pattern that is to be carried out at the larger scale. After Moses goes through forty days of transformation and receives his promise, Israel embarks on a forty-year wilderness journey before arriving at the Land of Promise.
Louise delivers the twelve tribes of humanity out from the land of oppression. But they have yet to arrive in their promised land. Humanity must wander through the wilderness of transformation. The Israelites de-program the Egyptian language of slavery and appropriate the language of God. Learning a language is a slow process. If it took forty days for Louise to learn the Heptapod’s language, how long will it take for all of humanity? Will they learn it before the Heptapods come again?
It’s between the mountain and the promised land that Louise must lead them, between the now and not yet, between the first and the second arrival.
Conclusion: The End is the Beginning
“If now I have found grace in Your sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray, go among us, even though we are a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your inheritance.”
God called a desert shepherd to Himself up Mount Sinai. The Heptapods called a lowly linguistics teacher, a shepherd of grazing minds, to meet Them on the cosmic mountain. Through Moses, God lifts the twelve tribes of Israel from the mud pits of Egyptian slavery and forms them into a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” for Himself. The Heptapods deliver the twelve nations of the world from the bonds of linear time and interpersonal conflict into a unified race for Themselves.
As you can now see, the Exodus Journey structures the story of Arrival. And the Sacred Mountain provides the geography upon which all other themes build upon. Arrival is not a pure analogical story. It’s more musical than a fill in the blank template. Though she demonstrates many Mosaic patterns that we explored in this essay, Louise is not Moses.
It’s in the subtle variations of the themes that make Arrival a masterpiece all to its own. For instance, Moses climbs upon the surface of Mt. Sinai, while Louise ascends into the cave of the mountain. Louise and Ian’s interaction in the “womb” of the spacecraft coincides with conception, birth, and motherhood. After all, Louise is more than a leader of the people; she is a mother. Arrival is also a Creation story.
As we have come to learn, the completion of one Exodus is the start of another. And for our learning journey, the end of this essay means the embarkation of the next one. Before we can consider the other movements in this symphony, let us first explore the language of creation in Arrival.
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- Borrowing from Alastair Roberts’ music controlling metaphor from his book Echoes of Exodus. Also see Derek J Fiedler’s video discussing Robert’s concept, “How to Read the Bible Musically.” YouTube.
- Unless otherwise noted, the subheading quotes are taken from verses in Exodus Chapters 3, 19, 20, 32, and 34 in the New King James Version.
- “Adventure” comes from the Latin advenīre (to arrive at) and Middle English aventure (risk, wonder). Merriam-Webster Dictionary. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/adventure
- James B. Jordan. Through New Eyes: developing a Biblical view of the world. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1999. Page 182.
- Meteorites have been revered as sacred space stones, materials that descend in balls of blinding light from the heavenly realms of the deities. See Steve’s article Sacred Space Stones 6 religiously revered meteorites.
- For a more comprehensive resource on the symbolism of mountains, refer to David Brodeur’s article “The Transfiguration on Mount Tabor: the symbolism of the mountain” here on the Symbolic World Blog. Also, in Derek J Fiedler and David Brodeur’s conversation David goes into more detail about sacred mountains and Arrival (2016).
- James B. Jordan. Through New Eyes, chapter 7: Trees and Thorns.
- St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses. Paulist Press International, U.S. 1978.
- For more insights into the many layers of garments of skin/death in Arrival, watch J.P. Marceau & Derek J Fiedler’s discussion, “Our ‘Contraceptive Culture’” YouTube.
- Matthieu Pageau, The Language of Creation: cosmic symbolism in Genesis. 2018.
- “Confusion of opposites” is borrowed from Matthieu Pageau’s Unpublished Material as shared by Josh Martin on Derek J Fiedler’s YouTube Channel.
- From Professor Otto’s concept of the “numinous” and “Wholly Other” or what I term the “Great Other” and “Cosmic Stranger” in this essay series. Also refer to The Sacred and the Profane by Mircea Elliade, as well as C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain.
- For more on the burning bush, see Derek J Fiedler’s article The Symbolism of the Burning Bush: a response to Matthew McConaughey and Joe Rogan posted on the Symbolic World Blog.
- Birds have been referred to as angelic heavenly messengers. See David Brodeur’s comments in his conversation with Derek J Fiedler.
- In the short story from which the film is based, Story of your Life, the author Ted Chiang writes, “…the term ‘logogram’ was a misnomer because it implied that each graph represented a spoken word, when in fact the graphs didn’t correspond to our notion of spoken words at all…I suggested the term ‘semagram’ instead.” I chose to focus on the topic at hand, Exodus, because the next essay gets into much more detail of the nature of language.
- For more on perception, see the Symbolic World Blog articles “Perception is Symbolic” by J.P. Marceau, and “Perceiving the Invisible God” by David Brodeur.
- Watch Abbott and Costello perform “Who’s on First?”. YouTube.
- Ft. Stephen de Young. “The Name of the Lord.” Ancient Faith Publishing. Sept 3, 2019.
- Alastair Roberts. Echoes of Exodus. Crossway, 2018. Also, refer to Alastair Roberts and Derek J Fiedler’s discussion for further listening.
- The Heptapod pronouns and titles have been capitalized to distinguish the higher state of being, or deity status. Though drawing parallels to the God of the Israelites, the capitalizations in no way consider the aliens as God. The fictional aliens at best, as these essays intend, point towards attributes of God for learning purposes.
- Gareth Boyd has an excellent article on the Symbolic World called “Thine Own of Thine Own: Symbolic Musings of the Eucharist” in which he discusses transformation and the ladder of heaven as a series of sacrifices, or mini-deaths, at each rung. He elaborates on this article in a discussion with Derek J Fiedler, “Symbolic Direction with a Cosmic Compass.” YouTube.
- See The Symbolism of the Burning Bush: a response to Matthew McConaughey and Joe Rogan posted on the Symbolic World Blog.
- Menachem Posner. What did the Tablets look like? Chapad.org.
- Exodus 25:40, 26:1 NKJV
- James B. Jordan Through New Eyes
- We shall take much more time in the next essay to unpack the nature of language and what the contents of this book just might be.
- “Hannah” is a palindrome; it is the same forwards and backwards, creating a circular pattern in which the beginning is the ending, like the Heptapod’s logograms. Again, more to come in the next essay on language.