How the short story that inspired Arrival helps us interpret the film’s major twist

“If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”

This is the question at the heart of Ted Chiang’s 2002 novella, Story of Your Life, and the themes of free will and personal responsibility such a question inspires are ever-present in the Denis Villeneuve film, Arrival (2016), which was based on Chiang’s short story. In an article written for The Verge in November 2016, Nick Statt discusses this and the ways in which interpreting the two together can help illuminate the final twist.

A short extract of his article follows below.

In one of the final scenes of Arrival, the new first-contact science fiction film with a focus on linguistics, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) explains why she got divorced. “He said I made the wrong choice,” the linguist tells her daughter Hannah. It’s an easy line to overlook, especially as the gravity of the film’s second-half surprise sinks in. Throughout the film, Louise is experiencing not her memories of the past, but living out precognitive moments of her own future. She is experiencing time out of order, because her efforts to understand an alien language have irreversibly rewired her brain.

The credit for this narrative trick goes to author Ted Chiang, who plotted Arrival back in 2002 as a first-person short story called Story of Your Life. His work cleverly uses different tenses, mixing future, past, and present to weave the complex non-linear knot of Louise’s life in a way reminiscent of Billy Pilgrim from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Chiang’s hidden meanings, and the things that inevitably got lost in translating his words to the big screen, are pivotal to help viewers understand what Arrival is saying.

Arrival is a versatile science fiction film that communicates on many levels. It’s about language and cooperation, about people transcending barriers and immersing themselves in a new culture to understand a foreign race. The aliens, arriving in 12 monolithic space ships and known as heptapods because of their seven-legged giant squid appearance, are terrifying. But they are peaceful and want to help humanity, because their own non-linear perception of time tells them they’ll need our help thousands of years from now. Louise’s journey into how the heptapods’ minds work — how the aliens communicate, and what that says about how they perceive reality — is a common genre trope, but director Denis Villeneuve uses it to subvert the usual routine of the Hollywood blockbuster.

Yet the film is more concerned with a deeper, grander theme about free will and personal responsibility. Story of Your Life spotlights those ideas more than any others. The theme rests on a line Louise utters in one of Arrival’s closing scenes. “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” she asks her future husband Ian Donnelly. Put another way, would you rob someone of their existence, and yourself of the time shared with them on Earth, if you knew they would one day would feel pain, and you would feel their loss?

This article was first published on The Verge on 16th November 2016 and is available to be read in full here.

Join us on Monday 22nd October 2018 at the School of Optometry for a discussion on Story of Your Life and the film it inspired.

Tickets are available on Eventbrite.