Thoughts on Arrival

I finally watched Arrival. I’d been looking forward to seeing it, because I love the short story it’s based on (“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang) and the soundtrack by Jóhann Jóhannsson, so my expectations were high. And they were largely met. I thought it was a remarkably tender, meditative movie whose message that communication and understanding between countries can prevent violence is especially relevant today. Plus how often do you see an SF movie with a female lead, and a linguist to boot?

But there was a key difference between the story and the movie that at first seemed random and then increasingly bothered me. (SPOILER ALERT) In the short story, Louise’s daughter dies in a climbing accident. In the movie, she dies from a rare unstoppable disease. As Louise learns the heptapods’ language and rewires her brain to see time as they do, she realizes that her daughter is going to die. In the story, she can save her with a simple warning, but doesn’t. The movie, on the other hand, makes the girl’s death inevitable, which misses the central point of the story, I think.

Humans see time as a sequence of cause and effect, and our language is a reflection of this. The heptapods, however, see time as a single entity — they see the beginning and end points of each action, but they do not have the power to change anything. The movie acknowledges this when the heptapods explain they came to Earth because in 3,000 years they’ll need humanity’s help, but rather than following through on this idea of time being a fixed entity, the movie in its final minutes turns into a fairly typical time travel story that doesn’t address the central conceit it started out with: namely, if Louise can prevent her daughter’s death, why doesn’t she?

In the story, Louise simply can’t prevent it. She knows it’s coming, but cannot deviate from the path that leads to this outcome, which makes her story profoundly tragic. In the movie, by choosing to have a daughter she knows will die, Louise becomes a martyr (or a narcissist — her husband leaves her when he finds out she knew all along that their daughter would die; in the story, he leaves her for other reasons, simply because some marriages fall apart). This outcome is still tragic in its own right — Louise chooses heartbreak simply to give her daughter the chance to live — but it’s not in line with the whole setup of the movie.

Why did the screenwriters do this? Was it an oversight? Did they not “get” the source material? Did they “dumb down” the movie to fit a particular mold?

Still, I loved the movie, but for different reasons than the story. The story is profound and poignant. The movie is too, but within the limits that Hollywood has put on it.