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Jayne English


Memory we cross and cross again. Treks, trauma, and on. We do know what time is. It is loss and gain. A lingering. - Simon J. Ortiz

*Note: this post contains spoilers from Arrival

I went reluctantly to see Arrival, remembering my disappointment over The Martianhow its great sweeps of desolate landscape seemed squandered on themes of American ingenuity, determination, and victory over galactic odds. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But placing one man alone on a vast planet far, far from home begged for a nuanced treatment of the larger ideas of isolation and longing.

This is what Arrival accomplishes, a science fiction film that opens doors to deeper themes. Arrival is about language and translation. It’s an elegy, telling the story of a linguist, Louise Banks, her husband, and the young daughter, Hannah, they lose to cancer. I’m glad I saw the movie before I read the book this time (actually, the short story by Ted Chiang, “Story of Your Life”). The movie has a graceful aesthetic to it, while the short story considers the math and physics in more detail. The film creates an elegant written language that flows from the aliens’ hands in delicate, inky wreaths. They are the manifestation of a language that has no beginning or end.

Learning the heptapods’ language changed how Louise perceived reality. No longer in a linear, timeline progression of past, present, and future, but in a circular way, with all the tenses swirled together. Immersed in the patterns of their language, Louise became able to see the future.

This is why, as expressed in the short story, Louise narrates much of the story to her deceased daughter in a curious mix of tenses. “I remember when you are fifteen, coming home after a weekend at your dad’s…”

This is why she could know before she had her daughter, that she would lose her daughter. How she knew before she fell in love with her husband that she and her husband would divorce. We hear the sadness in Louise’s voice as she speaks to her daughter in this past and future blend of time.

While there are many differences between the story and the film—which is why director Denis Villeneuve felt it important to change the title—one line in particular was common to both: Ian asks Louise, “Do you want to make a baby?”

As the heptapods’ language takes shape in Louise’s mind, she begins to see the future of this moment of decision to marry Ian, to have the child they would love and lose.

If we knew the future, love and sorrow mixed, could we change it? The short story questions fate and free will. If the future depends on fate, Louise could only act in a way that would fulfill the future. But if she had free will, couldn’t she change the future to avoid losing her daughter and husband? As the story suggests, wouldn’t it then be impossible to know the future? The film hints and the short story asks the questions, “What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person?” What if it gave you a sense of sacred duty to fulfill it?

Could you, for the joy set before you, endure the pain?

Arrival is an artistic science fiction film that shows a director’s love of language and raises empathetic questions for future generations of film goers. And maybe past generations.