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Arrival is the best big-budget sci-fi film in years, thanks in large part to Denis Villeneuve’s ominous yet lyrical direction, and Amy Adams’ captivating performance as a linguist trying to find a way to communicate with mysterious alien visitors. Equal parts haunting, touching, and terrifying, it’s a drama about the fundamental role language plays in connecting us to each other, and to our pasts, presents, and futures. It takes its inspiration from Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” an acclaimed novella with an inventiveness and poignancy that make it not only a stand-alone work of disarming power, but a fascinating companion piece to its cinematic counterpart.
[Warning: Big Spoilers About Arrival and ‘Story of Your Life’ Follow]
“Story of Your Life” first appeared in the 1998 anthology Starlight 2, and is now available in Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others collection. It received three distinguished sci-fi literary accolades in 1999: the Sturgeon Award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and Best Novella at the Nebula Awards. It tells the tale of Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist appointed by the U.S. government to work alongside physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly (renamed “Ian” in the movie, and played by Jeremy Renner) on a project to understand the communications of extraterrestrials who’ve suddenly appeared across the globe.
‘Arrival’: Watch the trailer:
The creatures are dubbed “heptapods,” in a nod to the seven appendages protruding from their barrel-shaped bodies. They converse in two ways: by emitting confusing sounds (dubbed “Heptapod A”) in non-chronological sentence structures; and by writing in semantic graphics (“Heptapod B”) whose overlapping shapes convey meanings that don’t necessarily correlate with their verbal expressions. As Chiang wrote:
“ ‘For the heptapods, writing and speech may play such different cultural or cognitive roles that using separate languages makes more sense than using different forms of the same one.’
“He considered it. ‘I see what you mean. Maybe they think our form of writing is redundant, like we’re wasting a second communications channel.’ ”
As befitting a movie adaptation, Arrival (beautifully scripted by Eric Heisserer) sometimes diverges from its source material. In Chiang’s tale, Banks and Donnelly work in a large tent that houses a semicircular mirror-like device that allows for video chats with the heptapods (think Alien FaceTime), whereas in the film, those conversations occur inside the visitors’ spacecraft. “Story of Your Life” doesn’t elucidate the heptapods’ reason for visiting Earth, nor does it include a third-act race against time to prevent mankind from doing something catastrophic, both of which are part of Villeneuve’s version. Chiang’s original also maintains a much narrower, conflict-lite scope: The movie invents the climactic face-to-face between Banks and the heptapods, as well as the sequence that makes her the de facto heroine of the human race.
“Story of Your Life” has two concurrent threads: Banks’ examination of the aliens’ language, and her joyous/sorrowful memories of her daughter, who died in a rock-climbing accident at the age of 25. Chiang’s passages alternate between those dual focal points, and that structure is fundamental to his saga, in which Banks slowly comprehends the heptapods’ unique communication system — and, moreover, their means of perceiving reality. Partly through learning about physics theories like Fermat’s Principle of Least Time, Banks deduces that the heptapods cannot begin communicating, or acting, until they first know how that communication or action will ultimately end. In short: they experience time not sequentially, but all at once:
“…by viewing events over a period of time, one recognized that there was a requirement that had to be satisfied, a goal of minimizing or maximizing. And one had to know the initial and final states to meet that goal; one needed knowledge of the effects before the causes could be initiated…
“We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. A minimizing, maximizing purpose.”
This concept of perceiving everything simultaneously is reflected in Chiang’s storytelling structure (i.e., flip-flopping between Banks’ work with the heptapods, and her life with her daughter), and by the tenses Banks herself uses to recount her distinct personal tales — which suggest that, having learned Heptapod B (and the ability to perceive all time at once), she’s actually remembering her daughter’s life before it’s even taken place. That canny form is duplicated by Villeneuve and Heisserer’s movie, which similarly finds Adams’ protagonist flashing back to moments with her child throughout the course of the action proper, only to reveal that she doesn’t give birth until long after the heptapods’ departure.
‘Arrival’: Watch a scene:
Arrival doesn’t dig as deeply into intricate linguistic, scientific, mathematical, and philosophical specifics as “Story of Your Life,” which immerses itself in issues of cause and effect, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which posits that language shapes perception), and the nature of free will, as Banks’ revelation raises a paradoxical question: How can one act as he or she wishes, if the future is already determined? Still, the movie conveys those notions through narrative incidents taken from Chiang’s novella, as well as via newly scripted passages, most of which bolster its core themes. It’s the rare Hollywood blockbuster that’s faithful to the spirit of its source material, even as it expands upon its plot.
“The existence of free will meant that we couldn’t know the future. And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness.
“Or was it? What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?”
None of which is to say that Arrival supersedes “Story of Your Life”; on the contrary, it operates as a more hopeful Hollywood take on Chiang’s brief, moving, ambivalent sci-fi rumination on the nature of free will, as well as the way that — alien enlightenment or not — we’re always in constant, formative dialogue with our pasts. All the more heartbreaking for its open-ended treatment of its complex ideas, it’s a short story that fans of Arrival would be wise to check out after seeing Villeneuve’s great film this weekend.
‘Arrival’ Exclusive: Watch Amy Adams Make Contact With E.T.: