© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
Directed by the French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve and adapted from the 1998 novella “The Story of Your Life” by American writer Ted Chiang, Arrival was one of the sensations of American film in the year of its release. The film grossed more than $200 million off of a production budget of less than $50 million; more importantly, it received largely enthusiastic reviews from critics and garnered eight Academy Award nominations, including the coveted ones for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Directed Screenplay. It won only in the less prestigious category of Best Sound Editing. Nevertheless, for a science fiction film, it got an unusual amount of attention from both the Academy and serious critics. Most importantly, the film developed a reputation as an example of the sort of serious and thoughtful work that is common in written science fiction but that seems more and more rare in science fiction film in an age when such films are often dominated by action sequences and spectacular digitally enhanced special effects. On the other hand, the film does have its limitations and does not always live up to the elegant thoughtfulness of its source material.
The basic scenario of Arrival is quite simple, even though the ideas underlying it are often quite sophisticated. The main narrative concerns the sudden appearance, at seemingly random locations around the world, of twelve large, mysterious artifacts, presumably alien ships. The ships do not display any open hostility toward humans, but their ultimate reason for coming to earth remains entirely unclear. The governments of the various regions where the ships have appeared quickly mobilize to try to communicate with the aliens, at the same time proceeding very cautiously and suspiciously, just in case the aliens turn out to have aggressive intentions. Indeed, as is so often the case in alien invasion films from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) onward, many among the human contingents have their own aggressive intentions, feeling that a preemptive strike might, in fact, be the best means of dealing with the aliens.
As an alien invasion film, Arrival draws extensively upon the rich legacy of that subgenre. For example, much of the drama of the film results from tensions between the scientists and the military, who are together at the Montana site where one of the alien craft has landed. This aspect of the film looks back to a similar motif that is central to The Thing from Another World (1951) and that has become something of a staple of alien encounter films ever since. In addition, Arrival also echoes The Day the Earth Stood Still in that the aliens have actually come here in an effort to prevent human civilization from destroying itself by nationalistic in-fighting. In both cases, of course, the aliens’ intentions are not entirely unselfish: the aliens of The Day the Earth Stood Still want to ensure that earth’s warlike attitudes do not ultimately threaten the intergalactic civilization they represent, while the aliens of Arrival want secure the long-time survival of earth civilization because they know that there will come a time, 3,000 years in the future, when they need earth’s help in order to deal with a crisis of their own. This entire, highly cinematic motif, incidentally, was invented for the film and does not appear in the original novella, suggesting the extent to which this film, however unusual, was still attempting to fulfill certain expectations that fans of science fiction film might have.
Arrival even looks back to the founding text of alien-invasion narratives, H. G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, much of the point of which is to satirize British colonialism and the general sense of British superiority to other cultures by producing a defamiliarizing perspective through suddenly placing the Britishin the position of the invaded and the colonized, rather than the other way around. Wells even makes this comparison overt by having his narrator point out that “The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”(3). Tasmania is an island off the coast of Australia, then a British colony, and the “European immigrants” who wiped them out were also mostly British, coming either directly from Britain or indirectly, from Australia. Meanwhile, Australia also figures in Arrival when protagonist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) tells the on-site military commander, Colonel G. T. Weber (Forest Whitaker), a story (apparently spurious, but it makes her point) about miscommunication between white settlers and Australian Aborigines concerning the word “kangaroo.” In response, Weber reminds her, “Remember what happened to the Aborigines. A more advanced race nearly wiped them out.” Weber thus places himself, the scientists, and other Americans, in the position of the Aborigines, while placing the aliens of Arrival in the position of the European colonizers of Australia, performing very much the same rhetorical move as that employed by Wells in The War of the Worlds—though of course the comparison is less fair, in that the aliens in the film have shown no signs of intending violence toward humans.
Arrival adds other touches derived from popular culture as well. For example, the two central aliens with whom Banks attempts to communicate are dubbed “Abbott and Costello” by the humans, in what seems to be a questionable departure from the novella, in which the two central aliens are called “Flapper and Raspberry.” For one thing, naming the aliens after a comedy team well-known for the silliness of their comic films and other performances might be considered disrespectful, though it is not clear that “Flapper and Raspberry” is much better. For another, naming the aliens after two specifically male comedians suggests a gendering that is not justified by anything that actually appears in the film, which gives us no clues as to the functioning of gender among the aliens. Mayer, in fact, has criticized the film at some length on just this point (38). On the other hand, in the film’s defense, it might be recalled that probably the single best-known routine in the entire career of Abbott and Costello is a classic bit known as “Who’s on First” (https://youtu.be/kTcRRaXV-fg) that revolves around the topic of miscommunication, which is crucial to Arrival, as well. Again, though, given that the humans of the film are supposedly devoted to communication with the aliens, naming them after a famous instance of comically failed communication seems like a questionable idea.
Despite such echoes of popular culture, Arrival does set itself apart from most science fiction films in a variety of ways, perhaps the most obvious of which is the fact that it employs a female protagonist—and one who is remarkable primarily for her brains, not her looks. Meanwhile, the film is also somewhat unusual in that it puts less emphasis on action and suspense and more on exploring philosophical/anthropological questions having to do with language and time. The aliens know about their future crisis (and are thus able to take steps in advance for dealing with it) because they perceive time completely differently from the linear manner in which humans perceive it. In particular, they can “remember” both the future and the past, essentially perceiving all times as existing simultaneously, though they clearly do believe in sequential cause-and-effect. This notion is, in itself, a rich one that opens up a number of narrative possibilities. This way of perceiving time is, in fact, quite crucial to the narrative structure of the film. Even more crucial, however, is the reason why the aliens perceive time so differently. This perception is part and parcel of a more general perception of reality that is quite different from the way reality is perceived by humans, due (according to the film) to the very different nature of the language employed by the aliens.
Language is, in fact, the central motif of the entire film. After all, Banks, the protagonist of the film, is a linguist who has been conscripted by the U.S. government to try to help decipher the language of the aliens that have landed at a remote location in Montana. This location, of course, is reminiscent of the one at which the alien mother ship lands in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Arrival also resembles that film in the sense that attempts to communicate with the aliens are crucial to the plot. These attempts, though, are even more crucial in Arrival. They are also portrayed in a much more sophisticated way, partly because the film’s central character is a linguist, while much of the film’s runtime is devoted to portraying her work in that capacity.
Among other things, as a linguist, Dr. Banks is quite aware of the extent to which language can control our perceptions of reality and our ability to interpret and think about those perceptions. She is even able to explain (though apparently in the midst of a dream) to astro-physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who is also working to try to communicate with the aliens, what linguists refer to as the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: “It’s the theory that the language you speak determines how you think.” “Yeah,” he acknowledges. “It affects how you see everything.” John Engle, arguing that Arrival demonstrates the need for linguists to re-evaluate the now largely neglected Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, goes so far as to argue that the filmis, at its core, a feature-length exploration of the implications of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” (95)
On the other hand, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not specifically mentioned in Chiang’s original novella and seems to have been included in the film in order to provide a bit more explanation of what is going on, as well as to make it more plausible, even though most linguists would certainly not expect language to effect perception and thought to the extent that it does in this film. Then again, the alien language is radically different—far more different from any earth language than any of them are from each other, given that the aliens have not only a completely different cultural history but also a completely different physiology. For example, their bodies are radially symmetrical, dominated by seven tentacle-like limbs somewhat similar to the eight tentacles of an octopus (thus the name “heptapods” given them by the humans in the film). As a result, there is no clear forward or backward direction in their bodily movements, just as there is, for them, no distinct forward or backward direction in the flow of time. Indeed, it seems quite reasonable to suspect that both the alien language and the alien perception of time derive from their specific physiology, so that the film does not necessarily illustrate the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis at all.
Still, this is a film very much about language and linguistics, topics that, at first, might not seem terribly cinematic. The language of the aliens so different from any known human language that most of the plot of the film involves the attempts of Banks to understand how the alien language works, attempts that are complicated by the fact that, the more she learns about the alien language, the more her own perceptions about time and reality begin to change. The specific details of Banks’ attempts to communicate with the aliens are probably the aspect of the film that differ most from the same aspect of the novella. In particular, the alien language has been changed to become much more visually interesting than that in the novella, illustrating one of many changes made to the original story in order to make it more cinematic. Chiang’s story is extremely cerebral and does not, at first glance, seem a good candidate for adaptation to film. But screenwriter Eric Heisserer, aided by input from Villeneuve, was finally able to hit on the idea of emphasizing visual representation of the alien language, thus taking advantage of the resources of film to add a dimension unavailable to the novelette.
The other key to the screenplay is the representation of Banks’s changing mode of thinking about the world. Perhaps in an attempt to mimic Banks’ own confusion, viewers are given no explanation for Banks’ visions, which focus (in apparently random order) on her failed marriage and (especially) on her experiences with a young girl (presumably her daughter), from the girl’s conception and birth until her death, in adolescence, from a rare disease. Given our own human experience, most of us are probably likely to interpret these visions initially as memories; it is not until near the end of the film that it becomes clear that these “memories” do not refer to a past in which Banks married, had a child, divorced, and then lost the child to disease. Instead, they emanate from a future in which all of these will happen.
Here, in fact, lies the true core of the film. Both Chiang’s novella and the film (especially the former) present unusually detailed and thoughtful accounts of the process of attempting to communicate with extraterrestrials. And both versions of the story manage to present compelling narratives of this process. I would argue, however, that what ultimately makes these narratives so compelling is ultimately not the details we are given about the process of deciphering the aliens’ language but the apparent ethical dilemma that is presented to Banks when she learns that her daughter will be fated to die an early death but decides to have her, anyway. Moreover, her ability to “see” into the future means that she also knows that she will reveal this decision to her future husband (who turns out to be Donnelly) and that he will be so appalled that he will decide he can no longer stay married to her.
In short, due to the changed perception of time gained from learning the language of the aliens, Banks knows that both her marriage and the life of her daughter will end badly and prematurely. But she also knows that, in the meantime, she will have had many wonderful times with both her daughter and her husband, greatly enriching both their lives and hers. And she decides (apparently) that these good times are worth the ultimate bad ends. In this way, the film somewhat sentimentalizes this motif (reinforced by lots of scenes of touching mother-daughter moments), which in the novella is more of an abstract and intellectual exploration of the nature of time and the conflict between determinism and free will.
It might also be noted that, in the novella, Banks’s and Donnelly’s daughter lives to be twenty-five and is healthy until suddenly being killed in an accident. The changed details in the film would thus appear to make Banks’s decision a more difficult one, because she has less time with her daughter, while her daughter has to suffer through a fatal illness. This change again ups the emotional ante in an attempt to appeal to the sentiments of viewers, while at the same time placing more emphasis on Banks’s dilemma. Meanwhile, one of the things that makes Arrival such a complex film is that this dilemma is, in fact, far more complicated than it might first appear to be—and for two different reasons.
For one thing, Banks’s decision can be taken to reflect her changed perception of time and can thus perhaps not be fairly judged in human terms. For Donnelly, still thinking in traditional human terms, her decision is judged based on its eventual outcome. It leads to death for their daughter and thus it must be a bad decision. For Banks, however, time no longer exists in such a straightforward, cause-and-effect form. The daughter’s death is not the conclusion to which the rest of her life leads; it is merely another aspect of her experience, existing simultaneously with her birth, her childhood, and her adolescence. Thinking of the daughter’s life in this way would surely make a big difference in attempting to judge whether or not it was fair to let the girl be born in the first place.
The other factor that complicates Banks’s choice is the question of whether she even has a choice. If one can “remember” the future, then that fact would seem to imply that the future, in some sense, already exists and has already been determined. If one could use one’s knowledge of the future to change the future, then that knowledge would not seem to be reliable. One implication of the alien perception of all times as simultaneous is that everything that happens has been predetermined from the beginning. By opening up such questions, Arrival treads the same ground as many time-travel narratives, though it does so in a more philosophical and less action-oriented way.
This aspect of Banks’s dilemma is illuminated in the novella (but not in the film, where it might perhaps be too technical) by a discussion between Banks and Donnelly concerning a concept known in physics as “Fermat’s principle,” after the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat (1607–1665), who first formulated the principle in 1662. According to this original formulation, the path taken by a ray of light between any two points is the one that will require the least time for the distance between the points to be traversed, a notion that was used primarily to explain the refraction of light when traveling from one medium to another, such as from air to water. However, this notion was initially controversial because it appears to suggest that the ray of light “knows” in advance what path will take the least time (though, in point of fact, this behavior was later shown to be a result of the basic properties of waves and does not require any sort of “foreknowledge”). In the novella, without including the wave-based explanation, Donnelly simply explains to Banks that an “anthropomorphic” explanation of the principle would require the ray of light to have advance knowledge of its upcoming path. Banks then thinks to herself, “the ray of light has to know where it will ultimately end up before it can choose the direction to begin moving in” (Chiang 125, his emphasis). She then adds, cryptically, “I knew what that reminded me of.”
What it reminds her of, of course, is her “decision” concerning her daughter. Meanwhile, the novella also includes detailed ruminations on free will and determinism that make quite clear the central philosophical concern of the story. In comparison, the film includes significantly less detail about such philosophical questions, substituting instead the whole Hollywood-style subplot about the warlike Chinese almost triggering a global conflict, only to have this averted by Banks’s intervention. Indeed, the portrayal of the Chinese in Arrival is extremely problematic, even though the film’s central figure of Chinese menace, General Shang (Tzi Ma) ultimately does the right thing and seems an admirable figure in his final scene with Banks, which employs a typical time-travel twist as he gives her his private phone number (and tells her his wife’s dying words) so that she can call him on that number eighteen months earlier and repeat those words to him. This phone call itself is perhaps the film’s most suspenseful moment, as CIA agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), now the film’s main villain, threatens to shoot Banks to try to prevent her from carrying out the call. The call itself is a bit of pure Hollywood magic: Banks repeats to Shang his wife’s dying words, thus presumably convincing him that she was able to retrieve them from their future conversation and has gained from the aliens the ability to see the future. Further, the words themselves fit the situation perfectly: “In war, there are no winners, only widows,” though these words are in fact spoken in the film only in Chinese Mandarin, without English subtitles, adding an additional complication for non–Chinese speaking viewers.
In a highly unlikely plot turn, Shang then immediately and completely reverses the attitude he has displayed throughout the film, even though he had already known his wife’s words and had not previously been persuaded by them to avoid war with the aliens. He calls off his planned attack on the aliens and instead issues a call for international cooperation in attempting to understand the information that the aliens have conveyed in the film—information the nature of which is never revealed in the film. And then, as if by magic, all of the other nations of the world follow China’s lead, and a new era of international cooperation begins. This turn, of course, is no more unbelievable than those that are found in The Day the Earth Stood Still and any number of other films. Like Banks’s story about the kangaroos, it is intended to make a point. Still, the entire Chinese motif in this film (something that is not present at all in the novella) is problematic, both in the negative portrayal of the Chinese and in the completely nonsensical depiction of Chinese politics. In particular, the film seems to attribute to Shang an unreasonable amount of power to set Chinese policy with regard to the aliens, as if China were some sort of military dictatorship with Shang at its head. In reality, China is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, while the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (commanded by Shang in the film) is under the civilian control of the Communist Party. There are no Chinese generals with the kind of power attributed to Shang in the film, which gives him such power as a means of making China appear more sinister, dangerous, and politically retrograde—but also as a way of giving Banks access to such power.
There is no Chinese general in the novella. In fact, the Chinese do not figure at all. The addition of this problematic element to the film simply adds an element of Hollywood-style conflict that might perhaps appeal to certain members of the filmgoing audience. But, given the importance of American-Chinese relations to the economies of both nations, this addition to the film seems thoughtless, if not downright Orientalist. Given the unusually serious and thoughtful nature of many elements of this film, its treatment of China is extremely unfortunate (and somewhat glaring), especially as it follows a long line of racist and Orientalist depictions of China in American film. Arrival might be seen as a corrective to certain negative tendencies in contemporary American science fiction film, but it is clearly only a partial one.
Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others. Vintage-Random House, 2016.
Engle, John. “Of Hopis and Heptapods: The Return of Sapir-Whorf.” ETC: A Review of General Semantics (January 2016): 95–99.
Mayer, Sophie. “Girl Power: Back to the Future of Feminist Science Fiction with Into the Forest and Arrival.” Film Quarterly 70.3 (2017): 32–42.
Sutton, David. “Arrival: Anthropology in Hollywood.” Anthropology Today 34.1 (February 2018): 7–10.
 In addition, Sophie Mayer criticizes the film for never challenging Weber’s assumption that the Europeans were a more advanced race (though she misquotes him as having said they were a “superior culture”). Mayer has a point, but then Weber is a military man: from his perspective, “more advanced” means having greater military firepower, which the Europeans in Australia unquestionably had and which Weber is now assuming the aliens probably have.
 On the other hand, Mayer, comparing the film unfavorably with Patricia Rozema’s postapocalyptic film Into the Forest (2015), complains that Arrival is ultimately rather conservative in its treatment of gender, never (for example) challenging conventional gender binaries (something science fiction has often done quite effectively).
 For a useful (and mostly positive) discussion of the film’s treatment of language from an anthropological perspective, see Sutton.
 This character is named “Gary Donnelly” in the novella.
 In addition, of course, there is the problem that Banks’s first language remains English, while she knows several other human languages as well. It is not clear how the alien language could suddenly become dominant and instill her with an alien perception of time, overcoming all of these other languages.
 The film, in fact, has all sorts of problems with its representation of China. For example, some promotional posters for the film showed Hong Kong’s skyline but unaccountably added in Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower, causing considerable negative reaction in Hong Kong.