It's been about four years since the movie adaptation of Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" was announced, and during that period, every time I heard a piece of news about the film's progress, there was always one question paramount in my mind: how? How could you possibly take Chiang's story, a trippy, challenging piece of writing whose ultimate conclusion needs to be carefully laid out for even the most attentive and game reader, and translate it into a mainstream movie, in a medium that isn't normally permitted to spell out its themes and ideas the way written fiction is? For me personally, there was an element of protectiveness to this wondering. "Story of Your Life," which I first read in my late teens, was an eye-opener for me. In its focus on the "soft" science of linguistics, in its willingness to use relatively abstruse concepts from both linguistics and physics to build its premise, and in its foregrounding of a thoroughly unsentimental mother-daughter relationship, it expanded my ideas of what science fiction was capable of. I couldn't bear the thought of someone turning it into yet another alien invasion story.
And, to be fair to director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, that is not what Arrival is. In fact, by the standards of Hollywood and what it tends to make of science fiction, Arrival is a remarkably thought-provoking and meditative movie, and its message of understanding and cooperation feels particularly relevant in our present moment. But as regards to my question, how could Villeneuve and Heisserer take the implications of Chiang's story and put them on screen, the answer is: they didn't. And in fact, it seems quite obvious that this was a deliberate choice.
To someone familiar with the story, there is a hint early on in Arrival of its shift in priorities and premise. The film opens with a series of flashes to the relationship between linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her daughter Hannah, culminating in Hannah's death, in her early adulthood, from a disease. In the story, Hannah dies in a climbing accident. The change initially seems pointless--or perhaps yet another indication that Hollywood thinks cancer is inherently more dramatic than any other form of tragedy--and then troubling. In the story, the point of Hannah's death being accidental is that it is easily preventable. Someone with knowledge of the future--as Louise will eventually become--could keep it from happening by saying a few words. The point of "Story of Your Life" is to explain why Louise doesn't do this. Making Hannah's death something that Louise can't prevent seems, in the film's early minutes, like an odd bit of point-missing.
You very quickly get swept up in the film's present-day events, however, and in its depiction of a group of scientists and soldiers trying to communicate with aliens who have suddenly appeared on Earth. The very fact that Arrival's point of view character is a linguist, and that the problems of dealing with the aliens (dubbed "heptapods") are phrased in the terms of that science, in questions of how modes of communication affect habits of thought and our perception of the world, make it a remarkable movie, even within the subset of the kind of prestige SF movies we get every fall. (Compare Arrival to last year's entry in this subgenre, The Martian, whose focus was entirely on the hard sciences, and on the cold equations of supply and consumption that determine its protagonist's chances of survival.) It's particularly rewarding that Arrival, even working within the limitations of a film that needs to be accessible to a wide audience, resists the temptation to simplify its depiction of what science is. When Louise first meets Ian (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who will become her husband and her daughter's father, he quotes from one of her books a line about language being the foundation of civilization. A slightly chagrined Louise responds: "that's the sort of thing you put in a preface. You want to wow them with the basics." In a later scene, Louise punctuates an argument with military supervisor Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) by quoting the story about how the original meaning of the word "kangaroo" is "I don't know". Then she admits to Ian that the story is almost certainly a fabrication. In scenes like these and throughout its run, Arrival repeatedly drives home the point that science can't be boiled down to platitudes, and that complex problems require complex solutions.
At the same time, it's also a deeply emotional movie, one that demonstrates how even for rational, cerebral people like Louise and Ian, the experience of meeting aliens and grappling with their difference from us is a profound shock to their worldview. You can feel the influence of 2001 on the scenes in Arrival in which Louise is first confronted with the aliens, which use overpowering music and a stark, minimalist set to convey the grandeur of the experience. The fact that Arrival manages to meld these two modes--awe and scientific rigor--is impressive. The fact that it does this, and weaves a geopolitical crisis in the film's background, as different nations begin to view the aliens, and the technology they could offer Earth, as a threat, and continues to flash to Louise's life with her daughter, and slowly weaves in the mystery of what the aliens want and how their language is affecting Louise, makes Arrival a major accomplishment.
So it's not entirely the film's fault that Chiang got there first, and did it better. About halfway into the film, Ian questions Louise about the hypothesis that learning a language rewires your brain, and accustoms you to the habits of thought and the worldview that shaped that language. Arrival treats that effect as something almost magical--within a few hours of seeing her first alien logogram, Louise begins experiencing flashes of the future. Finally she realizes that the alien language has given her a similar grasp of reality as that of the heptapods, to whom past and future are one and the same, and uses her knowledge of the future to prevent the war that is about to erupt over the aliens' technology.
It is, to be perfectly honest, a rather silly idea, and one that it takes all of Arrival's earnestness (and Adams's fine performance) to sell. What Chiang posits is something that is both more subtle, and a great deal more mind-blowing. The difference between humans and heptapods in "Story of Your Life" is that where humans see the universe in linear, causal terms, the heptapods' take on it is teleological, purpose-driven. Humans perceive cause and effect. Heptapods perceive the beginning and end-point of every action, and proceed along a course that gets them from one to the other. In other words, it's not that heptapods see the future. It's that they perceive all of time as a single entity, and are therefore committed to a course of action that takes them along all the points in their personal timeline, with no possibility of deviation. Having learned the heptapod language, and rewired her brain so that she perceives time in a similar way to them, Louise is therefore similarly committed. The reason that she can't tell her daughter not to go on the climbing trip that will result in her death is that the very fact of knowing about that death makes it impossible for her to exercise free will and deviate from the path that will lead to it. Arrival posits that Louise can have both knowledge of the future and free will--hence her choice to have a daughter whom she knows will be taken from her at a young age. It thus misses out on both the full implications of "Story of Your Life"'s mind-bending ideas, and the full impact of its tragedy.
It is, of course, perfectly fair at this stage to ask whether any of this matters. I went into Arrival knowing that it would be nearly impossible to convey the central idea of "Story of Your Life" in a movie, and so the fact that it didn't shouldn't have come as a surprise. And isn't it therefore better for Heisserer to have tried to make the movie its own entity, with its own message, even if that message is the complete opposite of the one in Chiang's story? As many reviewers have noted, Arrival comes to us at a moment where the world seems determined to surrender itself to strongmen who believe only in violence, who use language to sow fear and hatred. A film in which language and communication can be used to further understanding and to prevent violence, in which one determined person can sway the course of the future towards a more peaceful outcome, feels almost like a balm. If I find Arrival's ending sentimental, I also have to admit that it offers a powerful alternative to what's happening in the real world right now.
And yet, as a science fiction reader, who has held "Story of Your Life" dear for nearly half her own life, I can't help but feel disappointed as well. One of the things that make that story special is its commitment to the implications of its premise. Chiang posits a weird, out-there idea, and then follows it all the way to the end, forcing the reader to ponder the kind of life that Louise now has to live. Heisserer was clearly enchanted by some of the ideas raised in "Story of Your Life"--the notion that language changes our perception of reality, the idea that different species might see time differently--but seems to have chickened out on the most important one. It's a choice that borders of wish-fulfillment, replacing the rigor of Chiang's ideas with rank sentimentality.
To say that, I realize, makes me seem a bit joyless. Worse, it makes "Story of Your Life" seems bleak, like a linguistics-based "The Cold Equations." When in truth, it's nothing of the sort. If anything, it's Arrival that edges into "Cold Equations" territory, when, like that seminal yet highly problematic classic story, it valorizes tragedy. "The Cold Equations" pretends to be about man's smallness before the universe and the demands of its implacable mathematics, but really it wants us to marvel at its protagonist, and his willingness to do what is necessary in order to appease the unfeeling gods of math and physics. There's a similar grandeur to how Arrival depicts Louise and her decision to have a child whom she knows will die. It makes her into a martyr, or even a saint, for being willing to suffer the pain of losing her daughter simply so that Hannah can exist (while at the same time flattening Hannah's personality, who in the story is willful and bold, and whom Louise has trouble understanding, into someone completely generic). Even the breakdown of Louise and Ian's marriage is turned into something grand when we learn that he leaves her after she tells him about Hannah's impending death. In the story, they divorce for no particular reason, simply because that's what happens to some marriages.
The message of "Story of Your Life" is something much gentler and sadder than Arrival's. The fact that they lack free will doesn't make Louise, or the heptapods, into automatons--any more than a person who does have free will is captain of their fate and master of their soul. The fact is, a Louise who had free will but no knowledge of the future would still have entered into a marriage fated to break down, still have borne a child fated to die an early, meaningless death. She would still have been faced with the questions that our Louise asks herself at the end of the story, the same questions that we all, inevitably, ask ourselves--has our life been a happy or a sad one? Did we make the right choices? Are we a success or a failure? The genius of "Story of Your Life" is that it manages to take a person who knows every detail of their life to come, and still convincingly argue that they are just as confused as the rest of us. Arrival has its own genius, but I still prefer the one that so enraptured me half a lifetime ago, and showed me the full possibilities of this genre.