Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a triumph of contemplative Sci-Fi. It deftly blends nuanced social commentaries with a deeply touching story that is both cosmic-scaled and grounded in the virtue of fortitude and anchored by human emotions (thanks to Amy Adams’s wonderful performance). To most viewers, the part of Arrival that left the biggest impression was its ingeniously disguised, unconventional chronology—certain key scenes were played out of order. The revelation would change the course of Louise’s (Adams) life, and re-contextualize our entire understanding of the movie. With the surging momentum given to it by the revelation, Arrival delivers its final message: choose love and life despite inevitable hardship.
The powerful impact of Arrival’s story made possible by the editing was a prime example of adaptation rising above its source material—though future-peering power granted by learning the heptapod’s written language (Heptapod B) was not revealed until the latter half of Story of Your Life, the novella never sought to conceal its story structure. Another aspect elevated by the film was the weight behind Louise’s final decision of starting a family and having her daughter, Hannah.
There are many forms of time travel in sci-fi, such as branching or alternative timelines (Star Trek, 2009), or chain effect/timeline corruption (Back to the Future, 1985), but Story of Your Life follows the theory of a single causally consistent timeline. Under such a concept, time travel is impossible (or pointless) as exemplified by the famous Grandfather Paradox—in which a man travels back in time to kill his own grandfather, thus rendering himself non-existent, and consequently rendering the act of killing his ancestor impossible, and so, a paradox is created. This simply means any attempt to alter the past or the future is futile, as the cause/motive for change would be negated by the successful change itself. An intervention is only possible when it’s already a part of the past or future, which completes a closed time loop by fulfilling what was and what will always be. Oedipus’s tragedy is an example of this.
In Story of Your Life, the heptapods act to complete their timeline. The heptapods perceive time all at once; they had already experienced their life in full, however, in order to preserve the consistency of the timeline, they needed to go through the motions to make their memories (both from the future and the past) a reality. Determinism is a knot that even the author, Ted Chiang, could not untie. Chiang had aptly compared to determinism and free will to gestalt imagery–images that could be interpreted differently, but could only be held in one’s mind one way at a time. Reconciliation of both was impossible, as Louise had concluded, for human brains’ sequential mode of thinking could not comprehend the idea of possessing both. Chiang did not expand on the concept. Learning Heptapod B had earned her decades’ worth of future-memories, Louise found free will between the gaps of her memories and was resigned to fate where she couldn’t.
The problem with Louise’s acceptance of destiny is: the lack of agency undermines the short story’s humane core. If Louise was left with no choice, could she even be responsible for the birth and death of her daughter? Well, philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt once argued that, “A person may well be morally responsible for what he has done even though he could not have done otherwise.” And the external force that prevents alternative possibilities (in this case, the causal consistency of a timeline) is irrelevant if an agent made the decision freely to not go against the outside force. However, Louise’s case doesn’t seem to apply here, as she was well aware of the limitations that come with her prescience, which affects her decision making, and on top of that, it doesn’t make sense as to why she didn’t prevent her daughter’s accidental death in a mountain climbing from happening. The only explanation is that she couldn’t. The knot of determinism that Chiang tied is unsolvable.
Changes made to the heptapods’ motive in the movie adaptation signifies a completely different concept of timeline model. In the film, the seven-legged aliens came to visit Earth to prepare humankind for a favor which we shall return in 3000 years. Anticipating and planning around an event shows that timeline in Arrival is more malleable than in Story of Your Life. By the same logic, if the heptapods can choose their future, that means so can Louise. In addition, screenwriter Eric Heisserer had also changed the cause of Hannah’s death from an accident Louise did not prevent to an incurable disease she could do nothing about–and, in so doing, added weight to Louise’s choice. With these two changes, Arrival emphasizes and drives home our capability to choose to live our life to the fullest.
Although the film and the novella both ended up with Louise having a child, the impact of messages that the two stories imparted are hardly the same. Arrival promotes a positive embrace of highs and lows of life, instead of a negative submission to fate, and it implores us to be life participants, instead of recipients. By making two simple changes to the story, Eric Heisserer was able to improve upon the original inspiration of Arrival and offered a more triumphant and satisfying ending.
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