This post contains major plot spoilers about Arrival.
In one of the final scenes of Arrival, the new first-contact science fiction film with a focus on linguistics, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) explains why she got divorced. “He said I made the wrong choice,” the linguist tells her daughter Hannah. It’s an easy line to overlook, especially as the gravity of the film’s second-half surprise sinks in. Throughout the film, Louise is experiencing not her memories of the past, but living out precognitive moments of her own future. She is experiencing time out of order, because her efforts to understand an alien language have irreversibly rewired her brain.
The credit for this narrative trick goes to author Ted Chiang, who plotted Arrival back in 2002 as a first-person short story called Story of Your Life. His work cleverly uses different tenses, mixing future, past, and present to weave the complex non-linear knot of Louise’s life in a way reminiscent of Billy Pilgrim from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Chiang’s hidden meanings, and the things that inevitably got lost in translating his words to the big screen, are pivotal to help viewers understand what Arrival is saying.
Arrival is a versatile science fiction film that communicates on many levels. It’s about language and cooperation, about people transcending barriers and immersing themselves in a new culture to understand a foreign race. The aliens, arriving in 12 monolithic space ships and known as heptapods because of their seven-legged giant squid appearance, are terrifying. But they are peaceful and want to help humanity, because their own non-linear perception of time tells them they’ll need our help thousands of years from now. Louise’s journey into how the heptapods’ minds work — how the aliens communicate, and what that says about how they perceive reality — is a common genre trope, but director Denis Villeneuve uses it to subvert the usual routine of the Hollywood blockbuster.
Yet the film is more concerned with a deeper, grander theme about free will and personal responsibility. Story of Your Life spotlights those ideas more than any others. The theme rests on a line Louise utters in one of Arrival’s closing scenes. “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” she asks her future husband Ian Donnelly. Put another way, would you rob someone of their existence, and yourself of the time shared with them on Earth, if you knew they would one day would feel pain, and you would feel their loss?
The question haunts the narrative because Louise is harboring a terrible secret. She knows Hannah will die young. She knows this before she even decides to conceive Hannah with Ian, a theoretical physicist who, years earlier, helped Louise crack the alien language, even though he does not speak it himself. When Louise tells Ian their daughter will die, he’s naturally upset. He assumes Louise could have warned him, or refused to have a child — changed the future. But Louise made the choice, even knowing the eventual outcome.
In Story of Your Life, the eventual rift between Louise and Ian is left unexplored, but the plot is largely the same. Louise’s understanding of the heptapods’ written language reorients her sense of cause and effect. It turns her perception of time into a two-way river that Chiang illustrates through brief intermissions that visit Hannah’s childhood and adolescence in future tense, as if Louise is forecasting the beats of her daughter’s life. Using the real-world theory of linguistic relativity — which states, controversially, that what language we speak affects how our brain works — Chiang transforms Louise’s life into a series of out-of-order moments that can be experienced singularly, including her daughter’s eventual death.
But Story of Your Life diverges from Arrival in one key aspect. While Louise immerses herself in the heptapods’ language, the rest of the world’s experts, including Ian, share knowledge about the aliens’ understanding of physics, math, and other disciplines. In the film, Ian doesn’t have much narrative purpose. In the story, his explorations of how the aliens perceive light refraction winds up informing Louise’s new understanding of time.
In the story, there is no military tension, no setting up of China or Russia as aggressors, and no misguided American soldiers sabotaging the spaceship that landed in America. Story of Your Life is entirely focused on Louise’s rewired perception of her own life, and her pivotal choice to have a daughter despite the pain she knows it will cause. The reveal — that Louise has seen her daughter’s future — is not a surprise sci-fi twist, but a slow and steady realization. Even Chiang’s title has an obvious double meaning almost from the get-go, the pronoun “your” belonging both to Louise’s daughter and the idea that we as humans are made of our memories and defined by our choices.
This message exists in Arrival, but it’s hidden under broader plot movements, big drama, and more visible Hollywood layers. Chiang limits the scope of Story of Your Life to a reflection on personal choice. He says foreseeing a choice and then making it is not the cruelty of fate in action, but a powerful exercise in free will.
Viewers are already theorizing about the film’s plot, and whether it means that humans who learn the heptapod language can alter their own futures. Whether Louise can change anything is besides the point. In Arrival’s deterministic universe, free will exists in the form of following through on a choice you already know you’ll make. In effect, by choosing not to alter the future, you’re creating it, and actively affirming it.
“The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons,” Louise says in Chiang’s story. “What distinguishes the heptapods’ mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history’s events; it is also that their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.”
Underneath the technical complexity of the explanation is a profound truth Chiang is communicating — and one Arrival similarly hammers home. “What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person?” Louise ponders. “What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?” And it is precisely because Louise understands what it will be like to lose her daughter that she chooses to bring her into the world nonetheless.
Readers aren’t necessarily supposed to agree with Louise’s choice. (Some of our own writers don’t.) But Arrival isn’t about time travel. It’s also not a commentary on gene-modification, abortion, or any other hot-button topic about using our foresight into the future to force our present path to diverge. It’s about acceptance, understanding our life’s choices, and living as if any one moment were as valuable or meaningful as the next.
The film suggests that knowing what will happen in the future doesn’t diminish the meaning behind a choice you’ll make today. On the contrary, it says every choice you do make can be made knowing it will actively shape what’s to come. As Emerson once wrote, life's a journey, not a destination. In the circular, non-linear minds of Arrival’s aliens and Louise Banks, the destination doesn’t even exist.
Instead of treating that message like a superpower to acquire, the film delivers it as a subtle worldview. Hidden under Arrival’s more palatable themes about overcoming cultural differences and uniting as one species is Chiang’s more direct message about learning how to appreciate life’s moments, to live outside the bounds of time.
If we could see our lives laid out before us, would we change anything? Story of Your Life — and by extension Arrival — is telling us to live as if the answer is, and always will be, a resolute no.
For the Skillet song, see Rise (Skillet album).
"What I Believe" is the title of two essays espousing humanism, one by Bertrand Russell (1925) and one by E. M. Forster (1938).
Several other authors have also written works with the same title, alluding to either or both of these essays.
E. M. Forster says that he does not believe in creeds; but there are so many around that one has to formulate a creed of one’s own in self-defence. Three values are important to Forster: tolerance, good temper and sympathy.
It was first published in The Nation on July 16, 1938.
Personal relationships and the state
Forster argues that one should invest in personal relationships: “one must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life”. In order to do so, one must be reliable in one’s relationships. Reliability, in turn, is impossible without natural warmth. Forster contrasts personal relationships with causes, which he hates. In an often quoted sentence he argues: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”. He goes on to explain:
Such a choice may scandalize the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police. It would not have shocked Dante, though. Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome.
Forster cautiously welcomes democracy for two reasons:
- It places importance on the individual (at least more than authoritarian regimes).
- It allows criticism.
Thus, he calls for "two cheers for democracy" (also the title of the book which contains his essay) but argues that this is "quite enough" and that "there is no occasion to give three."
Forster goes on to argue that, although the state ultimately rests on force, the intervals between the use of force are what makes life worth living. Some people may call the absence of force decadence; Forster prefers to call it civilization.
Great men, Forster’s aristocracy and public life
The author also criticises hero-worship and profoundly distrusts so-called “great men”. Heroes are necessary to run an authoritarian regime in order to make it seem less dull “much as plums have to be put into a bad pudding to make it palatable”. As a contrast Forster believes in an “aristocracy”, not based on rank or influence but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. For Forster it is a tragedy that no way has been found to transmit private decencies into public life:
The more highly public life is organized the lower does its morality sink; the nations of today behave to each other worse than they ever did in the past, they cheat, rob, bully and bluff, make war without notice, and kill as many women and children as possible; whereas primitive tribes were at all events restrained by taboos. It is a humiliating outlook - though the greater the darkness, the brighter shine the little lights, reassuring one another, signalling: "Well, at all events, I'm still here. I don’t like it very much, but how are you?"
Forster concludes by stating that these “are the reflections of an individualist and a liberal" who has "found liberalism crumbling beneath him", taking comfort from the fact that people are born separately and die separately. Therefore, no dictator will be able to eradicate individualism.
His essay may be summed in his quote: "The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge".
He does not claim this is a logically necessary belief, but instead he wishes to convince the most people to believe in it by providing examples and its consequences.
I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man's place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.
Quoted in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, 2006, ISBN 978-0-618-68000-9, pp354
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it.(January 2007)
- Forster's "What I Believe" is published in: Forster, E.M., Two Cheers for Democracy, ISBN 0-15-692025-5, and also in: Forster, E.M., What I Believe, and other essays, ISBN 978-1-911578-01-7.
- What I Believe - E. M. Forster's essay [abridged]
- Russell's "What I Believe", PDF, chapter 43 
- Russell's "What I Believe" is published as ISBN 0-415-32509-9.
- ^Bertrand Russell, What I Believe (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1925).