Arrival – a Story by Ted Chiang

Arrival is a cerebral story by Ted Chiang (特德·姜) in the form of a relationship-oriented sci-fi film harbouring a backstory that takes a while to comprehend.

Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang's 'story of your life' which bacme the film 'Arrival'.
Ted Chiang

Arrival is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story Of Your Life’, a 60 page short written in 1998. 

In addition to this film, I listened to an excellent podcast of another of his stories called ‘Understand’ broadcast on iPlayer radio 4 in instalments. It’s just as polished as Arrival and easily justifies the several awards Chiang has received for the relatively small body of work he has produced.

Both of these stories are intricate, deep and incredibly well thought out in my humble opinion, and I will definitely be looking for more of his work.

The Multiple Stories of Arrival

Warning! – major spoilers!

I watched the film 3 times in close succession and I thought Amy Adams was perfect casting for this film. The first time through I was concentrating on the primary story, the graphics, special effects and actors.

An alien spaceship hanging above a valley
An alien spaceship hanging above a valley

The secondary story peeked through enough to suggest that there was a lot more going on than I had understood on first viewing. The apparent flashbacks were a little more complicated than merely being an emotional backdrop to Amy Adam’s character Louise Banks. Towards the end of the film, you get to see that the father of her daughter is the scientist she has only just met (Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly).

This means that what appeared to be flashbacks to an earlier life are actually memories of a future life, and the full meaning of this revelation also takes a while to sink in.

Having gotten this far with the idea I watched it a third time with a fuller understanding of the component parts. Interestingly, she uses memories from the future to solve problems in the present and you learn that, like the aliens, she is able to recall memories from her whole life.

Putting it All Together

a pictograph drawn by an alien in the film Arrival by Ted Chiang

When Louise (Amy Adams) calls General Shang in China, the number she dials and the words she uses were given to her by the general himself at an event 18 months later.

In addition to that, she is able to use her intuition to find the correct of many phones to pick up and use for the call. That phone is able to make a direct line call through to General Shang without going through layers of security.

Louise is not time travelling, she is recalling information from her future. Learning the alien language does not enable time travel, just the understanding of how time is constructed. This has deeper implications for Louise because of her ability to perceive the future as well. To the aliens, time is less sequential than it is for humans and this is represented by their circular language which can be read in either direction. Louis symbolises the non-directional nature of time in the name of her daughter Hannah. This name is a palindrome – it’s the same if read forward and reverse. Louise becomes capable of being aware of the future as well as the past, forward and reverse.

The Impact on Louise

arrival - Louise with her daughter
Louise with her daughter

She realises from her future memories why her husband had left her. He is distraught over the impending death of his daughter Hannah that she tells him will happen. He says that she made the wrong decision.

From this, I surmise that their mix of genes is defective and inevitably leads to the early death of Hannah. It was Louis’s decision to get married and have Hannah although Louise knows that she will develop cancer at a young age and die. This is what upsets him and he is unable to deal with.

Things I Missed

A piece of the puzzle that eluded me for a while was that the message they received with thousands of logo-grams was a three-dimensional structure. When Ian finds that the filled space in the 3D structure is 1/12th of the whole volume it means that the 11 segments given to other countries fill the empty spaces like pieces of a wooden puzzle fit together. The completed message will be a three-dimensional blob of information.

arrival - forest whitaker as Colonel Weber.jpg
Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber

Aside from a good story, acting and special effects, the artistry of the filming, editing and audio all make for a superior film that is well worth seeing.

The Trailer for Arrival

Run Time: 2:24

One of the features of this film for me was the tone set by the audio and the personal moments between Louise and her daughter.

Refer also to The LFD Movie List