Arrival (2016)
November 11, 2016 11:51 AM - Subscribe

A linguist is recruited by the military to assist in translating alien communications. Amy Adams stars in an adaptation of Ted Chiang's brilliant short story "Story of Your Life". The reviews are extremely positive, and maybe a film that champions the transformative power of communication could be helpful this week.
posted by Ipsifendus (122 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
A few minor quibbles with how the story was updated for the screen, but overall I was extremely pleased with how this turned out. The Veterans Day holiday meant I got to take myself to a matinée showing.
posted by emelenjr at 12:49 PM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Ha! That was my statement after I finished watching it. "It was good... but I am full of quibbles, minor, minor quibbles."
posted by tofu_crouton at 1:02 PM on November 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

What took me out of it was sapir-whorf cause really? But I really enjoyed it.
posted by Carillon at 6:59 PM on November 11, 2016 [10 favorites]


The emotional opening connected with me; it is tragic when parents outlive their children.

But the ending left me detached.

If it was fated, then it was extremely bitter sweet. I wasn't sure if I should be overjoyed by the years with a loving family, or overcome with sadness due to the foreknowledge of tragedy.

If it was not fated, (and I don't think that's what the story implied) then the family was just one possible future, and the end would have been ambiguous.

The endings of Contact and Interstellar involve tear jerking emotional family relationships. And online many people are saying the same of Arrival. But I could not get there.

Overall though I enjoyed it. Any alien encounter with serious Sci-Fi gets my attention.

Now about serious Sci-Fi. What would aliens think of us if we brought a caged bird to a first contact meeting? Does it not demonstrate a willingness to imprison and sacrifice another species? Would they be pragmatic and accept it? Or would they think it shows lack of empathy and be offended, shocked, or angered? What if the aliens resembled birds? I think the bird was present for purposes of story telling, but it is otherwise hard to justify. The chirping was used to fill the sometimes empty audio, but it would have been a confounding factor had the aliens communicated via audio. It did nicely emphasize that Hannah's drawing was of the ET encounter, showing Hannah was post ET. But the same could have been accomplished had Hannah drawn mom and dad with some black smoke rings or the ship. A little on the nose, but I think the bird wasn't present the first time time we saw her drawing, so the rings or ship in the drawing could have been hidden the first time too, until the final reveal.

Also they mentioned that the door to the ship opened every 18 hours. But I didn't catch how long the sessions lasted. I was under the impression that the sessions where also around 18 hours. But the progress in the first two sessions didn't seem sufficient. In the first all they got across was "Human", and in the second all they got was their names understood. Not a lot for 36 hours.

Again minor quibbles. Overall an interesting take on Aliens. Ditching the trope of math being fundamental to communicate with ETs.
posted by ecco at 10:16 PM on November 11, 2016 [7 favorites]

I was kind of expecting the aliens to identify identify the parakeet as the dominant species.

Also, speaking of the aliens, the visuals around them were like the coolest thing ever. The tentacles and the squid ink thing! Awesome. Also the gravity fuckedupedness. So cool. And the line, "Okay, that's a thing that happened."

There are some gender things I'm not super keen on and the linguistics stuff was super... uh... story-driven rather than being rooted in anything that, like, made sense.
posted by stet at 1:01 AM on November 12, 2016 [7 favorites]

Good movie, btw. Would recommend.
posted by stet at 1:07 AM on November 12, 2016

Really enjoyed just about everything about the film and highly recommend it. Such a great different kind of sci-fi film.

That being said is it just me or was it really kind of a squicky pro-lifer movie? I don't want to go into too much detail because major spoilers but wow do I agree with why her husband left her.

I mean if you know something like that is going to happen you don't do it just because the (very few) good moments outweigh the bad right? Maybe I am completely wrong but I do have a 3yo daughter and if I was the dad in Arrival I would be so heartbroken and furious.
posted by M Edward at 4:01 PM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't see the movie as pro-life. She loved her daughter, and that is why she wanted to have her. It's not a matter of counting up moments of joy versus pain: it's a matter of seeing a world/timeline with that one beloved person in it or not. Part of the reason why her response is so different from his is that learning the alien language left her with a different, non linear perspective on time. He has to face the prospect of his daughter dying in the future, same as any of us would, but she gets to appreciate the wholeness of her daughter's life.

That's how I interpret it, at least.
posted by meese at 4:08 PM on November 12, 2016 [72 favorites]

I loved the movie. I read Story of Your Life, but a long time ago, so I'd forgotten most of it.

As for the pro-life aspect, it seemed like her daughter lived to the age of 15 or 16, perhaps. More than long enough for a life to be worth living, regardless of your views on abortion. If she died in a car accident aged 4 or 24, would that be any different? Interesting question.
posted by adrianhon at 4:24 PM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I didn't think it was pro-life in a squicky way at all. I agree with meese, the perspective Louise had was different/bigger. She could choose to have her daughter and love her, or she could choose to love the could-have-been of her and never have her at all. It's a death of sorts either way. The only squicky part of it to me was wondering what Hannah's take on it would have been, were she able to make a choice. Of course, none of us choose to be born, but I'm not sure about the ethics of when/if you tell your child that they've got a fairly certain expiration date. Personally, I'd forgive my parents for having me, but I'm not sure I'd forgive them for telling me, if that makes sense. It's not the kind of thing I'd want to know, tbh.

I don't judge Ian for leaving Louise, but holy shit do I think he's a total coward for abandoning his daughter. I thought Louise's choice was incredibly brave: to irrevocably know that she would lose Hannah, and yet have her anyway. What agony for a parent.

Anyway, I loved the movie a lot, and found it tremendously affecting. I'm hoping to see it again tonight to pay more attention to the structure/editing.

My main thematic/philosophical reservation with the movie on walking out was wondering about the fate/predestination angle, and I wonder how others feel about that. Was this what was always going to happen, so Louise's choices don't matter? That would really rob the movie of some its power for me. But when I thought about it from the quantum physics sort of angle, it ended up being even more beautiful to me. Current experiments in quantum physics suggest that future actions can influence past events, and it's fairly clear that observation influences the thing being observed, on the quantum level. If the alien language removes the linear arrow of our perception of time, then I can accept that it can blow up these quantum effects to the macro level. That's fascinating to me, and it's even more fascinating to anchor that so deeply in emotion and character.
posted by yasaman at 4:36 PM on November 12, 2016 [16 favorites]

I saw the movie yesterday and read the short story today. If you want more thinking on fate, free will, and physics then you should definitely read it, yasaman. I felt that the short story addressed these issues fairly well for me.

I think they made a good adaptation - with just enough suspense to entertain Hollywood audiences while keeping the quiet introspection central to the short story. Or maybe because I saw the movie first I was better able to stomach the changes.
posted by bobobox at 6:11 PM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just came back from seeing it and really enjoyed it. I read the short story it's based on after I saw the first preview while ago and have been very excited about it. I'm pretty much in agreement with everyone else: minor quibbles. I think the short story emphasized the fate aspect better than the movie which disappointed me slightly. But I did like some of the other adaptations/changes they made, like the meeting room and how they handled the scenes with her daughter. Also, I really enjoyed the score, but I was already predisposed to like it since it was by Jóhann Jóhannsson.
posted by noneuclidean at 7:13 PM on November 12, 2016

Really enjoyed the movie, though how Louise actually learned the language seemed a bit thin and handwavy. She started having flashbacks (flashforwards) of her being an expert in the language, but I guess she had to have some basic understanding of the language in order for that to happen and her memories of the future just brought her the rest of the way?

yasaman, I think maybe Louise did tell Hannah about her future. Early in the movie, a teenage Hannah yells at Louise, "I hate you!". Of course that could be about anything, I think it's fair given the overall direction of the movie to assume it's about what will happen to her/why dad really left. I can't imagine how that must have felt for her, to know she is definitely going to suffer horribly and that her mother let it happen. Or that her mother decided to tell her about it..almost like the whole thing had no consequences for anyone other than Louise.

It would have been interesting to find out more about how this "gift" could be used to help the aliens in 3000 years. Is it possible to have non-linear perspectives on time as a species/beyond a single person's lifespan?
posted by eeek at 8:19 PM on November 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I didn't get a pro-life sense from it. For me it was more about the Buddhist idea that "the glass was already broken." Realistically, although we don't generally confront and acknowledge it, every relationship we have will end in sadness and parting, one way or another. We just don't usually know when and how it will happen. The question of whether perfect knowledge would lead to paralysis or acceptance is an interesting one, I think.
posted by Lexica at 9:22 PM on November 12, 2016 [56 favorites]

According to my journal, I have indeed read Chiang's "The Story of Your Life," but I mostly just remember the other short story from that collection about what if God objectively existed.

Just got back from seeing it again with my parents, and having already had my emotional reaction to the movie on the first watch, I was free to pay more attention to the movie's structure and science fictional underpinnings. I'm even more impressed now. There are definitely enough clues to guess at the "twist," and the movie seeds them well. I especially liked the double meaning of the Russian scientist's last transmission of "there is no time."

I don't think the movie falls on the side of everything being fated/predetermined. When Louise has the flashforward to meeting the Chinese general, future-Louise doesn't seem to remember/know about the call. It's Schrodinger's phone call: it both has and hasn't happened yet. Louise wasn't yet locked into her choice in the movie's present. The waveform only collapsed once she remembered the future and chose to make the call. Retrocausality! I do still wonder what the hell the general's take on all of it was though.
posted by yasaman at 10:13 PM on November 12, 2016 [16 favorites]

Yeah, I thought those juxtaposed scenes of Louise Banks' conversation with General Shang and her phone call to him 18 months earlier were really neat. It's as if she's gone beyond having flashbacks of the future, and now her self is in both points in time simultaneously, her future self actively making sure she gets the information that past self will need to make the call that will make the future in which she has that conversation possible.

I'd read the novella and knew from reviews that a lot of stuff gets revealed near the very end in the movie adaptation, and a conversation with a Chinese general is critical in that. I didn't know how that was going to work. I thought it demonstrated what was happening with Louise Banks really well.
posted by nangar at 11:30 PM on November 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've been excited about Arrival since I saw the trailer online. I think I might have seen it here at Metafilter. I couldn't see how they were going to turn the novella into a movie. They succeeded. They captured the emotional tone of the story. They conveyed the central ideas of the story. I loved the movie although it wasn't as subtle or as good as the short story. I talked to two groups of people on the way out of the movie and they didn't seem as enthusiastic as I was. Maybe you need to have read Chiang's story to make sense of the movie?

Oh one more thing. Why didn't Louise teach Hannah Heptapod?
posted by rdr at 1:47 AM on November 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

And one more thing.

Yes Dr. Brooks tells Hannah her fate. That's the frame of the story, the story of your life. Maybe she told the story to Hannah while she was living. Maybe she told the story to an imaginary Hannah after Hannah had died but the movie is about the act of telling Hannah a story.
posted by rdr at 2:03 AM on November 13, 2016 [14 favorites]

I haven't read the short story and enjoyed the movie, rdr, so I don't think it's a dependence. However, my boyfriend thought it was slow and boring. He thinks my liking it was because of my girl crush on Amy Adams, but I was emotionally affected and liked the twist at the end. I didn't have too much trouble figuring out what was going on due to watching way too much time travel TV, but I could see some people finding it confusing.
posted by weathergal at 6:59 AM on November 13, 2016

Story of your Life is my favorite piece of fiction and I was both elated and terrified when a movie adaptation was announced back in 2013. I saw it yesterday and it's a great adaptation.

The one change I'm not sure about is Hannah's death, not because the movie's ending is bad but because it affects how Heptapod-B works.

In the novella (spoilers!) her daughter dies in an climbing accident, something that can be avoided by a simple "Hey honey, don't go out today" or a hundred of other ways all the way to her childhood: "Nope, I'm not going to pay for climbing lessons," or even "You are going to die if you climb that mountain" but Louise realizes that things happen in a certain way. In the novella she feels that once you have knowledge of the future your only choice is to follow the script (and you're instinctively pushed to do it anyway) since they are memories, not premonitions.

Things are much more murky in the movie. Can she change the future and the past by choosing to do other things? In the movie they made a decision to make Hannah die of an incurable disease with no way to avoid it once she's born, probably because it makes it simpler. There's only one choice to be made, "Do I have this child?" But is it a choice? I'm not sure the movie answers that.
posted by Memo at 7:45 AM on November 13, 2016 [24 favorites]

I haven't read the short story, but will go looking for it I think. Really enjoyed this film.

Don't think it is arguing from pro-life POV but that's an interesting think to think about now.
posted by Fence at 10:21 AM on November 13, 2016

But is it a choice? I'm not sure the movie answers that.

I think the movie maintains some ambiguity there, but I think she makes an affirmative choice twice: once when she first returns Ian's embrace, and the second time when he says "let's make a baby," and she says yes. Amy Adams' performance suggested to me that she was choosing, not just being carried along by her future memories. I'll be interested to hear the director or writer commentary on it
posted by yasaman at 10:45 AM on November 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Entranced by Martine Bertrand's Heptapod-B semagrams they are reminiscent of Ensō or this card
posted by otherchaz at 10:52 AM on November 13, 2016 [7 favorites]

Yeah, I thought those juxtaposed scenes of Louise Banks' conversation with General Shang and her phone call to him 18 months earlier were really neat
posted by otherchaz at 2:06 PM on November 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

I was surprised how many people were in the theatre for such a potentially odd SF film. And wow, it was different in a good way you rarely see Hollywood attempt any more.

I thought Louise chose to have Hannah because, from her newfound time-unlocked perspective, Hannah would always be both alive and dead, as is true of all of us, but only by letting the slice of time where Hannah was fully alive happen could she ever be alive at all.

I could also get Ian not getting the memo despite his love and respect for Louise, because he is clearly too fixed in human linear thinking to ever get the time-unlocking message of the alien language.

I was kind of disappointed to get no clue at all what the heptapods might be needing us for three millennia from now. Surely Louise might have some idea...
posted by Bringer Tom at 5:13 PM on November 13, 2016 [13 favorites]

Near-future scifi always has this smart/sober idea of a generic US president. When General Shang mentioned 'your president' to Louise in the flash-forward award scene, I couldn't help imagining what he said about her :(
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 8:40 PM on November 13, 2016

I absolutely loved it when I saw it at the September US premiere. I teared up at the ending, which I found to be quite unexpectedly profound and powerful. It connected with me because we are all in Dr. Banks' position. To pretentiously quote Waiting for Godot, "We give birth astride a grave; the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more." The flattening of time made her hyperaware of mortality and the fleeting preciousness of every single moment she would have with her beloved daughter. She made the conscious, existential decision to raise a child with full anticipation of the heartbreak that would await her. And so all of those happy moments which are replayed from the opening each take on exactly the aching significance they should, as Banks chooses to live in moments with loved ones doomed to be cut short too soon. And any of us who had a full acceptance and awareness of the nature of things would also take our daily moments with just as much significance. I think it's very bittersweet, beautiful, sad, yet resolutely hopeful for our humanity.

Amy Adams really nailed this role. I don't think the film could be what it is without her really connecting to the material and selling it to us on an emotional level.
posted by naju at 10:20 PM on November 13, 2016 [30 favorites]

If anyone's curious, here's the Q&A I saw with the screenplay writer in September. A particular moment that stands out to me, which led to laughs from the audience but is rather chilling now:

"One quick question for you, as a parting one: what's the one thing you want people to take away from this film, as they talk about it and share it with their friends?"

"Well, it's really the same that Louise is trying to say, which is that we really have to work together, you know. Anything that divides us is gonna be just cancer for us as a people. Uh, and, y'know, I don't really have to make any grand overtures to this audience to know what we're talking about when we're looking at November. You know? November 11 the movie comes out, and I'm like, well, either we're living in a dystopian society, or... one way or the other, we're gonna wanna get drunk."
posted by naju at 10:20 PM on November 13, 2016 [10 favorites]

I'm surprised no one else is furious with Louise for not telling Ian the truth when he proposed having a baby. That was the major weakness of the movie for me. I'm relieved to learn that the original story had a more potentially avoidable (and less prolonged) death for Hannah. That Louise knew what was to come and made the unilateral decision to put Ian through years of watching his child sicken and suffer and die - this is absolutely unforgivable in my eyes. Not to mention knowingly putting Hannah through it as well. I guess we're supposed to think spirituality/time travel/blah blah blah makes this inevitable rather than a decision, and that Louise's insight into the circle of life makes it okay, but no. He said, "Let's make a baby," and right then any non-sociopathic person would have said, "Well, okay, but there's something you should know." How could she not tell him? How could you be in a marriage with that huge terrible secret looming over your life?

As I type this I do wonder if my experience as a cancer patient (and, currently, survivor) has colored my visceral response here. I would never, ever knowingly make a decision to put the people I love most in the world through what I've dealt with in the last two years of my life, and I had a very treatable, potentially curable disease. But anyway, it ruined the whole thing for me. I enjoyed the movie thoroughly until that point, but left the theatre mad.
posted by something something at 9:12 AM on November 14, 2016 [19 favorites]

I really enjoyed this, and so did my son, who is not usually impressed by character driven movies. I am eager to read the story now to see the differences in the future relationship between Louise and Ian.
As another data point. i too am a cancer survivor, and i think that since we all die, and we all go through through hardships and pain, the weight of those has to be measured against the joy and love we feel in the presence of our family. Louise had her own path to choose, and perhaps felt that even the brief time she knew she would have with Hannah was worth it for both of them. I am hoping that reading the story will shed some light on why she chose not to tell Ian.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:32 AM on November 14, 2016 [7 favorites]

I knew the Sapir-Whorf thing would make everyone want to stab, but I'm not a linguist so totally didn't care.

This was one of the best movies I've ever seen. I loved that it got 100% weirder in the last 1/4.

My daughter and I were discussing: does this pass the Bechdel test? She does talk to her daughter, about words, but mostly about a man..
posted by latkes at 10:42 AM on November 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah, something something, this feels different in Chiang's novella. Her daughter lived to early adulthood and died doing something she enjoyed. Louise wasn't there when it happened, so she couldn't stop it (short of really interfering with her adult daughter's life in a way that would have caused other problems). So the story as Chiang told it is a meditation on being a parent. At some point your child is going to grow up and make their own decisions. You have to let them go and let them do that, even though the decisions they make may not always be the right ones. In the novella, Louise is protective of her daughter because she knows how she's going to die, and she gets to wonder if her daughter resented her protectiveness, and this contributed to her daughter's attitude towards risk.

There are a couple other things. In the novella, her husband leaves for ordinary, unrelated reasons (an affair, I think). In the story's present, Louise is dating someone she likes who will evidently become her second husband. We're given no premonitions that this new relationship will end badly. There's also a scene I really like where her teenage daughter correctly predicts the out come of a date Louise going on with the new guy, and communicates this in coded language to a girlfriend who's staying over. Louise understands the code they're using, because her daughter explained it to her, and is totally mortified (but her date doesn't know what they're talking about). So Louise experiences what her knowledge would like for other people if she told them what she knows.

The movie gets a lot of emotional impact by bundling so much into a couple of big reveals in the end, and they also probably make more money because people are going want to see twice. But they had to change, rearrange and eliminate a lot of stuff to do that. There are a lot of things I like about Chiang's novella that were only possible because what's happening with Louise's perception of time is revealed gradually over the course of the story.

Other than the story of Louise's daughter's life and death playing out and feeling different in the novella, one thing I really miss is Gary/Ian Donnelly's explanation of Fermat's Principal of Least Time. (His first name is Gary in the novella.) This is something Louise asks him about after the math and physics people have had a break-though in communicating with the Heptapods about math and physics after a lot of initial frustration, and realized that the Heptapods' physics logically equivalent to ours, but based on a very different understanding of the world. In the novella, that conversation is critical to our understanding of what's happened to Louise, and helps her understand some things that were bugging her about the Heptapod's language. Something Donnelly's character doesn't realize is that, in learning their language, Louise has already begun to internalize the understanding of the world the Heptapods' physics was based on.
posted by nangar at 4:05 PM on November 14, 2016 [24 favorites]

I find a lot of these comments really fascinating. When I read the novella I really strongly got the impression that the story was about fate, and being able to perceive and understand one's fate while coming to terms with it. I think that aspect was definitely underplayed in the movie, particularly owing to the omission of the scenes involving Fermat's Principle of Least Time. But I'm now starting to getting the impression that I'm in the vast minority with my interpretation.
posted by noneuclidean at 5:56 PM on November 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

Really enjoyed the film, but for most it's probably a bit of a wait-for-the-DVD job. Seeing the big screen on the big screen was cool though. Despite consuming several Ted Chiang FPPs, I think my only previous story of his was the PodCastle reading of "Hell Is The Absence Of God", which this slightly echoes insofar as it deals with world-defining interventions on a very personal scale. I liked the tease of the film and the tweeest but am maybe a little jaded in that it didn't quite blow me away. Amy Adams was excellent and the reveal was good. My friends who I slightly dragged along to see it enjoyed it despite the fact it's on the more restrained (sans pew-pew) end of sci-fi. As an occasional picture-goer I'm definitely chuffed to see some introspective/thoughtful sci-fi at the cinema.

Final verdict approximates original impressions from trailers, i.e. just Torchwood enough.
posted by comealongpole at 6:30 PM on November 14, 2016

My two cents as a linguist:

There were some of the usual issues--the big one was linguist-as-polyglot, which was at least somewhat undermined. I mean, the whole movie was deconstructing the usual "We can magically talk to aliens, no problem!" plot hole. And yes, Sapir-Whorf doesn't work that way, but that's basically the plot, so I'll give it a pass. I've seen some grumpiness with the framing as linguistics as not-science, and I personally sort of snorted when Ian complemented her on thinking about language like math. Because that's what we all do, really.

But dang it if the movie didn't capture what it's like to be a linguist. For example, Louise's office was set dressed with help from linguists at McGill, and when they opened that door I practically gasped, because that was every linguists' office I've ever walked into, complete with a doodled-on JSTOR article print out.

There was some skepticism because screenshots of Louise's computer from the trailer didn't show her using PRAAT, the main program linguists use for analyzing the sounds of language, but then, all of the fellow linguists in the field site sure as heck had it open on their computer.

And most of all, Amy Adams absolutely nailed the sheer terror, excitement, and responsibility that comes with going out in the field and documenting a language. But times a thousand because, y'know, aliens.
posted by damayanti at 7:22 PM on November 14, 2016 [55 favorites]

I keep coming back to the differences between the novella and the movie. Both are great but I think they do different things.

In the novella your future doesn't change after being able to see it. Louise's life continues exactly as if she hadn't acquired those future memories, the power doesn't give her the opportunity to act on what she has seen.
She read ahead in her script but that doesn't change what happens to everyone on it. What's not clear if that's because Louise's chooses to follow the script or because the script has to be followed but the end result ends up being the same.

In the movie her perception of time is part of her fate, those memories are a factor in her decisions (even though they still are predetermined). It explains why Hannah has to die from an incurable disease in the adaptation, this Louise is able to act based on what she has seen so her daughter would never die of something preventable (so she wouldn't see a future where that happens).
posted by Memo at 4:34 AM on November 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

Saw this last night and liked it a lot. I will admit to not having completely unknotted the time situation at the end w/r/t what was future and what was past, and thinking about that kept me up for a few hours last night. I feel a little stupid asking any questions about it, so I'll just keep puzzling over it. (I am clearer on things after having read the comments in here.)

I saw this with a friend that I met via the internet probably more than 15 years ago. We've periodically gotten together and watched movies. In 2002, it was Spider-Man (we inexplicably wanted to see Deuces Wild, which was sold out? Otherwise unavailable?), in 2005 it was Serenity, and then a big gap until last night. Arrival was by far the best of the movies we've seen, although that bar isn't so high.
posted by minsies at 4:41 AM on November 15, 2016

ScreenJunkies News has a two-part interview with the screenwriter Eric Heisserer. The first is spoiler free. The second contains spoilers and gets into the end of the movie. Part 1, Part 2.
posted by nangar at 6:12 AM on November 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

The thing that bothered me most was there was literally only one woman in the entire movie (I'm not counting the child). I didn't even notice hardly any in the background. Maybe a nurse?

I also don't really understand of any of it was real, or if the whole thing was contained in her mind, given the sudden disappearance (disintegration?) of the alien ships. I initially thought the husband left because she was so invested in a fantasy. I suppose I should read the short story.

Anyway, I went into the movie essentially blind, knowing only that it had excellent reviews and that it was premiering on my birthday. I was expecting something akin to Independence Day so I was slightly disappointed, but I understand why it was a critical success.
posted by AFABulous at 6:59 AM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's really nothing at all to suggest the entire film is in her mind. In fact, I can't think of any on-screen evidence to suggest that she imagined any of it. The film is full of reverse-memories, but no dream sequences or fantasies so far as I can recall.
posted by Ipsifendus at 7:59 AM on November 15, 2016 [7 favorites]

Several women in this movie (students, fellow linguists, military personnel), but the only ones with speaking parts were Louise, one of her students, the newscasters, and Hannah.
posted by lizzicide at 1:04 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ipsifendus, Louise dreams that she's conversing with one of the heptapods in her room. Other than that, you're right, the premise of the movie is not rooted in fantasy but in her developing ability to remember the future.
posted by lizzicide at 1:39 PM on November 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

My dad and I both assumed that the "wrong choice" that Ian referred to when he left Louise was telling him what was going to happen. We both did not think she had a choice about the course of events of her life. (Or even, actually, telling Ian though Ian didn't understand that/see it that way.)

If your perspective of time is that it's all happening simultaneously, it's unalterable, right?
posted by CMcG at 2:04 PM on November 15, 2016 [5 favorites]

But then not telling him wasn't an option, either?
posted by BrashTech at 2:48 PM on November 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

That depends on how you view retrocausality, maybe? And getting into the quantum weirdness weeds a bit, I guess, but I tend to think that Louise's "remembering" the future has something of an observer effect. She's changed the system/outcome just by seeing it. Your view on whether this is equivalent to predetermination/predestination is something of a chicken/egg question, I think.

You'd think a theoretical physicist like Ian would have some appreciation for the scientific and philosophical implications of Louise's knowledge though. Like, there are a lot of arguments to have with this situation and Louise's choice (whether it's even a choice at all in a meaningful way), and beyond the emotional and relationship ones, I wonder what Ian would have thought about the science of it. There's a whole other movie in that.

From Louise's perspective, having just gotten a terrifying and barely explicable crash course on nonlinear time, I can understand not doing anything to change what she perceives to be the future given the stakes. I keep coming back to that conversation she had with General Chang and how in that moment, in the future, she didn't yet know about the phone number or the wife's dying words. She's not consciousness swapping with her future self, we know that because in the movie's present, Louise is muttering something like "what do I say, what does he say?" She's remembering the future, so both times are acting on and with each other.
posted by yasaman at 3:09 PM on November 15, 2016 [9 favorites]

To me the film doesn't seem to suggest that free will is an illusion, at all. If everything is predetermined, then there is no choice to have a child, and no choice on whether to tell Ian that their child would die early. She'd be aware of all of this and her complete lack of agency in her own life, and the entire ending would be robbed of its emotional power. Our conscious actions, will, and experiences arising from will are what make life more engaging than just passively watching a movie play out that we already have seen a thousand times. There'd be no real sadness or volition to do anything or experience moments with fullness. The entire affecting power of the ending is from watching Louise play out the consequences of her freely chosen actions, knowing exactly what they will lead to and choosing them anyway, and how that makes everything she experiences even more significant, not less. If the movie wanted to imply that she lacked free will and knew she lacked free will, then why should she or we care about anything that happens at all? Most likely she'd end up with such utter lack of natural human affect that she'd be seen as someone in need of hospitalization. And we'd take away from the movie a stunning intellectual nihilism, not the reverse.

It's also entirely plausible that her perception of the future is fluid and contingent on what happens in the present, just as our perception of the past is fluid and contingent on who we are and what we know in the present. I see no rule from the film requiring time to be permanently frozen in stasis. She can simply perceive in multiple temporal directions. What she perceives can still be subject to change based on her and others' conscious actions.
posted by naju at 4:46 PM on November 15, 2016 [8 favorites]

There's also the takeaway that what the aliens give us is simultaneously a "gift" (special perception of time to elevate our species beyond narrow blind decisions) and a "weapon" (the knowledge and foresight of our causal consequences makes everything bittersweet), right? If they grant us with the certain knowledge that we lack all free will, then I'm failing to see how that's a gift in any sense.
posted by naju at 4:53 PM on November 15, 2016 [11 favorites]

Having only watched the movie and not yet the novella (I skimmed past the comments mentioning the short story to avoid spoilers, apologies if I'm missing anything), I don't personally see a case for it being about "fate/free will". The entire premise of the alien language is that it belongs to a race that experiences time non-linearly. To ask if the future she remembers will actually happen or if it's only one possibility seems to be missing the point: that the idea of "fate" ONLY makes sense if you experience time linearly.

To say she could have made a different decision is like asking you why you haven't changed something in your past.
posted by danny the boy at 4:59 PM on November 15, 2016 [13 favorites]

Regarding her choice (and I think it's a choice) to tell Ian about the daughter's illness, perhaps it was a calculated one based on information she has but we don't have as viewers. If he leaves them and starts another family, maybe he'll be happier and Louise will have more people she loves in her life and she's sparing them both decades of problems. It's pointless to go down the route of criticizing her for it because she's operating on the full knowledge of all the chess moves and we're not, and Ian is not.
posted by naju at 5:11 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Like a bad way of putting it is: it's as if you live your entire life existing only at the final moment of it. You remember all of it. You made all those decisions. But you can no longer go "back" and change your mind any more than you or I can.

It's not a question of free will, it's a question of perspective.
posted by danny the boy at 5:11 PM on November 15, 2016 [18 favorites]

> You'd think a theoretical physicist like Ian would have some appreciation for the scientific and philosophical implications of Louise's knowledge though.

The novella's version of Ian Donnelly actually explains to Louise what's happening to her. He's happy to explain Fermat's Principle of Least Time to her in layman's terms after the math and physics teams have established a connection with the Heptapods around that, but he doesn't know why Louise is so curious about it, and doesn't understand that she has already started to perceive reality in the way he's describing and only understands in abstract terms.

I love the way Chiang's story handled this. I wish the movie retained this. But I can kind of understand why for multiple reasons that wasn't possible on the road to making Chiang's story into a movie.
posted by nangar at 5:56 PM on November 15, 2016

Maybe I went in with too many expectations given all the hype, but I was pretty meh about the movie. It had too many generic tropes: we don't know what the ship is made of, Russian and Chinese bad guys, CIA bad guys, pseudo-time travel, etc.

I was hoping for a film that actually addressed the idea of speaking with a truly alien intelligence, grappling with ideas like how do you explain color to someone who is blind, or sex to creatures who propagate by spores?

I mean, the idea of having a child and loving it even though you know it will die at age 14 or whatever is very sweet, and worth a film, but I wanted more about intelligence and language than hand-wavy you can see the future nonsense. The heptapods were cool though.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:44 PM on November 15, 2016 [11 favorites]

I'm really keen to go back and watch this a second time. The story structure put me in mind of Iain M Banks' style, in that reveals toward the end (her relationship with Ian, that she's experiencing time non-linearly) cast the rest of the story into a new light.

One that springs to mind is when Ian cracks and lets Louise persuade him to take off his exposure suit, he agrees by saying something like "Well, everyone dies sometime, right?". It made sense in the original context -- just him grumbling as he follows her lead. But realising that he's saying it to the person who decided to have a daughter with him despite knowing that she'd die young, puts whole new layers of meaning into it.
posted by metaBugs at 4:18 AM on November 16, 2016 [8 favorites]

Also they mentioned that the door to the ship opened every 18 hours. But I didn't catch how long the sessions lasted. I was under the impression that the sessions where also around 18 hours. But the progress in the first two sessions didn't seem sufficient. In the first all they got across was "Human", and in the second all they got was their names understood. Not a lot for 36 hours.

I saw the movie Saturday, so it's not that fresh in my mind. But I'm pretty sure the first time Louise and Ian enter the research den, there's a man from Australia? on the screen, explaining that they tried to wait as long as possible, and after two hours the heptapods shifted gravity and moved them out. Then I think the CIA guy says 'what are they doing for those 18 hours, shouldn't take that long to reset the room?' and Ian gets to talk about pressurization and stuff.

I adored this movie, I can't think of a better hard sci-fi film I've ever seen. I loved the reveal at the end, and it totally changed the way I saw the earlier scenes of her daughter. At first, the scenes didn't seem to be doing that much, and I wondered if it was just a rhetorical device that was more meaningful in the short story that they didn't feel like they could cut. About halfway through I started to notice that almost every time they had a daughter scene, the only thing in focus was her daughter. In retrospect, it really emphasizes that Louise is just on the cusp of her language breakthrough. I remember the "non-zero sum game" scene with her daughter being better in focus, so I'd be interested to see if every scene gets better focused as she learns, or if I'm just cherry picking some really hazy scenes.

I also viewed the reveal more as a question of perspective than free will, like danny the boy. Sort of like the argument that if (the Christian) God is omniscient/omnipotent, how do humans have any free will? I don't think that knowing the outcome doesn't mean that you still got to make the choice once.
posted by DynamiteToast at 8:12 AM on November 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

This blew me away. I went to see it with my oldest friend, came home late, and cried myself to sleep.

I didn't feel like Banks had a choice; she had seen a future that she had to be part of. God damn it.
posted by Zeinab Badawi's Twenty Hotels at 5:57 PM on November 17, 2016 [4 favorites]

I do think the movie and the story featured dramatically different portrayals of the effect of learning Heptapod B. In the story, those who learned Heptapod B could see their future, but still acted the exact same way they would have if they couldn't see their future. While they were fully aware of what would happen to them, they were compelled to act in the way that they were always going to act, with or without that knowledge. Louisa said it felt like being an actress, following a script in order to correctly perform a play. She was able to switch her mode of perceiving time between her previous way and the Heptapod way, but was unable to do both simultaneously. It's like how in this optical illusion, you can see a young girl or you can see an old woman, but you can't perceive both at the same time. This all means that the human mode of perception and the Heptapod mode of perception were both entirely compatible with a deterministic universe. The impetus behind one's actions were always entirely ambiguous, and could be meaningfully interpreted using either mode of perception.

I saw the story as a meditation on determinism and the perception of free will. Our perception of time allows us the illusion of free will, while the Heptapods' way of seeing made it clear that fate was always guiding us. To me the emotional impact of the story came from the gentle melancholy of knowing how your life would turn out while still dutifully working toward that end. The Heptapods' visit made Louisa aware that her life was predetermined, but it also made it directly clear to her that her life was also an essential part of the greater pattern of fate. I thought the story actually made a pretty compelling argument for finding purpose and solace in a deterministic universe.

I was a little bummed that the movie gave Louisa the power to change her fate by using her future knowledge to guide her present actions. I completely understand why the screenwriter made this choice, as it makes it much easier to portray the effects of Heptapod B in a way that makes sense visually. The story's meditation on determinism is all happening in Louisa's head, after all. Still, I thought the bit where she used her future conversation in order to make the present day phone call to General Chang was pretty corny. The movie still FAR exceeded my expectations for adapting the story. I was impressed with how much substance and subtlety they were able to pack into such a big budget Hollywood film. It's great to see a science fiction film with such a philosophical and introspective bent make it to theaters and perform well. I hope this bodes well for future smart sci-fi productions.
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 9:55 PM on November 17, 2016 [7 favorites]

Here's my reading: Arrival is a movie about watching movies.

Let's imagine that you've read the story beforehand or are watching the film for the second time.

All encounters with the heptopods happen in the spaceship, in front of a empty, dark room that looks like a cross between a James Turrell piece and a movie screen. (This is unlike the story, in which the encounter happens in an outdoor semicircular screen). This milky screen is coincidentally (or not) nearly the same aspect ratio as the film itself. As Louise and Ian watch the heptapods in a long, rectangular screen, we too watch them on a 2:35 : 1 aspect ratio.

At some point early on, the camera zooms in, until the screen of the heptapods fills the entire frame. Are we taking on Louise and Ian's point of view? Or are we Louise, encountering an alien species in a narrative that we already know the ending to?

The moment of highest tension in the movie (the cellphone scene) happens directly after the film shows you a flash-forward of the future. You know everything will be okay. This doesn't stop you from experiencing the tension of the moment. It's not your ignorance of the future and your inability to navigate time that drives the movie, it's your appreciation and savoring of the 'present' moment despite the fact that you know the future.

In fact, from the point of the projector operator, everything in the movie has already happened, stored on a cellulose reel, being played from front to end. Nothing you will do will change the narrative, yet you still watch and enjoy a film against which you have no free will. Why? Why watch a movie you've already watched before - or why not?

At the end, in response to Louise's question about "what would you do if you could see your life", Ian says something along the lines of: "I think I would communicate what I feel more often." I take this as Arrival's answer - we watch movies we've watched before because how they make us feel. This is an answer that has nothing to do with plot or suspense, which are all functions of time. Louise's relationship to her life is too filmic, where her appreciation of the present doesn't hinge on an ignorance of the future, but accepts the totality of her 'film reel' in which all events have already happened. Thus, she goes forward with having a child.

Maybe the closest way for us to get to Louise and the heptapod's sense of understanding is through film, or the feeling of mono no aware that watching a familiar, well-crafted movie can give us: a sense of pathos and empathy towards the movie's characters, knowing full well their fate, and a sense of engagement and belonging, despite the fact that we know that the narrative will never change.
posted by suedehead at 1:25 PM on November 20, 2016 [66 favorites]

I was a little bummed that the movie gave Louisa the power to change her fate by using her future knowledge to guide her present actions.

Ah, but we don't necessarily see Louise 'change her fate', but we rather see her playing out a predestined encounter. We could say that the fabric of time always had this loop in it.

For a better mindblowing example, read The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, also by Ted Chiang.
posted by suedehead at 1:30 PM on November 20, 2016 [9 favorites]

I was really interested in the movie's use of "visual presence" and closeness as necessary for communication. Louise insists on seeing the heptapods for herself, she removes her spacesuit, she comes close to the glass and touches them. Contrast this with Dumbass Captain-Dude, who is almost never shown speaking with someone in the same shot. He communicates with people back at the base through a headset (no cuts to them); he speaks with his wife through a phone (ditto). The one time we see him in the same "room" as a communicating person is with Trigger-Happy-Internet-Jerk back in the barracks--and of course he can't talk back to the internet dude, and we all know how that goes. (Then, of course, Abbott and Costello save the scientists by beckoning them closer to the glass.)
posted by Hypatia at 2:01 PM on November 20, 2016 [9 favorites]


But doesn't 'retro' stop applying after the language breakthrough? There is no then and now, everything is effectively perceived as happening, (or maybe happened), but all of it in the same state at the same time?
posted by biffa at 4:49 AM on November 21, 2016

As soon as we see Jeremy Renner, my heart sank that the only reason Louise's character is a lady is because Heteronormative Love and Girls can't Math.
posted by politikitty at 5:32 PM on November 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

As soon as we see Jeremy Renner, my heart sank that the only reason Louise's character is a lady is because Heteronormative Love and Girls can't Math

May I recommend Ted Chiang's Division by Zero. It's a short story about a female mathematician, something like horror fiction about pure mathematics.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:42 PM on November 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

At the end, in response to Louise's question about "what would you do if you could see your life", Ian says something along the lines of: "I think I would communicate what I feel more often." I take this as Arrival's answer - we watch movies we've watched before because how they make us feel. This is an answer that has nothing to do with plot or suspense, which are all functions of time. Louise's relationship to her life is too filmic, where her appreciation of the present doesn't hinge on an ignorance of the future, but accepts the totality of her 'film reel' in which all events have already happened. Thus, she goes forward with having a child.

This is what I was thinking as I left the theater! Louise is taken out of the role of the actor, and put into the role of the editor. Being able to see everything at a very high level, instead of existing strictly within the story.

It's doing a lot of the same stuff as 2001. Many people read that as a movie about the power of movies. There's similar imagery: the monolith is shaped like a screen, Bowman looking at himself from a third (audience) point of view, he dissolves into a light show that imparts that greater truth.

It also seemed to be what Nolan was attempting to do in Interstellar, but got too wrapped up in his own hacky Sci-Fi noodling to really accomplish: re-tell 2001's story about the transformative effect of narrative in a modern setting. I'm not going to get into why Interstellar was a bad film that failed at doing this, but I will say that Villenueve does it so, so much better with this movie.

We don't get to see much of the world outside of that field in Montana, and what we do see tends to come through Louise's editorial view of her entire timeline, and the tabloid news that breathlessly constructs a (false) narrative of the aliens, their meaning, their intent, the reaction to them. This comes about most disastrously in the Alex Jones reference, which results in the two cornfed soldier boys' bombing attempt. Louise is able to see the entire narrative because her language changes. But a change in our own language is presented to us in the realistic portrayal of the 24 hour news cycle: especially one of the closing shots of the movie, the talking heads forming an incomprehensible cloud, similar to the array of circular language that comprised 1/12th of the alien Rosetta Stone. Villanueve seems to be making an argument that if we take a step outside of this cloud, we can reshape the narratives that we tell ourselves. Our language shapes our way of thinking, is one of the movie's main points, and right now our language is like a noose around our neck.
posted by codacorolla at 3:13 PM on November 25, 2016 [10 favorites]

Listen: Amy Adams has come unstuck in time.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:20 PM on November 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

When we consider someone like Louise who perceives her entire timeline, there are two senses in which we might claim she is not free. The first is a kind of theoretical ontological sense: Is it possible for her to choose to act differently than she sees her future self acting?

But the other sense in which you might say she is not free would be if she sees herself choosing one path but wishes she could choose a different one and finds herself constrained, unable to do what she wants. And here I think the movie (and Adams's performance in particular) asserts that Louise is indeed free, that she actively chooses to enter a marriage that will end, to cause a child to live and die, even if in a theoretical sense she couldn't do anything else.
posted by straight at 9:09 PM on November 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Listen: Amy Adams has come unstuck in time.

I can't believe I'm saying this, because I almost never predict twist endings and actively try to tamp down the impulse to try to figure them out mid movie, but I got a very Trafalmadore vibe from this movie immediately, like within the first few minutes. I had heard there was a twist, so avoided all spoilers, didn't read anything about the movie, haven't talked to anyone about the movie except to learn that other folks liked it, only watched the trailer once. Not sure exactly what it was, but I went the whole movie assuming it was known (by the audience, at least) that the aliens were 4 dimensional beings, and was waiting for the twist, thinking the twist was something else. Like when we got multiple shots of her hands shaking I thought it was going to be leading us in a PTSD direction like Slaughterhouse Five maybe, but then it turned out that the story I was watching all along WAS the twist, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I mean, their language is a whole thought in a neverending circle, come on.

I liked it, it was a good movie, and I'll probably rewatch it a few times when it's released, but I'm kind of bummed I didn't get blown away by the "twist" like I was expecting to.

Maybe I've read too much Vonnegut.
posted by phunniemee at 5:48 PM on November 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Just got back from seeing this. One of my perennial moans is how little intelligent SF there is in the movies, and boy do I feel pandered to right now. Took a while to get into it - the pacing and colouring don't go out of their way to make it easy - but soon enough I was in the zone. Normally, I'm very comfortable with slow beats - 2001 and Stalker seduced me from the off - and I think the issue was a certain workmanlike quality to the cinematography. But it's not fair to compare people to Kubrick and Tarkovsky in that regard, much as one fantasises about what they might have done with this material.

Against that, neither did normal humans well, and this (sorta) did. As someone said - so many very, very minor quibbles. The developing relationship between Ian and Louise was handled a bit glibly and on just the wrong side of show-not-tell, there wasn't much subtlety there, but compared to most hard SF that it was there and handled with any sort of credence was a good thing. Ditto the rather magic rather expositional process of her learning the language. And, really, wouldn't you have a cryptanalysis bod or an information theorist along for the ride instead of a physicist? (Although information theory and theoretical physics seem to be converging alarmingly at this point, so...)

But on reflection, some of my initial irks seem instead to be highlights - why do these obviously highly intelligent and accomplished creatures not know exactly how to communicate with us? Turns out, of course, that they do, far better than we do ourselves. I'm going to have to think a lot more about the theme of communication in this film - yes, of course it's all about that, that's the basic concept, but there's a very great deal of depth and subtlety in how it's reflected in facets big and small.

I had a hard time not crying at the end. That wasn't because of the twist or the personal emotional journey of Louise, but because of the glimpse of a world I've always, always hoped for as the resolution of near-disaster, at a time when that world seems in reality to be receding beyond anyone's capability for rescue.

That hurt, keenly.

I shall rewatch this, when it becomes available. I haven't yet, but shall, read the novella. I will not ever be able to distentangle it from Childhood's End and Close Encounters (for very different reasons). A movie that will stay in my head for a long time, whatever.

posted by Devonian at 6:20 PM on November 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

The more Louise learns the language, the more she has access to her future knowledge of the language. Which covers for some amount of implausibility in how quickly she is able to learn it. By the time she meets the alien face-to-face and we see her subtitled apprehension of what is being said, she's connecting with herself teaching the language to others and writing books about it (and presumably bringing everyone she teaches to the same timeless awareness she has).
posted by straight at 9:39 PM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of my kids asked if the aliens knowing they would need humanity's help in 3000 years meant that they lived that long to be aware of events that far into the future. (And if so, how much greater tragedy Costello's death seems.)

But it's not necessarily so, we realized. Future knowledge can be passed back along the generations the same way as knowledge from the past. Abbott knows of conversations with youngsters he will have in his old age about things they learn when they are old from children.
posted by straight at 9:53 PM on November 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

In 3000 years, they will need our help.

Until then, we're basically the chicken from Moana, if Hey Hey had nukes.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:35 PM on November 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

And, really, wouldn't you have a cryptanalysis bod or an information theorist along for the ride instead of a physicist?

In typical first contact scenarios (what a weird thing to write) you might want a physicist and/or math person on the team to help establish vocabulary and usage. Math and physical sciences are good for that because the Pythagorean theorem and Planck measures, etc, should be the same for everyone.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:56 PM on November 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

That seems to me be a second stage, after you've worked out the structure of the communications. You don't get anywhere until you know what's frame and what's data, then you have to work out what bits of data probably carry what part of a message, then you get down to the actual information... The translators and pattern-matchers in Bletchley Park only got going after the data collectors and crypanalysists had done their bit.

It very much looks like information has as much a formal, rules-based, universal structure as matter and energy do. Look at a black hole as an informational entity and stuff like Planck length pops out; compression code patterns emerge from string theory and so on.

Which is to say, I think the choice of a female linguist and a male physicist as the point team in Arrival was as much for dramatic purposes as anything else.
posted by Devonian at 6:31 AM on November 27, 2016

And actually, if the aliens are capable of understanding human language at all, they must know it already, but their goal isn't merely communication, but to immerse humans in their language until one or more of our brains is freed to perceive more than a single moment in time.

Why didn't they send a single ship with the message "We'd like to talk to Louise and these other linguists?" Because they knew the way they did it works out fine.
posted by straight at 6:34 AM on November 27, 2016

(I suppose the families of people who died in the riots might not agree that it worked out fine)
posted by straight at 7:05 AM on November 27, 2016

One of the benefits of future knowledge is you can actually answer the question - which of these paths is the least bad? People dying in riots is bad. Global nuclear war is more bad. There may have been no better way than the former.

In reality, we have to make these choices to a great extent on faith. It's a bugger.
posted by Devonian at 7:13 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had read the short story and thought it was unfilmable. Saw the movie last night with my wife and we were both very pleased. She hadn't read the story before seeing the movie, so we had an interesting talk afterwards about her experience of the movie vs mine.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:35 PM on November 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'd read the short story ages ago, but apparently most people seeing it in theaters haven't, because when Hannah's play-doh heptapod came on screen the guy sitting next to me GASPED really loudly. I think the movie is vague enough about Hannah up to that point that without knowing the source, it must seem like Hannah had already lived and died before the events of the movie? It was weirdly endearing, anyway.
posted by nonasuch at 3:06 PM on November 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think the movie is vague enough about Hannah up to that point that without knowing the source, it must seem like Hannah had already lived and died before the events of the movie?

Yeah. I saw it having never read the story, and I assumed Hannah was dead and Louise divorced and she was living by herself again and dealing with the grief. The only thing that made me question that idea before the end was some exchange with Ian about being single. I can't recall the exact wording, but it what she said seemed unusual for someone who was fairly recently divorced with a deceased child.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:27 PM on November 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

I know some folks who got it at "who is this child?" Having read the story and knowing the order of events (in our linear view of time), that line was the point when I realized those were visions she was having at the time, rather than just nonlinear editing.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:39 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Pater Aletheias, I also thought Hannah's death and Louise's divorce had happened before the heptapods arrived when I was watching the movie.
posted by minsies at 6:40 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Same here: I hadn't read the story and was assuming Hannah's life/Louise's divorce were flashbacks. Even when the play-doh heptapod appeared I thought maybe it was either a before-arrival psychic projection by the heptapods, or else a Childhood's End-style glimpse/memory of the future (the sculpture by Hannah, not the vision by Louise, that is). I think I finally caught on in the scene where Louise was signing copies of her book and one of the heptapod semograms was on the cover and/or title page.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:09 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

that line was the point when I realized those were visions she was having at the time, rather than just nonlinear editing.

To be fair, her visions were her nonlinear edits...
posted by suedehead at 8:31 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Wow, I loved this movie. My husband called it a "chick flick for women who like sci-fi" and was like, "Wow, this movie was, like, fully targeted at you!'" (He didn't mean "chick flick" in a derogatory way.) And he was right. This movie could not have been more tailored to my interests if they had specifically tried. LOVED it. I have a young son, so the scenes with her daughter, particularly the sun-washed, giddy early moments with the newborn baby were particularly touching. Both my mom and BFF warned me I would sob for most of the movie, but I only teared up a couple of times, surprisingly.

I started to strongly suspect that the images of her daughter were flash forwards rather than flashbacks by about a third of the way through, was pretty sure when Amy Adams' character snapped, "If you want science, go ask your father!" which made me think Hannah was her kid with Jeremy Renner. I was sure when the Russian scientist sent the message, "There is no time" which made me think the aliens were talking about nonlinear time rather than running out of time.

Did anyone think they were pronouncing Louise's name oddly for the first half of the movie? I couldn't figure out what her name was until she wrote it down for the aliens. Luz? Liz? Luis?

I feel like this is a movie you have to see two or three times to really grasp it, so I can't wait to watch it again. Sadly, that will have to wait until it comes out on DVD or whatever, since we had to do the babysitter dance just to get away to see it once. In my pre-baby days, I would have gone to see this one or two more times in the theater.
posted by Aquifer at 9:07 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

This comment will be full of spoilers, but I think that's what Fanfare is here for, so if you don't want to read spoilers, don't read my comment.

I don't see the movie as pro-life. She loved her daughter, and that is why she wanted to have her. It's not a matter of counting up moments of joy versus pain: it's a matter of seeing a world/timeline with that one beloved person in it or not. Part of the reason why her response is so different from his is that learning the alien language left her with a different, non linear perspective on time. He has to face the prospect of his daughter dying in the future, same as any of us would, but she gets to appreciate the wholeness of her daughter's life.

See, and to me, as we were driving home, I was talking it through with my husband, and I was thinking but wait, what if Ian had also fully learned the heptapods' written language and become able to see the totality of their timeline—would he still have left then? He was there the whole time, too, and it seemed at some points that he was starting to learn the language too. But then I thought about it some more and realized Louise tells Hannah she told him about the choice she made to have her, rather than it being something he realized on his own, so I guess perhaps he never fully learns the language? Maybe this is a good analogue for the ways men and women communicate or don't, though.

The other thing I'm unclear on is whether you only start to see the totality of time once you learn the language—it seemed to me throughout the movie, and even stronger once I really got what was going on toward the end, that the flash-forwards were perhaps the heptapods communicating directly with her via dreams and thoughts as well. It felt like perhaps some of what Hannah was saying was something that happens in the timeline and perhaps some of it was something Hannah only says in Louise's visions, either for the purpose of making sense of information she now had mental access to due to learning the language or for the purpose of making sense of info the heptapods were communicating to her directly. If the heptapods had telepathy of sorts, that would make sense of something my husband wondered about, too, the fact that we were getting flash-forwards before she learned the language. Maybe "telepathy" is the heptapods somehow sending out information they have—e.g., of events in our timeline—in a way that interfaces directly with our brains, similarly to how all 12 ships communicate in ways we don't understand, and once you learn the language, you not only have the ability to see the whole timeline as well, but also to better interface with the heptapods' thoughts. That would provide a greater purpose to what a lot of people are reading as "flash-forwards" than a mere trick of filmmaking, and it would also explain the way she's able to collaborate with them in using the mist to write in their language.

Aaaaand I just got a feeling of déjà vu for some reason. The previews before this movie had several films that looked terrible, such as James McAvoy in Split, which I thought was bullshit from the get-go and then really thought was bullshit when they started spouting some Lucy-esque nonsense about how thoughts were literally changing the structure of his brain. Almost all the previews seemed to be for movies that either were about some sort of pseudoscience or were chick flicks, so I guess the marketing bots were having trouble matching up previews with a woman-centered hard sci-fi film that's this intelligent. But this film itself is definitely as smart or smarter than it seems. I'd previously read some Ted Chiang stories that were linked here, and I think I did read The Story of Your Life, but I didn't remember it at all—but maybe that's the origin of my feeling of déjà vu.

But CheeseDigestsAll, you do make a good point—I was kind of expecting more weirdness than I feel like I got out of this. Maybe it's just the fact that the last film I saw in the theater was Doctor Strange, or that I've read years and years of sci-fi and watched film after film and season after season of TV about this, but I was definitely expecting a little bit more elaborate weirdness, such as the bird's chirps interfering somehow, or the surfaces in the ship being covered in acid, or any of the other million things that could go wrong in an undertaking like this. But it's fine that they didn't go that route—to me, the story had enough depth and enough to ponder that it didn't need those extra complications. What we need right now—the reason I've been watching Terminator movies (and apparently right on schedule for Stephen Hawking's predictions about the singularity) and movies about government surveillance—is media that represents our societal tipping point and gives us guideposts for how to proceed. This worked for me in that way.

And that's why I couldn't hold back my tears when they filled the screen with simulacra of news broadcasts at that one turning point—I'm so afraid of this scenario in real life, were aliens ever to arrive. I want so desperately for us to get this right if aliens ever arrive, and I'm so afraid of all the societal occurrences this film portrays, aliens or no aliens. The way the film portrays soldiers becoming radicalized is so dead-on, it was unsurprising but gratifying to read what naju related above, that that was also a thing the screenplay writer had in mind. We are so smart and yet so dumb as a species, and when I looked on Twitter for people talking about the movie, most of what I saw was people saying how uplifting it was, how it highlights the need for us all to come together, etc. But I deeply fear, after what happened with the election last month, that we won't—that the people who think this is just a dumb chick flick of some sort are exactly the people who this needs to reach, but won't.

To me, with aliens, there are a lot of things to fear: They could be totally instinctual, as is mentioned in the film, they could be predators who don't want to communicate or understand, they could just not be able to communicate, or they could understand but not care and just want our resources... Or, as in this case, they could desperately want to give us gifts and help us—even if only to help themselves.

All of that is why this was ultimately my summary on Twitter when I got home: I don't know whether to hope aliens arrive in the next 4 years or stay away from us until someone better is in charge. I want to tell everyone to see this movie, but I'm afraid that still wouldn't help us in any or all of the ways we as a species need help.
posted by limeonaire at 12:15 AM on December 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

The previews before this movie had several films that looked terrible, such as James McAvoy in Split, which I thought was bullshit from the get-go and then really thought was bullshit when they started spouting some Lucy-esque nonsense about how thoughts were literally changing the structure of his brain. Almost all the previews seemed to be for movies that either were about some sort of pseudoscience or were chick flicks, so I guess the marketing bots were having trouble matching up previews with a woman-centered hard sci-fi film that's this intelligent.

My wife doesn't see a lot of movies and as the previews got increasingly terrible (I thought she might leave the theater when we got to that horrid McAvoy trailer - zero cheers for rape/torture peril and stigmatizing mental illness with monstrous caricatures) she started giving me worried what-the-heck-kinda-movie-have-you-dragged-me-to looks. I whispered something about how trailers before thoughtful movies for adults are always especially bad because Hollywood usually doesn't have any similar movies to sell and probably doesn't get what people who want to see this movie like so they're just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ maybe these are some movies adults also like?

(But she loved The Arrival. She said, "I would not have expected to be as moved as I was that the protagonist was [like her] a woman who was a humanities professor.")
posted by straight at 1:50 AM on December 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

The previews before this movie had several films that looked terrible, such as James McAvoy in Split, which I thought was bullshit from the get-go and then really thought was bullshit when they started spouting some Lucy-esque nonsense about how thoughts were literally changing the structure of his brain.

Derail, but it seemed obvious to me that the twist -- it's Shyamalan after all -- is that McAvoy is "really" a werewolf. Or possibly a Mister Hyde.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:19 AM on December 4, 2016

Derail, but it seemed obvious to me that the twist -- it's Shyamalan after all -- is that McAvoy is "really" a werewolf. Or possibly a Mister Hyde.

I thought the twist was that Anya Taylor-Joy was a witch?
posted by phunniemee at 8:24 AM on December 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

By the way, I do think it's brilliant the way the heptapods are portrayed, almost as a cross between two of the most intelligent Earth species, elephants and octopi. I feared for them the same way I do for those species (which unfortunately turned out to be relevant too), and I saw them as gentle in the same way as elephants, with their subsonic communication. It was almost sweet how the heptapods hunkered down to get closer to humans' level. I often have trouble with alien stuff—I love The X-Files but really can't watch much of it because it creeps me out too much—but this made them so relatable. It was so upsetting to me when they were attacked, and not just because we were fucking up our one shot. They basically threw themselves on a grenade for our people at that point. And they did all of it knowing that was going to happen. I fear we don't deserve visitation by aliens this benevolent.
posted by limeonaire at 10:57 AM on December 4, 2016 [14 favorites]

I fear we don't deserve visitation by aliens this benevolent.

Are they, though? They state flatly that in 3000 years, they will need us to survive. Perhaps our views on science allow us to invent a plague cure. Or perhaps they're hiring mercenaries, and by moderating our murdrous nature just enough to survive another three millennia, their tech has produced the most terrifying weapon the universe has seen - Us.
posted by Slap*Happy at 3:44 PM on December 4, 2016 [5 favorites]

Should preface with the fact that I'm an acoustic phonetician and speech perception researcher (a special breed of linguist who does a lot of measuring of speech sounds and acoustic analysis, and also experiments involving training subjects to hear new speech sounds).

This movie was pretty meh. Too similar to Interstellar to ignore.

Super irritating "linguistics is not science" thing, and Ian's comment that Lousie "thinks of language like math." Duh. That's the point of's a rigorous social science that seeks to describe and explain the systematic patterns in language.

Shout out to seeing PRAAT loaded up on the field team's computers though! I'll be sure to tell my students that the program I'm making them learn to use is famous.
posted by k8bot at 9:50 AM on December 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

I LOVED this film. It's without a doubt on a short list of 2 or 3 Hollywood films made this decade that I can say that about.

I had read "Story of Your Life" several years ago, but I read it as part of Chiang's whole collection, so I had forgotten which of the stories it was that I was actually going to see in the theater and also what actually happened in the story, so I interpreted most of the daughter stuff as flashbacks (flashbacks possibly changed/reinterpreted by the future, in a quantum science kind of way, when we see her little playdough sculpture of the Heptapod).

I did find myself wondering what this movie would have been like if it were made in a non-Hollywood setting, particularly a non-commercial setting (I am thinking here of Tarkovsky and Zulawski, though of course Zulawski's sci-fi masterpiece was cut to ribbons and it's possible that Arrival would have suffered the same fate if made in a state-sponsored system) and I did think that most of the army/generals/war stuff was out of place and belonged in a much worse movie. In particular, that scene where the colonel first comes to talk to her about the project is like, the cliche version of that scene.

To me this hit on the same themes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The beauty of making a doomed choice. The choice to add love to your life even with the knowledge of all the pain that it will bring. The idea that, as Lexica says, "the glass was already broken." That kind of choice, and that kind of love, are so courageous and beautiful to me.
posted by matcha action at 3:23 PM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I fear we don't deserve visitation by aliens this benevolent.

Are they, though? They state flatly that in 3000 years, they will need us to survive. Perhaps our views on science allow us to invent a plague cure. Or perhaps they're hiring mercenaries, and by moderating our murdrous nature just enough to survive another three millennia, their tech has produced the most terrifying weapon the universe has seen - Us.

I do understand that they have a self interest in preserving and assisting our species so that we can help them in 3,000 years. Nonetheless, they seem benevolent.
posted by limeonaire at 3:48 PM on December 5, 2016

They are benevolent. When the bomb explodes, they save Louise and Ian both, when Ian serves them no real purpose but is/will be/was important to Louise. One alien dies from that explosion, but Ian (whose first words to Louise are to patronize and neg her, and who's played by Jeremy Renner, for two strikes straightaway) is spared.
posted by furtive_jackanapes at 9:19 PM on December 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Interestingly, I think that one of the better portrayals of being able to see the future in movies is the alien hanging out with Andy Warhol in Men in Black 3 - always a blur, always a cloud of possibilities, never fixed, subject to the change by the actions of the characters. I suppose constant precognition is more comforting, in fiction, when it's not set in stone. If we believe in infinite multiverses that are constantly being spun off at every moment in time, we still have free will over our futures, not to mention get to adventure in exciting alternate universes, should we find the right wormhole. Yet, in reality, we often yearn to have a clear forecast for what's in store to us- it's comforting to be certain, to know.

I thought the film retread a lot of the same ground of other sci-fi films- white American odd couple-in-formation (serious female lead, jokey male support) dynamics of Contact, the alien spaceship's material seemed to be out of the Space Jockey's ship in Prometheus, the revelatory nature of Signs, with Interstellar's four-dimensional beings needing humans to survive to save them in the future concept right at the heart of it all. Even after viewing, my friend pointed out that the Heptapods seemed to resemble Vonnegut's description of the 4-D Tralfamadorians from Slaughterhouse-Five.

But despite that, I felt like I could take the film seriously, at least until near the end. The way it approached the gravity of first contact with both the government response and the public reaction felt very real, felt serious and professional and not cliched. (Except for the bit of landing a military chopper in Louise's front yard, as if she's Rambo in retirement.) The side characters had little depth, but they did not seem entirely like stereotypical caricatures that exist only as obstacles for the hero who sees beyond them all.

Despite the plot of the film being not that different from Interstellar's, I felt that the emotional beats were very strong. Maybe that other film pioneered the use of sad violin music in personal family tragedy sci-fi, but it worked here too. Adams' performance was gripping, her fear and trembling of the aliens could have been cringey or mockable in a lesser actor, but she carried it out in a very believable way, defying genre cliche. All of the sequences from the revelation of the ship, to the first appearance of the Heptapods, to the scattered contact with the other teams- all felt very real and haunting and wondrous. A well made first contact story, through and through. Well enough that there really should be a new corollary phrase to go along with "first contact" - we imagine how our relations with the aliens go, but what about our relations to each other?

And perhaps, that was the darkest way in which this movie hit home. In this year, of all years, with the geopolitical situation as tribes of human monkeys toss explosive crap at each other, failing to come to consensus over shared existential crises- the threat this film portrayed felt more real, and scary, than it would have at other times in recent history. The storm in the real world helped to push the movie through. I am reminded of critiques that audiences were more empathetic towards the fictional aliens of Avatar and District 9, than each other.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:29 AM on December 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

I didn't read all the comments here so let me know if I'm repeating somebody else's comment but I did ctrl-f for "prime" and got nothing. So here goes....

When the first communication breakthrough happens with the aliens first making a symbol, when the whole crew gets back to base, there's a snippet of conversation of how the circle is something something composed of prime numbers.

This might be the idea behind time in this movie Prime numbers are the building blocks of all other numbers. They're atomic, they can't be broken down further except by the number 1 or by themselves. And they're found all along the number line. Hell, the longest currently known prime number (as per Wikipedia) is 22,338,618 digits long.

So maybe that's the movie universe's idea of time. That it's not a single continuous line but a series of prime moments all happening simultaneously and everything inbetween those moments is composed of those moments themselves, by the actions taken in those moments. Maybe that's why in her conversation with General Shang, Louise doesn't actually know that she called him because it hadn't actually happened yet in the "past". As both prime moments (maybe "moments" is wrong? Maybe "prime occurrences" is more correct and the rest of time is composed of assemblies composed from those occurrences?) are happening, she is acting in both time segments in a way to make both of them fit. The gala future is not happening after the evacuation but during the same timeline.

To clear it up, I'll rephrase: I think the movie universe's idea of time is that it's not a single line but a series of prime segments happening simultaneously. So it's like instead of progressing from 1-10, you're simultaneously on 1, 5, and 7 and moving forward simultaneously.

I think suedehead's theory about it being about cinema is correct. I should read the novella. Maybe it's about writing?

The story also reminded me of H. P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Out of Time" which deals with kinda similar themes.

Oh, and:

"I mean if you know something like that is going to happen you don't do it just because the (very few) good moments outweigh the bad right? Maybe I am completely wrong but I do have a 3yo daughter and if I was the dad in Arrival I would be so heartbroken and furious."


"I'm surprised no one else is furious with Louise for not telling Ian the truth when he proposed having a baby. That was the major weakness of the movie for me."

Ian was furious, I think. This was the reason he left Louise. And it also addresses the idea that we don't know if she could alter time. Maybe that's what he would've tried to do with the foreknowledge. Maybe foreknowledge could've been used like the canary.

Anyways, I'm rambling.

Oh, one last thing, why would the Russian translator or whoever sent the message say "There is no time" as opposed to "Time doesn't exist"?
posted by I-baLL at 7:03 AM on December 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Funny thing. I have a mild face blindness, so I initially interpreted seeing the forms of two parents with the child, but only Amy Addams' face, as a lesbian couple (and I assumed my face blindness was conflating two actresses).

The opening monologue was about questioning the linearity of time, so it didn't occur to me that there was ever a question of this being a time travel story of some sort.

I was feeling like the whole "human distrust turns opportunity into tragedy" thing was an overplayed narrative, until the Alex Jones and sabotage plotline, which had me like "OK, touché, you got me there, clearly a real life lesson we need in that".
posted by idiopath at 6:45 PM on December 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I found this to be a profoundly beautiful film and possibly my favorite sci-fi film in a long time, edging out other recent classics like ex machina

the A.V. Club review's Spoiler Space references eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, which I think is a dead on reference to why it feels not only right but important to me that Louise does have the ability to change the future she sees, but chooses not to, preferring her daughter to exist in the world exactly as she has "foreseen" her. I found that really profound at the end of eternal sunshine (spoilers-ish I guess) -- that idea of "we know this will end badly; let's do it anyway" because the pain and the love are a package and inseparable and you would rather have both than forsake the latter

it's a really surprisingly tightly-wound, efficient film for being hard sci-fi, which even when it's great tends to meander. I'm sure it gets some of the details wrong of the sciences it uses (aside from the necessary-to-the-premise suspension of disbelief re: alien language creating alien perception of time) but every detail it provides feels true in its moment and comes in simultaneous service of story and emotional weight. I can't wait to see it again, not just to hunt for clues but mostly to luxuriate in the character study and the absolutely perfect bookend use of Max Richter on the soundtrack
posted by Kybard at 9:25 PM on December 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

"The phony good intentions of Arrival and the paradox of 'realistic' sci-fi" Darren Franich @ Entertainment Weekly challenges the movie in sardonic, but also insightful, ways, comparing it negatively to Contact, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Sunshine, among other films. I don't agree with a lot of it, but I think if how it describes the diverges between the movie and the story are correct, I can see why the moviemakers might have faltered where Chiang didn't. In Franich's typical style, he brings his encyclopediac knowledge of other works into consideration.
posted by Apocryphon at 3:43 PM on December 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

Saw this over the weekend. I also read the short story after hearing about the movie. I enjoyed both, in their own way. I agree with others that the death in the novella made more sense in terms of fate vs choice. But I liked that the movie used her newly learned sense of time in a practical way, albeit kind of heavy-handedly.

I look forward to the sequel in 3000 years.
posted by numaner at 8:58 AM on December 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

If it weren't possible to alter the future, why did the Heptapods come to Earth in the first place?
posted by sneebler at 11:22 AM on January 2, 2017

Because they always have.

The short story - which if I'm not mistaken never explains why they contacted us - parallels it to Louise reading her kid her favorite story. If you change the narrative, even just changing the Mama Bear's porridge to blueberries, the kid complains. The new version might be 'better' in some way, but it wouldn't be the story. When you know what comes next because of course it comes next, your role is that of an actor playing your part - you look forward to maintaining your part in the narrative.
posted by Mchelly at 12:52 PM on January 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

saw this last night and it was very good.

when I was a teenager close family friends lost their young child to cancer. it was a foundational emotional experience for me, to say the least.

the ending tapped me right back into a well of grief over 30 years old and I had a good hard cry (my husband was sort of freaked out) I guess I feel like the emotional resonance was very honest, and the idea of making that choice with knowing the pain to

I did think it was terrible that Ian would abandon them to deal with Hannah's illness and death without him though.
posted by supermedusa at 11:22 AM on February 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

We rented this one yesterday and really enjoyed it. Smart, engaging sci-fi. Definitely make me want to go read the book.

I had a minor quibble with the "Make a baby" ending. It smelled a bit too paternalistic for what had been a story of a strong, independent woman. Still, I suppose it helped fill-in the blanks for those who hadn't quite figured out Ian's place in Louise's world by then.

The CIA character was played pretty close to the universal stereotype of that sort of character. And the act of sabotage was pretty bluntly/blatantly telegraphed. Still, the main story overcame these quibbles and the whole thing was a wonderful tale.

Definitely a must-see, if you haven't already.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:04 AM on February 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I saw this last night and couldn't help but wish they had excised Hannah and everything about Amy Adams "character" in order to replace her with an Asimovesque liguist-cipher and make more room for cool alien linguistics. But then, I might be a minority audience.

I thought it was a great movie, but as a father I had a lot of misgivings about the dead-child opening and I guess felt that the bar for justifying that kind of emotional manipulation was set pretty high and they never paid back what they borrowed.
posted by 256 at 1:37 PM on February 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

I loved the depth of this. After learning about the non linear time theory, it makes sense that their written language is made up of circular symbols. I hadn't read the short story, so I was happy that the twist was about time and love together being a universal language, instead of just the more common observation of love being the universal language.
posted by gt2 at 7:38 AM on February 21, 2017

Finally saw this and one of the few times I'm glad I concertedly stayed away from spoilers and had not read the book. It took me a while to catch that time travel was the plot twist. As an SF aficionado I enjoyed the film a lot, the themes were familiar, but also the grrr moments, dislike the alien causes world wide riot trope, also the bomb countdown was annoying. Definitely had a "oh no not time travel" moment, the idea works but not well and this handles it better than most (academic saves the world by writing a book, NOT punching the bad guy) it's like the singularity, really hard to make a good case for the unknowable.

There could have been more ah ha moments displayed, an obvious one would have been the first hand on the barrier, the math guy should have exclaimed "it's in base-7". If time travel could/can occur in any form the paradoxes will fall away like all paradoxes by changing to a more encompassing frame of reference. The film approached that meta-idea which is pretty amazing.
posted by sammyo at 5:51 AM on February 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

I had deliberately avoided ANY sorts of spoilers or info about this because I'm a sucker for a good (usually written) first contact story. I went in totally blind.

15 mintutes in I was like "This has a very Walter Jon Willians feel, or maybe some Ted Chiang."

40 minutes in I was like "Ok, this is really heavy on the Ted Chiang feel."

75 minutes in and it's "WHAT THE FUCK? THIS IS STORIES OF YOUR LIFE?!?"

It's a very odd feeling slowly recognizing something like that.
posted by Justinian at 9:37 PM on February 25, 2017 [18 favorites]

I had that exact feeling the first time I watched The Shawshank Redemption. I didn't recognise how I knew the story already because it was an atypical Stephen King short story I'd read many years earlier. It was eerie to have that sort of prescience for a plot like that. Arrival would be infinitely trippier on that front.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:05 AM on February 26, 2017

Oh wow, Justinian. I really envy you that experience. The gradual awareness that you actually know what's happening from beginning to end is so similar to Louise's experience in the story it must have been incredible experiencing them both at the same time. It makes me happy just reading about it.

(On the other hand, I definitely wouldn't have dragged my wife to a random first encounter movie without knowing something about it and she would have missed seeing her favorite movie of the year with me.)
posted by straight at 8:33 PM on February 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

Wow, I hadn't looked at it like that straight! But, yes, it did really mirror the content. Maybe that's why I felt so... uh, what's an adjective that means feeling surreal?
posted by Justinian at 10:27 PM on February 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm in the theater with the beau, cheerfully getting settled in to watch the movie, and I comment on one upcoming thriller movie preview. This is when decides to tell me that "Oh, Arrival is a thriller, too." Right as the movie is starting.

I spent the first thirty-forty minutes of the movie wondering when it was all going to go to hell in a handbasket. Afterward, I was not thrilled that my enjoyment of this movie was tainted by wondering if anyone was going to get executed.

He still argues that it was a thriller, in the sense that you didn't know what to expect. I think it was more psychological, and way less stressful. I enjoyed it, though, especially once I stopped worrying about random redshirt deaths and started fiddling out the out-of-order timeline.
posted by PearlRose at 12:58 PM on February 27, 2017

I saw this a couple weeks ago and forgot to check if there was a fanfare thread on it. So while some of the film isn't absolutely fresh in my mind, I still wanted to join in since I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, with the only minor letdowns being some of the more actiony or thriller moments, which are completely understandable in a mass market movie where different audiences will require more or less clearly defined elements for the movie to make sense to them and not go completely against convention.

My take on some of the above discussed aspects is a little different I gather. For example, regarding Ian's implication that linguistics isn't a science, it is just Ian saying this, Louise does not assent to that view. That's something I took as meaningful since later when Louise tells "If you want science, go ask your father!" it suggested a rift that had developed between Louise and Ian, which had Ian's attitude towards Louise and her work and perspective as a sticking point, so the emphasis Louise puts on science and Hannah's father, Ian as we'll later find out, in that moment is purposefully hearkening back to that earlier moment and adding Louise's response of dismissal to Ian's comment long after the fact of it. The reason I take it like that is that the movie is really cleverly written, where the dialogue loops forward and back commenting on or correcting partial information we see earlier. In this instance it also works towards the theme of the film where the ends are inextricably tied to their beginnings. Louise and Ian's parting is, in that sense, as determined as their getting together and both happen simultaneously or are otherwise inseparable.

In a larger sense I guess if I had to sum up the "message" of the film, which may or may not be much like the story which I haven't read, I'd suggest, using the slipperiness of meaning as they do in the film, that you could sum up the way time works for those in the film as events happen as they need to. With "need" carrying slightly different uses or meanings for the characters.

With Ian, causality explains need, where an event set in motion simply must obey the physics of that motion once started. It's a largely linear type of thinking where one looks for or at initial causes from which one then can trace the effects. In blaming or being angry with Louise for Hannah's disease, he's focusing on the moment of decision, the cause, as he sees it, when a choice could have been made to act otherwise.

With Louise, need is more of an absolute and embodied state, she is aware of her future and past with Ian, but still needs to be in a relationship with him because that's who she is and what see requires. This is suggested in the moment they embrace near the end of the film where she says she forgot how good it felt to be held by him, or something to that effect. That comment and her acceptance of his embrace points to a sort of inalienable unity between person and action, where we act as we must because that's who we are, to do otherwise we be to be someone other than we are in that sense. Louise then "needs" Hannah, not as a want like a pet, but as an unavoidable consequence of who she is and what her relationship with Ian is, will be, and was.

The movie though also speaks to the moment and suggests events and needs can actually change if we better understand ourselves, and through that, what we really do need which can change if our awareness or understanding of things grows. This is the hook to the rather tricky ending, I think, where Louise gets Shangs private number without actually knowing it at the time she dials it. In the film's sense of constant present that accompanies understanding of the alien view of time, then the act of getting the number "in the future" at the same time one is calling it "in the past" makes sense enough for the basic premise they are working with, but, to me, it's more significant that General Shang makes a big point about Louise doing what no one else, even his superiors, could do, which is make him change his mind. She did that by revealing an intimate moment from his personal relationship, something his wife said to him at her passing. That ties Shang to the Louise and Ian part of the story and suggests change can come from personal revelation if that understanding allows you to better realize a "true" need. The phone call happened because it needed to in the sense Shang had that kind of revelation. It struck me as a call to the audience and our real world situation and suggest we too "need" to find some better understanding if we want to survive as much as it did an entirely reasonable plot twist in the film itself.

The construction of the film is really wonderful, with the death of the Hannah being both in the past and informing Louise's action from the start and at the same time having not yet happened. I mean that literally, trying to untwist the time in the movie misses the beauty of that construction. It isn't meant as a trick like Memento, it's more using film language and how we process it to show the "effects" of time in a different manner.

The use of other media and all those different screens too is quite well done, with it creating questions about causality, time, and need through all the different interfaces being used. As to the Bechdel test concern, I think that can misses another aspect of the movie if one is using that as a measure of the role women play in the movie, how they are viewed, or their importance to the film. It struck me that the film is pretty strongly "gendered" in a sense, with masculinity/men running the military side of things and largely being the actual danger, while femininity/women is how things are actually saved due to focus on non-masculine points of view. The Russian women killed for trying to share a message, General Shang's wife, and of course Hannah and Louise are the heroes of the film, with Ian helping in his belief in Louise.

There were a number of other details I really admired at the time I viewed the film, but would have to review it to better remember them before saying much more.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:39 AM on March 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

Wow, I really did not enjoy this movie.

I had read the Ted Chiang short story, so maybe I was harder to surprise. I didn't have strong feelings about the story though; I had no expectations or demands of this movie because of it.

What can I say? There is almost no aspect of the movie that I liked or thought was good. The look is boring, the color grading a contributing annoyance. Beyond that, everything is too clean, too simple, too thin, too fake. The pacing of the story is off. Nothing felt earned. The climax with the phone is ridiculous, rushed, drummed up, and not especially exciting if you've seen, like, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

I'd like to single out Jeremy Renner. I don't like him much as an actor, but it's not his fault that his character in this is such a giant nothing with awful blandly supportive dialogue. Nor is it his fault how they keep cutting to him to validate everything Louise has just said in a way that made me loathe his character's stupid face. Adams' and Renner's characters had no chemistry, but really there's no spark anywhere in this.

And man I feel like I'm trapped in a time bubble where the 90° shift of gravity from the top of the scissor lift to the inner corridor of the lima bean of doom is just being played over and over again like it's the most amazing goddamn thing in the world and Amy Adams is suddenly unable to like just fucking jump already, over and over, just jump Amy, over and over, Amy Adams, why are you falling down again, we're here again, this is so dumb.

I can understand why some people might like it, but whew I am surprised at how many people do.
posted by fleacircus at 6:11 PM on March 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Fleacircus: it's possible you're just grouchy :)

Justinian: I had a similar experience watching a Scottish TV mini-series last year. Started watching & immediately caught a very Banksian (Iain Banks that is) vibe about the whole thing which only got stronger as the series progressed. Yet I didn't recognise the story at all. Turned out that they'd adapted the only Banks novel I hadn't read...

Loved this film: The family watched it together last night & even the 10 year old said "I liked the aliens".

So: which Ted Chiang story should Hollywood adapt next? And how?
posted by pharm at 2:20 AM on April 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to note that it’s kind of perfect that the sort-of-villainous Agent Halpern was played by Michael Stuhlbarg. He notably played the leading role in A Serious Man, a movie similarly obsessed with notions of time and inevitability. It was a nice little touch.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:59 AM on May 9, 2017

I enjoyed the movie a lot, and I think there's a lot there that's going to stick with me. My wife, who is much more of a reader than I am, had very strong and fond memories of the Chiang story and said it holds up well, despite the slightly ham-fisted shoehorning in of the International Crisis to make it a feature-length piece.

I have to admit I did Ctrl-F "Bill and Ted" because I had exactly the same reaction as fleacircus: they totally Bill-and-Tedded the ending. "I knew what to say because I saw me in the future learning what to say." I can't help but wonder what the Venn diagram overlap between "people who were blown away by this revelation" and "people who have given the Terminator movies serious thought" are. I'm betting there's not much.

Loved it on the whole; the aliens, the whole approach. I'm much more excited about Villeneuve's Blade Runner now than I was before, which is a good thing.
posted by Shepherd at 3:25 AM on June 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

I like to think that the heptapods discovered the Universal Language during a period in their history when there was a shortage of drink coasters and their coffee mugs left ring-shaped stains everywhere.
posted by XMLicious at 5:06 PM on July 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

My guess is that in 3000 years is when we finally reach the heptapods' planet and help them in exactly the same way they helped humanity, by giving them the time-agnostic language. I mean, 'when' isn't even a thing.

I'll be reading some Chiang now!
posted by rodlymight at 7:50 PM on August 6, 2017

I read Story of Your Life when this movie came out, because small kids made it hard to get to the theater. So I wasn't really surprised by anything -- except how thoroughly this movie wrecked me.

What came to my mind was a (probably poorly remembered) description I heard once about the Nietzschean ideas of "eternal return" and the Übermensch, which was basically that to truly embrace existence means that you would willingly and with full foreknowledge live your entire life over again, without changing anything -- without fixing your perceived mistakes, without avoiding or trying to mitigate any of the pain or disappointment.

This struck me at the time (and still does) as one of the deepest imaginable hells.

And yet I understand why Louise chooses this path (and it definitely seems like more of a choice in the movie than the book) -- because that's where her daughter is. She loves her daughter, and there's no amount of pain that can make that love not "worth it."

Which is arguably the case for every parent. You may not know the details, but you know that your child will -- like everyone -- suffer pain and disappointment, and one day face death alone. But as heartbreaking as that is, the world in which they never existed at all is impoverished in a way that's unimaginably worse.

Anyway, after I watched this I spent about a day alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) hugging my kids and breaking into tears. Which was pretty weird, but it strikes me as a measure of a pretty damn good movie.
posted by bjrubble at 2:23 PM on November 22, 2017 [15 favorites]

Just watched "Arrival" for the first time after noticing this week that it was up on IMDBtv free with ads -- I'd heard good buzz about it when it first came out, though I'd avoided any detailed reviews so thoroughly that I didn't even know there was any kind of twist. So, the ending caught me completely by surprise. I thought it was painfully beautiful. I don't think I have anything to say about it which hasn't been better said in other comments, but, I just wanted to join this thread anyway, despite the lateness. (Though, I guess there's never a wrong time to comment about non-linear time movies.)
posted by oh yeah! at 9:38 AM on March 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

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