Beginnings and Endings: Arrival and Its Predecessor


Lila Alonso Limongi ’26 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

This is the third time that I’ve sat down to write about the movie Arrival (2016). I guess I should be scared that I’ll run out of things to say. Thankfully, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is my gift that keeps on giving, and that has a way of showing up again and again. This time, I rewatched the film for the umpteenth time for a class on global science-fiction. And what a joy it was!

Rewatching a favorite can sometimes feel like catching up with an old friend. Maybe, in the back of your head, there are doubts — after all, there must be a reason why you haven’t talked in a while — and then suddenly, you’re laughing at a joke they’ve told you and everything is alright again. This is what my Arrival watch party — read: me and my girlfriend — felt like. The gorgeous cinematography plays so beautifully with the grays and the blacks that it leaves even me, someone who’s colorblind, stunned. It lulled me into the film. Then, we’re treated to a dramatic monologue from the main character, Louise Banks, telling us the tragic story of her daughter Hannah, who died of a rare disease in adolescence. “I’m not sure I believe in beginnings and endings”, she says. From then on, I’m sure: I picked a good favorite.

Arrival is a misty and delicate story of grief, first contact, linguistics, and time. The basic gist is that Banks, a linguist, is sent to help the US Army figure something out: aliens have landed in Montana and around the world, and they’re talking. However, while Banks is disentangling the aliens’, called Heptapods, language, she begins to see visions of a child she doesn’t recognize. It’s only towards the end of the film that she cracks it: the Heptapods’ concept of time is different from humans’ perception of it. They see past, present, and future all at once, and by learning their language, Banks is immersing herself in that point of view. The child she sees is her own future daughter, who will die tragically at a young age, and with which the movie began.

The real kicker of Arrival is the decision to tell the story in this fashion. We’re introduced to Hannah, in the very first scene, and so we assume that that is the past. As we’re treated to more and more images of her throughout the film, we are being led to the same conclusion: Banks is experiencing flashbacks. But that is not the case. And it’s the fact that we, as an audience, are experiencing the events of the film in a non-chronological order that makes the twist at the end hit home. We, too, have learned the Heptapod language, and so too have we immersed ourselves in this understanding of the world. It’s not just Banks — we are seeing time as cyclical, too. 

The credit for that decision, however, cannot be fully given to screenwriter Eric Heisserer. Arrival is based on the short story Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. I’ve spent years obsessing over the film, but I’d never picked Chiang’s original version up. I was saving it for a rainy day, I guess. And the rain came down just last week, when, after a good two classes discussing Arrival, I was ready to get some more of it. 

I half-listened to, half-read Chiang’s Story of Your Life, which is featured in his first book of short stories. As I read, I was suddenly struck by how much I disagreed with the old adage “The book is always better than the movie”. And for the first time in my long, long reading career, too. 

Story of Your Life is good. There is no doubt about it. Chiang came up with all the core concepts of the film version, after all, and those are all fairly creative and enjoyable aspects. There’s the Heptapods’ unique concept of time, for example, and the story’s focus on linguistics is also pretty one-of-a-kind when it comes to first-contact narratives. But there are also many divergences between the short story and the film, which I could list here ad nauseam. 

Long lists aside, the key difference, and what makes Arrival so great, but Story of Your Life just plain good, is the pacing of the crucial discovery. Banks, in both stories, needs to understand that her flash-forwards — which in Story of Your Life appear as separate blocks of text in the future tense — are connected to learning the Heptapods’ language, and that this is monumental. It means she can now see the “story of your life”, that is, see her daughter’s entire life and know how it ends. It also means that, armed with this knowledge, Banks still decides to marry Ian (or Gary, in the short story), the physicist who works alongside her and the Heptapods, and accept his proposal to “make a baby”. 

This decision is the crux around which the whole story revolves. The questions that arise from it are key in understanding Arrival/Story of Your Life: is it morally responsible to bring someone into the world if you know they are going to die young and horribly? Is this purely Banks’ decision? Is it better to love a person as much as you can for the time they are in this world, or is it better to never have them, at all? For Banks, the answer to this last question is the old saying a classmate of mine brought up in class: “It is better to have loved and lost, than not to have loved at all”. That, I believe, is a very succinct way to put the main point of Arrival/Story of Your Life. The story leads us to this: even if it ends — and it will — it’s better to live and love something as much as you can. 

For this punch to land, though, there needs to be a discovery. Banks can’t simply know. She needs to uncover, bit by bit, this sprawling mystery. She needs to understand it slowly — it needs to consume the story almost in its entirety. Only then is it so much more satisfying when Banks finally is allowed to choose — and chooses to have her daughter anyway, even if she knows she’ll eventually slip away. 

In Story of Your Life, Banks simply understands, suddenly and without much lead-up, that this is how the Heptapods perceive time. In a four-paragraph infodump, Banks tells us how it all adds up. Although I am not one to cringe when presented with an infodump, I do prefer Arrival’s mysterious, sprawling discovery, full of backtracks, what-the-hells, and twists. Story of Your Life then uses a good portion of its remaining pages to discuss how the Heptapods experience free will, which, although interesting, serves nothing to the emotional point of the story. Meanwhile, Arrival’s final minutes are full of twists and turns that eventually lead us right back to where we began: Hannah. This final emotional touch is always what leaves me with chills at the end of the film.

In class, discussing the film, many of my classmates raised questions about why. Why does Banks choose to live out this life, if she can choose at all? — in the film, there are no sprawling paragraphs about free will, and so this aspect is not clear. Why does she choose to see her daughter die and her husband leave her, when, knowing the future, she could change her own life? She could choose to not have a child, maybe, or adopt? Something of the sort? Regardless, the question kept repeating itself: why?

There’s a part in Story of Your Life that I really like. Banks is reading Goldilocks and The Three Bears to Hannah, who keeps insisting that she’s reading it wrong. “Well if you already know how the story goes,” Banks retorts, “why do you need me to read it to you?”

“Cause I wanna hear it!” replies little Hannah. 

So I guess the answer to the question is simple: she just wanted to hear the story of her daughter’s life, anyway.

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