The Twist in Arrival: A Lesson in Storytelling


Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, came out four years ago in 2016. I thought it was a magnificent film. Years later, during quarantine, I read the short story it was adapted from, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, and it made me see it from a new perspective.

In the first few scenes of the film, the audience is shown moments of Louise’s life: when she gives birth to her daughter, and when she loses her now-adolescent daughter to an incurable disease. We automatically assume this is Louise’s backstory, and when the story continues, or begins, we perceive her as a grieving mother with a lonely life. But the film is playing with our expectations: we are so used to seeing flashbacks in films, and linear storytelling, we are so “bound by time, by its order”, that we don’t think for a moment we are actually seeing Louise’s future.

Still via Paramount Pictures // YouTube. Director: Denis Villeneuve

Only a film allows for such a twist. In Chiang’s short story, Louise’s memories are told in the future tense, a narrative technique that captures the paradox of “remembering the future” but does not leave room for an element of surprise, as we are privy to Louise’s internal monologue. On the contrary, the film relies on us to connect these scenes together and construct a narrative based on our perception.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer thus managed to enhance the story’s most central theme in a different but no less compelling way. The twist, born in the adaptation from book to film, is a lesson in storytelling because Arrival understands exactly what kind of story it is telling.

But what is Arrival about? Knowing the future? Funnily enough, science fiction has nothing to do with the future. In his analysis of the film, the YouTuber Lessons from the Screenplay states: “at its core, hard sci-fi is about humanity, our hopes and fears, principles and behaviours”. Narrating the arrival of aliens on Earth is a way of showing humanity’s reaction to them, highlighting how needlessly belligerent humans are, as well as our inability to communicate.

Stories about aliens are not actually about aliens. They’re about us.

The word “alien” comes from “alius” in latin, meaning “other”. An alien is something that is different, not human, unknown. By way of contrast, it reveals what is human, and brings us closer to knowing ourselves – what makes us human, what alienates us, what is alien in us. As Ian says to Louise: “You know, I’ve had my head tilted up at the stars for as long as I can remember. You know what surprised me the most? It wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you.”

Still via Paramount Pictures // YouTube. Director: Denis Villeneuve

In Chiang’s short story, Story of Your Life, Louise is quite literally telling her daughter the story of her life, which is the story of a choice. It starts with the question “Do you want to make a baby?” and ends with “yes”. Her daughter dies in between, but Louise still makes the choice to have her, because her life – however short it is – is worth the pain of losing her. Science fiction allows Chiang to tell a story of motherhood and loss, free will and determinism, language and communication, consciousness and time. Louise welcomes the arrival of the aliens, who show her the future, and she welcomes the arrival of her daughter, knowing she is to die.

We too know how the story ends. Death and suffering are awaiting us, yet we still choose to live and to love. Arrival is telling us not to let fear keep us from living; otherwise, we will never get to experience all the good life has to offer. “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads,” Louise says, “I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it.”

There is a passage in Chiang’s Story of Your Life when Louise reads her daughter a book, and asks:

“Well if you already know how the story goes, why do you need me to read it to you?”

“Cause I wanna hear it!” she replies.

The same way a child never grows tired of hearing their favourite story, and enjoys it just as much every time, Louise understands that every page is as essential as the ending.

Heisserer and Villeneuve understood this too. They demonstrated it in the film’s structure itself: the non-linear narrative challenges our perception of time and mirrors the aliens’ circular language. But what really drives the point home is how it ties into Louise’s humanity; this is what triggers an emotional response in the audience and what makes Arrival, truly, the story of our life.

Valentine Naude

Featured Image Source: Still via Paramount Pictures // YouTube. Director: Denis Villeneuve

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