When They Came from Another World


a film directed by Denis Villeneuve
A giant alien spaceship that has landed in Montana in Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation of a story by Ted Chiang
Paramount Pictures
A giant alien spaceship that has landed in Montana in Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s film adaptation of a story by Ted Chiang

What tense is this?

I remember a conversation we’ll have when you’re in your junior year of high school. It’ll be Sunday morning, and I’ll be scrambling some eggs….

I remember once when we’ll be driving to the mall to buy some new clothes for you. You’ll be thirteen.

The narrator is Louise Banks in “Story of Your Life,” a 1998 novella by Ted Chiang. She is addressing her daughter, Hannah, who, we soon learn, has died at a young age. Louise is addressing Hannah in memory, evidently. But something peculiar is happening in this story. Time is not operating as expected. As the Queen said to Alice, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”

What if the future is as real as the past? Physicists have been suggesting as much since Einstein. It’s all just the space-time continuum. “So in the future, the sister of the past,” thinks young Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, “I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be.” Twisty! What if you received knowledge of your own tragic future—as a gift, or perhaps a curse? What if your all-too-vivid sensation of free will is merely an illusion? These are the roads down which Chiang’s story leads us. When I first read it, I meant to discuss it in the book I was writing about time travel, but I could never manage that. It’s not a time-travel story in any literal sense. It’s a remarkable work of imagination, original and cerebral, and, I would have thought, unfilmable. I was wrong.

The film is Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve. It’s being marketed as an alien-contact adventure: creatures arrive in giant ovoid spaceships, and drama ensues. The earthlings are afraid, the military takes charge, fighter jets scramble nervously, and the hazmat suits come out. But we soon see that something deeper is going on. Arrival is a movie of philosophy as much as adventure. It not only respects Chiang’s story but takes it further. It’s more explicitly time-travelish. That is to say, it’s really a movie about time. Time, fate, and free will.

In both the novella and the movie, two stories are interwoven. One is the alien visitation, a suspenseful narrative. Are the visitors friend or foe? Is their arrival a threat or an opportunity? The other is the story of a mother and a daughter who dies. Movies have a standard device for this sort of interweaving: we see flashbacks—newborn baby, four-year-old cowgirl, eight-year-old tucked into bed, twelve-year-old in hospital, eyes closed, head shaved. Before any of that, a question: “Do you want to make a baby?” We understand this film language: fragmentary images, representing memories. Lest there be any doubt, we hear Louise in voiceover: “I remember moments in the middle.” But she also says: “Now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings.”

When you watch a movie or read a book, you experience it in time, linearly, and you live through its twists and turns, anticipations and surprises. At this point I need to warn you that I’m going to spoil the surprise.

The spaceships arrive, taller than skyscrapers, at twelve different places around the globe. One site is in scenic Montana. Why? No one knows. Louise, a linguist and, evidently, translator extraordinaire, played by Amy Adams, is pressed into service. She once helped Army Intelligence decode some Farsi, so why not some Alien? “You made quick work of those insurgent videos,” says her handler, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, exuding can-do decisiveness). She sniffs, “You made quick work of those insurgents.” He has a question he needs answered, pronto. They write it on a whiteboard so we can focus: “What is your purpose on Earth?” She needs to explain that even simple-seeming words are not as cooperative as the colonel thinks. She has a whole language to learn.

On boarding the spaceship, Louise and her scientific teammate, a physicist called Ian (a boyish and charming Jeremy Renner), first see a pair of aliens floating like statuesque octopuses behind a glass wall in their atmosphere of misty fluid. One limb short of an octopus, they are dubbed heptapods. They turn out to be virtuosos of calligraphy: their feet/hands are also nozzles that squirt inkblots, which swirl and spin and coalesce into mottled circles with intricate adornments. Louise says these are logograms. For her they are puzzles, ornate and complex.

Colonel Weber doesn’t want Louise to teach the aliens English or anything else they might be able to use against us. Earth history has provided plenty of lessons in how explorers treat indigenous peoples, and linguists aren’t usually leading the charge. Louise tells the story (apocryphal, unfortunately) of James Cook arriving in Australia and asking an aborigine for the name of those funny macropods hopping around with their young in pouches. “Kangaru,” was the reply. Meaning, “What did you say?” We know how it worked out for them. Anyway, the heptapods seem to be more interested in talking than in listening.

After some hard work in the linguistic trenches, she tentatively translates one message as “Offer weapon,” and all hell breaks loose. The soldiers around her are nervous and well armed, and meanwhile the eleven other spaceships are surrounded by teams from similarly militarized and trigger-happy nations. We are reminded that Earth is a planet with decentralized leadership. Russia controls two of the landing sites, and China’s decision-maker is said to be a “scary powerful” man called General Shang.

Louise and Ian try to calm everyone down. Maybe the word doesn’t mean only “weapon”; maybe it can be read as “tool” or “gift.” The heptapod language is “semasiographic,” Louise explains (in the story, not in the movie, understandably): signs divorced from sounds. Each logogram speaks volumes. They carry the meaning of whole sentences or paragraphs. And here’s a curious thing. The logograms seem to be conceived and written as unitary entities, all at once, rather than as a sequence of smaller symbols. “Imagine trying to write a long sentence with two hands, starting at either end,” Louise tells Ian. “To do that, you’d have to know every single word you’re going to write and the space all of it occupies.” It’s as if, for the heptapods, time is not sequential.

Amazingly, we interrupt all this suspenseful activity for a mini-lecture on physics. In “Story of Your Life,” Chiang gives us a diagram, which looks like this:


The line could represent a lifeguard running across a beach and then swimming through the water to save a child. To save time, the lifeguard shouldn’t run directly toward the child, because running is faster than swimming. Better to spend less time in the water, so the most efficient path—the path of least time—is angled, as in the diagram.

Or the line could represent a ray of light, which bends when it passes from air to water. It is refracted, at a specific and calculable angle. Like the lifeguard, light travels more slowly through a denser medium. And like the lifeguard, light somehow knows to take the path of least time. Pierre de Fermat stated this as a law of nature in 1662.

But how does it do that? We seem to be anthropomorphizing particles of light. When a photon leaves A on its way to B, does it choose its path, like the lifeguard? Perhaps the path is simply fate. The photon fulfills its destiny. Principles of least time, or least “action,” as they are also known, crop up everywhere in physics, and Ian begins to suspect that this is the key to the heptapod worldview. Instead of one thing after another, they see the picture whole. In the film he explains this to Louise—a cameo by Fermat and a microtutorial in physics—but you’ll miss it if you blink.

We start to sense that Heisserer and Villeneuve are strewing clues for us like breadcrumbs. “I asked about predictability,” Louise says. “If before and after mean anything to them.” As she becomes proficient in the heptapod language, she starts getting headaches and having dreams. We see flashes of Louise with her daughter, Hannah. Louise telling stories; Hannah making pictures. According to the conventions of film, these seem like conventional flashbacks, but are they? Another clue: Ian asks Louise about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistics, the notion that different languages create different modes of thought. “All this focus on alien language,” he says. “There’s this idea that immersing yourself in a foreign language can rewire your brain.” Eventually it will dawn on us: Louise can see the future.

If her visions are patchy—limited in perspective, incomplete in detail—well, so are our memories of the past. She is remembering the future.

Amy Adams as the linguist Louise Banks attempting to communicate with aliens in Arrival
Paramount Pictures
Amy Adams as the linguist Louise Banks attempting to communicate with aliens in Arrival

There is a strain of physicist that likes to think of the world as settled, inevitable, its path fully determined by the grinding of the gears of natural law. Einstein and his heirs model the universe as a four-dimensional space-time continuum—the “block universe”—in which past and future are merely different places, like left and right. Even before Einstein, a deterministic view of physics goes all the way back to Newton. His laws operated like clockwork and gave astronomers the power of foresight. If scientists say the moon will totally eclipse the sun in New York on April 8, 2024, beginning at 12:38 PM, you can bank on it. If they can’t tell you whether the sun will be obscured by a rainstorm, a strict Newtonian would say that’s only because they don’t yet have enough data or enough computing power. And if they can’t tell you whether you’ll be alive to see the eclipse, well, maybe they haven’t discovered all the laws yet.

As Richard Feynman put it, “Physicists like to think that all you have to do is say, ‘These are the conditions, now what happens next?’” Meanwhile, other physicists have learned about chaos and quantum uncertainty, but in the determinist’s view chance does not take charge. What we call accidents are only artifacts of incomplete knowledge. And there’s no room for choice. Free will, the determinist will tell you, is only an illusion, if admittedly a persistent one.

Even without help from mathematical models, we have all learned to visualize history as a timeline, with the past stretching to the left, say, and the future to the right (if we have been conditioned Sapir-Whorf-style by a left-to-right written language). Our own lifespans occupy a short space in the middle. Now—the infinitesimal present—is just the point where our puny consciousnesses happen to be.

This troubled Einstein. He recognized that the present is special; it is, after all, where we live. (In Chiang’s story, Louise says to her infant daughter: “NOW is the only moment you’ll perceive; you’ll live in the present tense. In many ways, it’s an enviable state.”) But Einstein felt that this was fundamentally a psychological matter; that the question of now need not, or could not, be addressed within physics. The specialness of the present moment doesn’t show up in the equations; mathematically, all the moments look alike. Now seems to arise in our minds. It’s a product of consciousness, inextricably bound up with sensation and memory. And it’s fleeting, tumbling continually into the past.

Still, if the sense of the present is an illusion, it’s awfully powerful for us humans. I don’t know if it’s possible to live as if the physicists’ model is real, as if we never make choices, as if the very idea of purpose is imaginary. We may be able to visualize the time before our birth and the time after our death as mathematically equivalent; yet we can’t help but fret more about what effects we might have on the future in which we will not exist than about what might have happened in the past when we did not exist. Nor does it seem possible to tell a story or enjoy a narrative that is devoid of intention. Choice and purpose—that’s where the suspense comes from. “What is your purpose on Earth?”

Certainly no one in Arrival acts as though their future is predetermined and all they have to do is watch. They’re full of energy. Louise and Ian work urgently against the clock. Renegade soldiers set a bomb to blow up some heptapods and we get to watch the traditional electronic readout counting down the seconds. The aliens themselves seem to have a purpose: to give Earth a gift: “Three thousand years from this point, humanity helps us. We help humanity now. Returning the favor.” Perhaps there are two gifts. One seems to be some super technology, unspecified, a MacGuffin. Evidently it comes in twelve pieces, and all the earthlings need to do is share them, in peace and harmony, for once.

But the generals and technocrats can’t get their act together. Instead they find themselves at the brink of war. The Chinese general, Shang, cuts off communication and prepares to pull the trigger. If we think about it—which we are not meant to do, at least while the action is underway—we may see a paradox here. The heptapods already know the future. They’re all Que sera, sera. So if we’re living in their deterministic universe, where’s the suspense?

The real gift has already been received, by Louise. The gift—not a weapon after all—is the language itself, and the knowledge of the future that it provides. It alters her brain, enabling her to see time as the heptapods do. Arrival brings the paradox out into the open, plays with it, creates a mind-bending science-fictional time loop. This isn’t in Chiang’s original story. Louise has a waking dream, a vision of the future. Dressed up in a gown, she is attending what looks like a formal reception. General Shang is there, too, in a tuxedo. He wants to thank her, for saving the world, more or less. For “the unification.” He tells her (reminds her?) that she phoned him at the critical last minute on his private number. But she doesn’t know his number, she says, puzzled. He shows her the screen of his phone. “Now you do,” he says. Now. “I do not claim to know how your brain works, but I believe it is important that you see that.” The future is communicating with the past. The scene leaps back to Montana, where Louise is placing an urgent call to China. She has something to explain to General Shang, and does in fluent Chinese.

In the event, this is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. The revelation is exhilarating, and it gives the viewer a sense of the profound. Yet if you think about it closely, it’s not logical. It breaks down, just as every time-travel paradox breaks down under analysis. If Louise prevents the war and saves the world by phoning Shang, surely she will remember that at the celebratory party. And from Shang’s point of view, he won’t need to provide his number; she’ll already have known it. It’s always like this—a trick somewhere. Time travel violates everything we believe about causality. The best time travel succeeds by hiding the trick.

Woody Allen deployed a version of the same paradox in his 2011 movie, Midnight in Paris. His hero travels back to the 1920s and tries to give the young Luis Buñuel a movie idea. Of course, the idea is Buñuel’s own 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel. Allen breaks the loop with a joke.

Gil: Oh, Mr. Buñuel, I had a nice idea for a movie for you.

Buñuel: Yes?

Gil: Yeah, a group of people attend a very formal dinner party and at the end of dinner when they try to leave the room, they can’t…. And because they’re forced to stay together the veneer of civilization quickly fades away and what you’re left with is who they really are—animals.

Buñuel: But I don’t get it. Why don’t they just walk out of the room?

It’s a message from the future yet again. Imperfectly received.

No one, not even the most devout of physicists, behaves as though their life is predetermined. We study the menus and make our choices. If we knew—really knew—that the future was settled and our choices illusory, how would we live? Could we do that? What would it feel like?

Louise is about to find out. What will she do when Ian asks—as we know he will—“Do you want to make a baby?” There’s not much worse than a child’s death. It’s what the word “untimely” was made for. At least in real life the grief comes after the fact. A lifetime of memories is instantly shrouded in a veil of pain. For Louise, grief is part of the story from the beginning. The pain must color not only memory but also the experience of each day, each moment.

Nothing about time will be the same. “It won’t have been that long since you enjoyed going shopping with me,” she says; “it will forever astonish me how quickly you grow out of one phase and enter another. Living with you will be like aiming for a moving target; you’ll always be further along than I expect.”

At some point, too, we realize that she is going to tell Hannah’s father what she knows, namely that their daughter will die, and that will be a mistake. He will not be able to handle it. But she will find a way.

For us ordinary mortals, the day-to-day experience of a preordained future is almost unimaginable, but Chiang’s story does imagine it. This is where the movie can’t quite follow, for all its vividness.

He offers another paradox—as he says, a Borgesian parable. Let’s say you get to see “the Book of Ages, the chronicle that records every event, past and future.” You flip through it until you find the page on which, it says, you are flipping through the Book of Ages looking for this very page, and then you read ahead, and decide to act contrary to what is written. Can you do that? Logically, no. If you accept the premise, the story is unchanging. Knowledge of the future trumps free will. And maybe that’s all right. “What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person,” Louise muses. “What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?”

She can be comfortable with her new way of seeing. It’s like the photon fulfilling Fermat’s principle of least time. We can view its path sequentially, one thing after another, or we can view it from above, a whole, all at once. “Two very different interpretations,” she sees:

The physical universe was a language with a perfectly ambiguous grammar. Every physical event was an utterance that could be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological.

In the same way, language can be seen as purposeful and informative, or it can be seen as “performative.”

“Now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know,” says Louise. “Those who know the future don’t talk about it. Those who’ve read the Book of Ages never admit to it.”

So, as she comes to understand her gift, she feels like a celebrant performing a ritual recitation. Or an actor reading her lines, following a script in every conversation. The rest of us don’t know we’re following the script. Are we, too, trapped? Enacting destiny? The only alternative is Woody Allen’s version of Buñuel: just walk out of the room.