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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.