A podcast I listen to recently discussed Arrival, then added a spoiler-ridden section at the end of the episode for listeners who had seen the movie and wanted to hear more. I saw it, rolled it around in my head a few days, and wrote one of the hosts with my ideas about it. It turned out to be a long email, and I thought I’d post it here for anyone’s who’s seen it and would like some speculations on it.

Do note that this is absolutely filled with spoilers! Stop now if you haven’t seen Arrival and intend to see it.


Thanks for recommending Arrival. I went to see it so I could listen to the last part of the Film Vault episode. I wasn’t as blown away by it as a lot of people seem to be, but appreciated the thought that went into it.

It does give you plenty to piece together in retrospect. It was a couple of days before I realized that we’re seeing things from Louise’s non-linear point-of-view from the beginning of the movie, not just seeing ordinary flashbacks. “Come back to me” (baby) links to “Come back to me” (deathbed) in the same way that hearing someone in the war room say “zero-sum-game” allows her to say it to her daughter when she’s going up the stairs.

I think the title refers both to the aliens and to her daughter. As the movie opens, she says she’s trying to pinpoint when her daughter’s story begins. When did she arrive? The very first thing we see is what we later know to be the night she and Ian decide to have a baby, and she thinks it might start there. Then she moves through time to her daughter’s birth, and wonders whether to call that the beginning. By the end of the movie, she’s decided that it starts with her and Ian’s first embrace after the aliens leave. But she doesn’t really believe in beginnings and endings anymore because it all flows together for her now.

You missed that he asks whether she wants to make a baby on a night well after the alien encounter, maybe even after they were married. She sees it, though, during a similar embrace the day the aliens leave. She smiles at the thought of her little girl, even though her decision to say “yes” to him will destroy their marriage when he finds out she knew their daughter would die young.

I thought it was interesting that she couldn’t seem to see anything from earlier in her life, before learning the aliens’ language. Everything she saw happened after that. She couldn’t move through time and share information with her younger self.

I also thought the bomb subplot was under-developed, but it gave a chance to show that Abbott knew when to hit the barrier, knock Louise and Ian out of the room, and close the blast doors to save them. It also means they probably knew all along that Costello was going to die.

The questions I had after the movie were:

  1. Can Louise tell Ian their daughter will die, or is it set in stone that it she won’t? (Or would they not have her if he knew?) When she asks what he would do differently and he says “I would talk more about how I feel,” I thought the writers were leaving open the possibility that she would take it as a lesson and tell him. On the other hand, the aliens didn’t prevent Costello’s death, so it seems they can see the “future” and use it to interact with the “present”, but can’t change what they see. How much free will she had was the biggest open-ended question for me.
  2. Couldn’t she teach Ian the aliens’ language so he could see his future, too?
  3. How do the aliens know they’ll need humans’ help in 3,000 years? Does that mean they live that long, and can see that far into their individual futures? Or can they talk to their children in the “future”, and their children can talk to their children, and they can pass messages up and down the whole lifespan of their species? Now that humans have the weapon/tool and can teach it to future generations, will they be able to do the same?

Also, why wasn’t he at their daughter’s deathbed? They may have been divorced, but he would have been there for his daughter, regardless of how tricked or betrayed he felt. I assume this is just for plot reasons, since the film can’t show him there at that point in the story. Or are we told that he’s died, and I’ve forgotten?

Watch it again from the perspective of knowing the aliens (presumably, all the aliens in all the ships and all the aliens back on their planet) know everything that’s going to happen. Why 12 ships? Why in those locations? Why do they let Costello die? Because that’s how it happens? They can see what happens and use information from the “future” in their current actions, but can’t change how events occur? Or do they see that placing those ships exactly so provokes the world crisis that leads to world peace (saving humans to help them)? Does Costello know he (“he”?) has to be sacrificed because the first human to learn their language needs that one last second to fully internalize it? (They’re finally able to give her the whole “weapon” just moments before the bomb goes off.)

Lots to ponder, and I did appreciate the optimistic view that if we just had the right tool, we could save ourselves.

By the way, the best story I know in the “ships hovering over cities” genre is Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke (co-writer of 2001). (There’s an audiobook of it on Audible.)

It’s fantastic. It’s not at all the book you think it is at the beginning. By the end, it’s gone off a million miles from what you thought it was. You definitely can’t see the twists coming in it. What you think is a stupid reveal halfway through turns out to be remarkably clever in the end, and the end is poignant and moving in ways you would never have expected. Can’t recommend it enough.

Thanks as always!

Jeff

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