Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL is a brilliant film, thoughtful and moving, visually powerful and emotionally rewarding. I cannot recommend this film too highly.
However, just as his BLADE RUNNER 2049 differentiates itself from the original BLADE RUNNER by providing an explicitation of certain of its elements and themes, and even of its enigmas, Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL can be seen to modify Ted Chiang’s original novella STORY OF YOUR LIFE in order to render it more comprehensible.
The novella deals with an alien race with a different conception of time, one that is based on apprehending causality as a synchronic array rather than as a diachronic sequence. The film tries to concretise this alien conception in terms of an alien perception of time, one that involves precognition. It is never stated in the novella that actual foreknowledge is obtained from learning the Heptapod language. The synchronic vision of our life may be « just » a consequence of retroactive apperception of meaning. Saying yes to the event involves affirmation of its consequences, both good and bad.
This shift from synchronic conception to precognitive perception is useful to show how the alien language rewires the human brain and its vision of the world but the drawback is that it reintroduces linear causality in form of the use of inside information about the future to bring about a desired outcome.
Whereas in the novella we never know why the aliens came, it seems to be just part of their existential fatality, in the film they come to gift us with their language and with it their precognition, because they have foreknowledge of a future time when they will need our help. This reintroduces a sort of egoism, and reduces the exchange to our linear model, making it a sort of insider dealing.
In the novella there is an exchange between humans and aliens, but the Heptapods seem to have no idea of equivalence: each side gifts the other without a requirement of equal value. The only seemingly new « gift » of scientific knowledge, aside from their language (whose value seems more philosophical than practical) turns out to be a not yet widely publicised recent discovery.
Villeneuve adds the « insider futures trading » aspect as a pragmatic repetition of the more epistemological linguistic exchange. This pedagogical explicitation does not necessarily betray the original story, but can be considered to fill in a gap, or to spell out an implicit motive. The aliens bring us something we needed, a linguistic vehicle for the revelation and assimilation of the Stoical, and Nietzschean, Eternal Recurrence. In return, what can they gain?
We are forced to speculate that they may need our linearity so that their own seemingly passive habitus of willing the event may be redoubled into active willing.
In other words the synthesis of Reason lived and transmitted by the aliens is what we need to compensate our dangerous one-sidedness, and conversely we may imagine that our analytic Understanding can serve the same goal for the aliens.