Arrival's Timely Message About Empathy

The film’s screenwriter talks about the movie’s geopolitical elements, creating an alien language, and the importance of communication.

Paramount Pictures

This post contains spoilers about the ending of the film Arrival.

The masterful sci-fi film Arrival is ultimately a story about communication. It follows the linguistics expert Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she tries to connect with a race of aliens who’ve landed spacecraft all over the globe for some mysterious purpose. But Louise’s most crucial breakthrough isn’t with the seven-legged, squid-like “Heptapods” that have come to speak with humans. It’s with the Chinese government—in particular, the stoic General Shang (Tzi Ma), who brings his country to the brink of war with the aliens out of his fear that they pose a threat. In the film’s arresting climax, with the help of Heptapod technology that lets Louise simultaneously glimpse the present and future, she calls Shang and gets his attention by telling him something she couldn’t possibly know: his wife’s dying words.

In Arrival, the motivations of the visiting Heptapods are vague—they simply tell Louise they will need humanity’s help to avert a great crisis thousands of years from now. But their strange written language, when properly learned, allows the speaker to experience time in a non-linear way and access all past, present, and future moments at the same time. In bringing this language to Earth, the Heptapods are doing more than granting the planet an incredible new technology: They’re also seeding humankind with empathy, pushing them together, distributing their language in pieces to different countries and demanding they cooperate to assemble it. It’s an extraordinarily hopeful message for a particularly grim moment in global affairs, where isolationism and nationalism are on the rise in the U.S. and elsewhere.

That’s something Arrival’s screenwriter Eric Heisserer thought about when crafting his script, which was adapted from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Adding the “geo-political panic element” helped him translate that small, emotional tale into something grander, Heisserer said in an interview with The Atlantic that also touched on how he crafted the enigmatic visual look of the Heptapod language and expanded the emotional thrust of his story. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

David Sims: What was the initial spark for you after reading “Story of Your Life”?

Eric Heisserer: I didn’t get any sort of cinematic reaction from the story at all. It was a total emotional connection where I just was gutted and heartbroken, while my head was just full of giant ideas. I had learned something about Fermat’s principle of least time, and Snell’s law, and non-linear orthography, and I didn’t even know what any of those terms were before reading this story. And I wanted to share that with the world. I had a lot of heavy lifting to do [on the visual side], because the story works so well as a literary piece, and doesn’t worry about the things that make a movie work.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) surrounded by images of the Heptapods’ written language in Arrival. Paramount Pictures

Sims: How did you construct the Heptapods’ language when writing the script? Were you working on what that would look like from the beginning?

Heisserer: I had some of my own formally uneducated ideas about the Heptapods’ language. I dabbled as an amateur language-builder, in as much as I knew what I wanted the [Heptapod] logograms to look like. I wanted that non-linear sense. So I knew I wanted it to be circular, and I wanted questions, or any other kind of intent, to be [rendered as] modified curls and loops that emanated from the circle. I did a lot of graphic work early on, and I had maybe seven or eight different logograms I designed in the script.

Sims: Did they change at all from script to screen?

Heisserer: Oh sure, yeah. They got artists and professionals far smarter than I on board, and they took the ball and ran with it. The logograms still remain circular, some of the founding principles I toyed with are there, but the artists made sense of them. Patrice Vermette [the film’s production designer] and his wife helped design the language, and they have a fully fleshed-out language, with 100 symbols that actually make sense. The analysis you see in the film, where the symbols are run into a scanner and translated into words, that’s Vermette making it work.

Sims: How did the film differ from the short story otherwise?

Heisserer: In the short story, the Heptapods communicate simply by dropping technology called “looking glasses,” which are basically intergalactic viewscreens, over a couple hundred places around the planet. And humans have Skype calls with the Heptapods and start to learn their language.

Sims: So it’s a little more mundane.

Heisserer: It is, and there’s a real lack of conflict or tension. And I realized quite soon that if I had this movie take place over a series of nine months to a year of them just talking on TV screens, that I was in trouble. So having the Heptapods arrive [in giant ships] at our front door gave me the geo-political panic element and the rising tension of a public that would want an answer.

Sims: The geo-political panic feels appropriate to this moment in history, where everything has to be immediate, where an answer has to come right away, where there’s an importance placed on speed in everything. The thing that’s working against Louise in the movie is not how the aliens behave, but how the human structures of power are reacting.

Heisserer: Right. And this is the essence of a linguistics expert. A linguist has this essential problem to solve with people, because patience is the only real virtue in that career, and our increasing need for the immediate understanding, the knee-jerk reaction, the false equivalence, all that happens right away, and is our downfall.

Sims: A scene that really stuck out for me was the conversation between Louise and General Sheng. It felt like the lynchpin for the film’s message of understanding and communication, because we’ve only seen him as a stereotypical figure: the stern Chinese general that you see on the TV.

Heisserer: Right! And why? Because we’re seeing it through the filter of the U.S. intelligence network; it’s their version of him. We’re not seeing a person. It’s our misinterpretation of what we think China is doing. So it falls into a bit of a trope, again, simply because we’re the U.S., the military-industrial complex, whatever you want to call it. We’re think of them as a potential enemy. And we’re taking whatever’s being said in Chinese, whoever’s translating that is taking it to the U.S. news and saying, “Oh, this is the big bad general.” No. We don’t know what’s going on with him until we see him in person. We realize he’s not the character we thought him to be: He’s really honored to meet Louise, and something really poetic and personal has happened there.

For the longest time in the script, for the scene where they’re on the phone, I had just written, “She says something in Mandarin to him, and we know this is his wife’s dying words.” And I just found it lovely and poetic, and I didn’t think about it further until [the actor] Tzi Ma calls me and says, “Eric, Eric. What does she say?” And I reply, “Well, she says something in Mandarin!” And he replies, “This is the most important line in the film, this saves the world, Eric! What is the line?” So I kept bringing him ideas, and he would say, “Eric, I love you, but this is terrible.” So finally, I gave him something, and he said, “I deeply love this, this is the line, this is exactly what should be said, I will use this.” And I finally see the final cut of the film, and we get to that scene, and she says the line, and [the director] Denis [Villeneuve], the scoundrel, does not use subtitles. So nobody knows, unless you speak Mandarin, what she says to him.

Sims: So I’m going to have to get a translator? That feels appropriate.

Heisserer: Precisely.