ARRIVAL: The parent as time-traveler

Warning: spoilers for Arrival ahead.

Read with caution.


A choice is made.

A child is born. She plays and dances, draws and laughs, learns, cries, shouts, grows. And then she dies.

The story plays out on the screen in seconds. It’s a story most of us recognize, until the shocking, sudden end. The stomach churns. If we can’t sympathize, we at least empathize. The loss of a child is something embedded in our culture as the ultimate tragedy.

The child dies. Life goes on. The mother buries herself in her work, somehow pushes herself forward every day. Survives.

At some point, the mother’s life becomes full again, as she is challenged by an all-consuming task, one that redefines her purpose.

But she can’t escape the child. She sees visions: her daughter as a young girl and then as a teenager. A baby, then a pre-adolescent. The child is well, then sick, then well, then gone, then alive.

As the story twists, it turns out the child doesn’t exist yet. Or perhaps she has always existed.

That’s how I read Arrival. To me, it’s an evocative (and at times heartbreaking) examination of parenting. Yes, it’s a thoughtful, artfully crafted science-fiction tale—a cut above studio theater fare, for sure–and yes, Amy Adams, who plays the lead character, a linguistics scholar named Louise, turns in a performance layered with deep emotion.

Moreover, the film works fine on a narrative level. The aliens descend, and Louise is pressed to learn how to communicate with them in order to stave off global annihilation. She is resourceful, strong, insightful, and entirely up to the task, making the film something I was proud to have my 11-year-old daughter see. (She was knocked out by it.)

There is, however, something richer at play in Arrival. The animating principle of the film comes expressed largely in scientific terms: that humans (as opposed to the heptapods) can only perceive time as linear, when theoretically time exists as its own dimension. Stand outside of that, and one arguably would be able to observe all events in their lives as fixed points, occurring simultaneously.

Our limited point-of-view means we can only see it as a river, when it may be more of a block. (Or a cosmic library. Or a flat circle.) Time, in that vein, is only a product of our own consciousness. “For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion,” Einstein wrote.


More critically, beyond science the film functions as a dramatic treatise on the nature of memory. Memory itself is a form of time-travel. We can sit at one point in our lives and clearly visualize being in another moment long passed, and it can feel as real and present to us as our own breath.

When I look at my daughter now, she’s 11, and she’s 8, and she’s 5, and she’s a baby. And sometimes—even when I don’t wish to—I can see in her face the woman she’ll be. All of those moments intermix to merge with the present. Place, too, plays a large role. Live anywhere long enough and playgrounds and parks, restaurants and street-corners all contain ghost-images. The reach of memory allows parents to observe their children in various states–and possible states–of their existence at the same time. (Call it the quantum mechanics of parenting.)

There can be comfort in that sort of continuity, but it can also be unsettling, the idea that your memory is your final access to those moments that have rushed past, and that those moments now are fixed points in the firmament of your life, never to be visited again.

So as Louise sees the life of her child play out in her mind, it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s already happened or it will yet occur. Because Louise’s experience is our own. We are, through our memories, haunted by images that have become immutable. At some point we become, more than anything, witnesses to a constantly streaming series of unalterable events to the point where, as we near closer to death, it begins to feel like we are traveling backward.


To me, that’s why Arrival connected with audiences, even if they might not have known why at the time. While the dramatic beat near the end of the film rests on whether Louise makes a choice to have her child with the knowledge that she is destined to die, I’m not sure that’s what moved people in the end. Yes, it’s a terrible dilemma that any parent would dread, but when we make the choice to have a child, haven’t we, in a way, all made the decision to face the risk of grievous loss? That’s priced in, as they say.

Instead, viewers more likely were responding to the fact that all of us, all of the time, are seeing these images projected in our mind of those we love, have loved, will love. We toggle from the present to the past and back again.

In that way, we’re all time-travelers. and what we intuitively understand is that not only is time a river, an ocean, or a circle but it’s also a resource—and a damned limited one. “Memory is a strange thing,” Louise says at the beginning of the film. Indeed. And sometimes, it’s all we’re left with.

-James Oliphant




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