Arrival is the Oscar-nominated science fiction film from director Denis Villeneuve (2013’s Prisoners) starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. It’s a fine, fine movie with excellent performances, a compelling story, and its own unique feel. The story is about a linguist (Adams) who works to develop communication between Earth and an alien race. However, as the movie carried into its third act, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen this story play out before. Then there was a moment where it all clicked – this was basically a retelling of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s pilot episode, “Emissary.” While the film is based on the 1998 short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang – the similarities between this and that episode of Star Trek are too prevalent to avoid.
Here is your obligatory “Spoiler Alert” as I will be discussing key plot points of but the film and the Deep Space Nine episode.
In Arrival, an alien race, referred to as “Hetapods” has landed on Earth. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics (I am really fighting the urge to refer to her as a cunning linguist), is brought in to help develop an understanding of the alien language and build communications between them and the U.S. military. She works with a theoretical physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner) and they make some great headway in breaking the language barrier between themselves and the aliens. Chinese scientists, also communicating with Hetapods in their area, believe that the aliens are threatening to destroy them with a weapon. This miscommunication leads to conflict between the United States, China, and the Hetapods.
Now, during her communication with the aliens, we constantly get flashes of Louise talking to her daughter, Hannah. These “flashbacks” of conversations are used to reveal important information necessary to communicating with the Hetapods. At the film’s climax, as she speaks to them about the conflict with China, she comes to realize that these aliens experience time in a non-linear fashion. She explains to them about linear time to work towards an understanding. It turns out that Louise doesn’t even have a daughter—yet—the aliens were using the daughter from her future to talk to her. Understanding the non-linear nature of the aliens, Louise, as an emissary, is able to resolve the conflict with the Chinese and the day is saved.
Good story. Now, for that episode of Deep Space Nine. Commander Benjamin Sisko, recently assuming command of the eponymous space station, discovers a stable wormhole nearby inhabited by intelligent alien life. This wormhole causes some miscommunication between the crew of Deep Space Nine and rival race, the Cardassians. Benjamin Sisko communicates with these aliens and comes to learn that they experience time in a non-linear fashion—so, he explains linear time to them (through a great baseball analogy). The aliens talk to him by using people from his past, notably his dead wife. After securing an understanding with these aliens, Sisko becomes their emissary, returning just in time to resolve the conflict with the Cardassians and save the day.
The similarities between the two stories are quite glaring. Both feature a person acting as an emissary in communications with an alien race. This communication is carried out through persons along various points of that protagonist’s timeline; both utilize the PAIN of a significant moment in that timeline as a means for communication. Both involve this character resolving the disparities between linear and non-linear time. Both use this new knowledge and established relations with the aliens to resolve another conflict in that last second rescue from destruction. Both feature a character that’s initially dumb emotionally but finds a new reason to live after their communication with the aliens. I’m not saying that Arrival or its source material out-right plagiarized Star Trek, but the parallels are strong. It seems there is nothing new under the sun.
Arrival is a great film; if I hadn’t seen the exact same story before I would appreciate the film a lot more. Honestly, the Star Trek episode makes a bit more sense, namely Sisko’s confusion when these non-linear aliens speak to him through his dead wife. In Arrival, we only learn that these conversations Louise had with her daughter are from the future, but she never questions this in the present and it feels like a bad twist. In “Emissary” the non-linear communication grew from established character-building; Arrival using characters from a future that does not exist yet felt like a terrible contrivance. In addition, I hate, hate, HATE any concept of determinism. Are we supposed to feel happy that these two characters are going to have a baby sometime in the future? If you already know what the future holds, what is the point of living—wouldn’t life lose its luster if you already knew the outcome? “Emissary” at least delivered on the idea that what made linear time so great was NOT knowing what was around the corner, the purpose of life was to see what would happen next. Arrival just presents a pre-determined future for everyone; you can’t change it and have to go along with it, regardless. That is depressing.
I prefer “Emissary,” but I will always side with Deep Space Nine because it was goddamned brilliant. Arrival, while it is functionally a great film, with many captivating elements, is utterly depressing with its bleak determinism. Would you rather have the great science fiction story delivering an idea that the future is full of exciting possibility? Or would you rather have the story that delivers the idea of a future you can’t change—that your life was already planned without your input. Which theme you like more will more greatly determine what you enjoy more.
NOTE: I would like to express my thanks to Josh Hadley of 1201 Beyond for some editing on this article as well as also bringing up some other similarities between the two works.