WARNING: This blog post spoils the 2016 movie Arrival. You have been warned!
Actual title: Arrival and Rumination on Time Travel.
What would you do if you knew the future, both good and bad? Would you have a choice to change it, or are you set for that future regardless? That is one of the questions posed by Arrival. In Arrival, Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, a master linguist who at the start is teaching at a university, is sent to communicate with aliens who have arrived in large round ships that float in the air. As Louise begins to decode the language, she begins having visions or flashes of her future, mainly of her time with her daughter. She also figures out that the aliens experience not linearly, but cylindrically, being able to see time both in the present and in the future. Thus, her understanding of the language enables her to see her to eventually her life in front of her: she will marry Ian Donnelly (a physicist also asked to communicate with the aliens), they will have a daughter together, and then the daughter will die of an incurable disease at an early age. Louise, knowing both the happiness and tragedy before her, still decides to have her daughter Hannah.
Judging by Arrival’s outlook, Louise may have chosen her future, despite the knowledge. She knows will have her daughter, and her daughter will die. As she says to Ian after they leave the aliens for the last time, “What would you do if you could see your entire life from start to finish? Would you change things?” To which Ian replies, “Maybe I’d say what I felt more often? I-I don’t know.” All the major events in Louise would still happen, but the thing that changed would be Louise’s knowledge of it. Louise is going to live her life with her daughter, knowing she will eventually die. She knows that Ian will leave her when she tells him she knows about her daughter’s fate. And she does it anyway, experiencing the life she chose to live, despite the heartache to come.
Or does she? It could be argued that Louise had experienced what TV Tropes calls a “Stable Time Loop.” In a Stable Time Loop, when a character goes back in time, the past does not change, but rather the character caused the past to happen as it did, which in turn causes said character to decide to go back in time…. For an example of this, Louise calls the Chinese General Shang just as the Shang is about to fire on the alien ship. Meanwhile, in a vision of the future, General Shang goes to Louise at her book release event and tells her the exact thing (his wife’s dying words) that she said that stopped him from attacking the ships during the attack. Then back in the present Louise tells Shang that exact thing and it convinces him to stand down. Now, here in lies the dilemma: Louise could not have known what to say to Shang without Shang telling her. The only way Shang knew to tell Louise was that she already told him in the past. Louise in her vision from the future acted in the present, which caused that exact future.
The scene with Louise and Shang informs the audience of Louise’s fate: not only will she not avoid her fate with her daughter, but she also caused it to happen, which in turn gives her vision in the present of the happiness and pain to come. In this way, Louise doesn’t have a choice, she is doomed to her life, regardless of whether she wants to or not. There is only the unending, circular loop of time. After all, the aliens perceive time and even write cylindrically, looping around instead of in a straight line. Arrival may make you think that Louise has a choice, but there is no escaping the Stable Time Loop, and thus no escaping her fate with her husband and her daughter.