Audiences across the country dialed into Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi brain twister Arrival over the weekend. While the intelligent and deeply moving drama couldn't unseat Marvel's crowd-pleasing Doctor Strange in its second weekend, Arrival did bank an estimated $24 million, good for a second place finish, with the hope that positive word of mouth will continue to push it through the box office. While there were so many pivotal scenes that Villeneuve included in this adaptation of the short story "Story of Your Life," there's an important one he decided to leave out.
Prior to Arrival opening in theaters, I had a conversation with screenwriter Eric Heisserer, a champion of the original short story by Ted Chiang who lobbied hard for years to bring it to the big screen. Heisserer, as part of our conversation, told me about the existence of an actual First Contact team (so awesome), and elaborated on the structure of the film, which builds to a massive reveal. STOP READING NOW if you haven't yet seen Arrival. I am about to spoil it for you.
Still with me? So, you know that eventually, Amy Adams' linguist, Louise, is able to master Heptapod, the language of the visiting alien species that allows communicators to see someone's entire time line -- their Life Sentence -- from beginning to end. This explains how/why Louise is able to "remember" moments with her daughter, even though -- in the future -- her daughter Hannah is going to die. Eric Heisserer told me that Louise and Hannah had a pivotal conversation in an important scene in an early cut of Arrival, but it was too soon to drop the reveal that Louise could "read" all of her future daughter's timeline. So they had to cut it, primarily because Amy Adams was too damn effective in the scene. As Heisserer explains to me:
There's a scene that used to be in the middle of the film, that was another moment between Louise and Hannah, a teenage Hannah, actually. It was an extension of the scene, if you remember [from] the very beginning, with teen Hannah, there's a debate where she goes 'I hate you,' because it's the 'I love you / I hate you' double beat. That was a scene in which Hannah was supposed to have done her homework, and she didn't, and she's going to go out to hang with the kids, her friends, that night. And Louise grounds her. So Hannah just has a fit, and said something that's very typical of a teen, which is, 'Why don't you just let me live my life?' And the reaction from Amy Adams was so powerful, that question and the fact that it's exactly what Louise is doing, was just amazing. We realized though, as powerful and evocative as it was, and you know, with the performance of Amy behind it, it kind of broke the movie a little bit. So we had to pull that out. We realized, 'OK, we can't drop this heavy bomb here, right in the middle of the movie, in hour one.' ... It was like, 'Amy, you're too good. You're too good, Amy. This is not good.'
Arrival is a beautifully constructed analysis of the power of language, and the existence of intent in our modern discourse. And it makes sense why director Denis Villeneueve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer would need to be careful about how much they revealed to the audience before the concept of the Heptapod language was fully revealed and explained to the movie-going audience. Arrival isn't a simple, linear story to process, so WHEN we learn certain concepts is just as important as WHY we are learning them. The story, as he points out, can unravel -- or break -- if it gets ahead of the audience members.