SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for Denis Villeneuve's Arrival. If you have not yet seen the film, please bookmark this page and save it until after your screening!
To quote Jim Rash's character on the comedy series Community, time travel is really hard to write about. Not only is there the issue of paradoxes and inconsistences in the narrative, but the hard sci-fi nature of it all can quickly get intensely complex and confusing. This was something that Oscar nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer had to deal with in the writing of the Best Picture-nominated Arrival -- which has time travel elements involved in its big twist -- and in sorting it all out the writer actually found a certain level of inspiration in the screenplay for Rian Johnson's 2012 action film Looper.
With Arrival hitting Blu-ray and DVD this Tuesday, I had the wonderful opportunity to hop on the phone with Eric Heisserer last week to talk about the hit the film, and part of our conversation was dedicated to his approach to the complex subject of time travel. Specifically, I asked him if in constructing the rules for the universe he was devising he took any kind of inspiration from pop culture, and he explained how a sequence in an early draft of Looper taught him the importance of keeping things simple and not getting too far into the weeds. Said Heisserer,
It's interesting -- one of my favorite moments about time travel or even time travel exposition came from the screenplay of Looper. The final film has this lovely scene where you have Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis sitting across from each other, so two versions of himself, and he asks Bruce Willis, 'So how does this work?' And the older character is like, 'Don't ask me about time travel. It's not going to work.' In the screenplay it goes a little bit different. There's a great comedy cut to 20 seconds later where he's using the salt shaker and the straw and other elements at the diner to translate. 'So here's the timeline we're on, and the things we're affecting.' You get a little bit of it and you realize how absurd it sounds when you get into the science of it all, and I kind of used Rian Johnson's screenplay as a mental touchstone of, 'We can go into a wacky tangent if we're not careful.
What's particularly funny about this is that Rian Johnson must have at some point felt the same way about this Looper scene -- because as Eric Heisserer points out, the comedic cut only exists in the screenplay. Instead, the finished movie actually makes a direct joke about not diagramming and explaining time travel because it gets too weird too quickly.
Instead of getting bogged down in the details, Arrival's approach to time travel is actually completely different than most examples in pop culture history -- if not partially because it never has the big tropes of the subgenre or any kind of silly exposition-spilling sequences. A big part of what makes the film brilliant (and well-deserving of its Academy Award attention) is the fact that the time travel elements are directly built into the narrative, with audiences experiencing an nontraditional non-linear story without even realizing it. The movie is better for the fact that it doesn't have characters trying to figure out the specific rules, and it seems we have Rian Johnson to thank for that.
We'll have to wait and see if Arrival can become the first science-fiction film to win Best Picture when the Academy Awards are held later this month on February 26th -- but between now and then be sure to pick up a copy of the film on Blu-ray/DVD and stay tuned for more from my interview with Eric Heisserer.