Arrival (2016)

by Matt PiucciArrival

Science Fiction is often the most difficult genre to film. The genre can leave little to the imagination, and conveying both the spirit and meaning of the original author’s work is no small feat. One of the greatest SciFi films of all time is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But the film also caused the author Arthur C. Clarke to leave the theatre in tears after seeing the film of his book. I believe that Clarke is one of the greatest Science fiction writers of all time and 2001 is considered by most as one of his best works (Childhood’s End from 1953 gets my vote). I actually agree with Clarke’s assertion that Kubrick purposefully obscured the story for his own artistic reasons. The book is the superior work, even if 2001 is a groundbreaking film.

Now about Arrival, Denis Villanueve’s beautiful adaptation of Ted Chiang’s tender and heartbreaking novella, The Story of Your Life (1998). The filmmaker had a serious challenge – it is a simple story with a complicated and difficult idea. How to convey the intimate beauty of a mother whispering an extraordinary story to her daughter, while simultaneously addressing grandiose and complex notions of time, language and extraterrestrial contact. It really is two distinct films woven together. The core idea is fantastic in both meanings of the adjective.

The filmmaker wisely uses a voice over and highly stylized, intimate shots that portray the simpler and smaller film within the film- a mother telling her daughter the story of her life. The opening of the film and other “flashbacks” (or flash forwards) throughout are reminiscent of the cinematic master Terence Malick. The actual daughter does not appear in the film itself, only in these flashback/flash forward moments. Wrapped around this quiet story is the “big” film, where much larger and more standard themes of alien contact, xenophobia, and communication and language in general are addressed. All great art asks a question and one of them here is how does language effect behavior and thought? Essentially the premise of Sapir-Whorf linguistic relativity asserts yes, it does. And profoundly.

So how does a screenwriter/director take such an esoteric and internalized story and make it in to an action film as well? Can they change the novella sufficiently to make it cinematic without sending the author out of the theater in tears? I don’t know how Ted Chiang feels about it, but I think the job that was done is marvelous. There are several added story lines that do exactly that, and the payoff is very good, but to mention them here might ruin the film.

Amy Adams is the language professor who tells her daughter’s story. Pretty quickly her life as a teacher is interrupted by something extraordinary- alien ships have arrived on Earth. Soon a military helicopter shows up on her lawn and out steps a very serious Army Colonel (Forest Whittaker). He plays her a recording of the alien’s “speech”. She is then whisked off to a site where what looks like an enormous potato slice is hovering above the ground. There are another eleven of these ships all across the world and no one can figure out why they are here. So our protagonist begins a dialog, with all of the incumbent pressures and paranoia that come from the difficulty of communicating without a common language. The aliens seem to want to chat as well, since they allow the humans to enter their weird and featureless spacecraft for a “talk”. The military, and everyone, wants to know why they are here. What do they want?

That is the other half of the film, and seamlessly integrating the mother‘s tale with learning to communicate with the heptapods (the aliens who look like floating elephant heads with seven trunk/feet) is a tough challenge. But learn she does and what she finds out quickly is that the aliens have a very special written language that is different from their speech. She learns that they construct complete and complex sentences that are written in a circular fashion from both ends at the same time. This means they must know the whole thing before they even start a sentence. It slowly dawns on Professor Banks (played well by Amy Adams) that the alien concept of time is very different than that of humans. It appears that the heptapods see time as a circle and seem to know the future as well as the past.

Here is where the genius of the film resides. It’s about halfway through the film before one realizes that in the intimate, Malick-like film, that is intercut with the traditional alien movie, the daughter not only has already been born, but she has already died as well. As Professor Banks learns to speak and write heptapod, her very perception of time is changing. She begins to see the world as the heptapods do- a life, a world, a race that has a beginning and end that are not separated but are seen as a whole. And we eventually understand that the she knew her daughter’s entire arc before the daughter was even born.

This could have been very cheesy, and sometimes the subtlety and difficulty of the message is lost on some viewers, as not everyone I know liked it as much as I did. But if you aren’t up for confronting these complicated themes, it can pass by as standard science-fiction fare - alien/human distrust, and only the heroine can talk to them, and she saves the world just in the nick of time.

Included in the larger story is Jeremy Renner, who plays a physicist who is also assigned to learn about the aliens, and who we realize will end up being the father of the dead/yet to be born daughter. There are the requisite CIA/Army cynics who think only in terms of conflict and war. There is the inevitable communication failure between humans who speak different languages, and the story has great tension as different countries deal with the aliens in different ways. There is conflict, a few explosions and some standard Cold War terror. By itself, it would have made a decent but unremarkable film.

But the key here is the other story, so private and sweet, a whisper from mother to child, that allows the bigger story some freedom. And the resolution of the conflict in the larger story works in both the alien circular view of time and in our own linear way. And this tapestry is woven beautifully so that both the intimate and the cosmic fit together seamlessly.

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