(This will *attempt* to be non-spoilery, but there’s probably no such thing as a spoiler-free review of a film like this, so beware).
Before I start, a confession — I have not read “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.
I know, I know, bad literary SF fan. Chiang is the acknowledged modern master of SF short stories, and “The Story of Your Life” is one of his greatest works.
But printzines are hard to get hold of unless you make a real effort, and so I didn’t read it on its initial publication, and have somehow never got around to reading it. Which means that I can’t, in this post, analyse how the film relates to the short story in the way that, say, Abigail Nussbaum (shorter Nussbaum: it’s a very good film, but misses some of the points of the story to its detriment) or Peter Watts (shorter Watts: it’s a very good story, but the film improves on it while keeping all the main points) have.
(My own view, assuming what they say about the main character’s daughter’s cause of death in the short story is true, is that this moves the choice the protagonist makes at the very end of the film from being one that makes her seem truly alien and emphasises her changed nature, to being one that reflects the kind of choices that all too many people have to make every day. In the story, as described, the daughter’s death could have been prevented and wasn’t, while in the film her death could not be prevented once she was born with the rare condition from which she later dies. Whether one considers this an improvement or a ducking of the question is, I suspect, a matter of taste).
What I *can* say is that this is one of those *very* rare SF films that actually gets at what I want from science fiction — and, indeed, from fiction generally.
Normally, you can separate science fiction films into three rough groups. The first, and by far the most prevalent, are the space adventure stories — Star Wars, Star Trek, Flash Gordon, Guardians of the Galaxy, Alien. For these, “space” is a set of textures and environments, in which stories about goodies and baddies fighting can play out with no regard to plausibility. These can be good, bad, or indifferent, but have nothing to do with what I, at least, regard as the point of science fiction as a genre. (They have a *lot* to do with what the Puppyfascists regard as the point of science fiction, though…)
There’s a second, much smaller, group of films which one might regard as “hard science fiction” — The Martian and Gravity are the two most recent examples of this I can think of. In these, a protagonist is placed in a situation in which they have to use their science and engineering skills to get themselves out of trouble, and the science is usually plausible enough. These are close to the version of science fiction that was promoted by John W Campbell and his acolytes in the 1940s through 60s.
And there’s a third, even smaller, genre — the semi-mystical first contact story. Off the top of my head, I can only think of three of these — 2001, Contact, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Arrival is in many ways a hybrid of the latter two types of film, and keeps much of the best of both. Aliens arrive, and do so in order to change humanity’s way of thinking, ushering in a new age — but the narrative of the film concentrates on the process by which communication is established. The protagonist is a linguist, and manages to convey a lot of the process of translating an unknown language (actually, thinking about it, “an unknown script” might be a better phrase, in more ways than one), and her mathematical-physicist colleague equally conveys a lot about the processes of mathematical thinking.
Even better, though, the point is made several times that what is being conveyed is an oversimplification. I laughed when the protagonist replies to a question from the military about the difficulty of communicating without a common language with the single word “kangaroo”. This was followed, when she asked to elaborate, by an explanation of the famous story about Captain Cook asking an aboriginal Australian what that animal is and getting the answer “kangaroo”, and no white settlers discovering until much later that the word meant “I don’t know”.
But then, once the soldier asking the question had left the room, the protagonist admits to a colleague that the story isn’t true, but served to make her point.
This is actually a brilliant piece of writing, which works better the more I think about it. The initial use just of “kangaroo” flatters those of us in the audience who know the story, and gets an easy laugh (and I suspect would also get a laugh from those who *don’t* know the story, because of the apparent randomness). The story itself then illustrates the potential pitfalls which have to be avoided later in the film, while the acknowledgement of the story’s mythical nature not only signals to the audience “this is an oversimplification, not the real thing, but the basic idea’s right”, but also signals to those of us who were sat there fuming in our own pedantry thinking “any competent linguist would know that isn’t true” that the film knows what it’s doing (as does the character).
That scene does an *immense* amount in a tiny bit of dialogue — maybe twenty seconds’ screen time, and there’s a lot more like that. After reading this piece by the scriptwriter on the process of adapting the story, I *really* wish his book on screenwriting was available on any platform other than Kindle (I don’t use Kindle. I want to read that book.)
The result is a film with a very filmic emotional through-line, one where the protagonist’s emotional changes and how they affect her life are central to the whole thing, but one that really deals with ideas in a way *very* few films, let alone SF films, do. Where most SF films will hinge on a climactic laser battle, this one hinges on the Sapir-Worf hypothesis.
Many of the ideas will, of course, be very familiar to at least some of the audience (anyone who’s read anything Alan Moore ever wrote, for example, will probably have explored the ideas of predestination, free will, and alternative perceptions of time in a universe where the future is immutable, to at least the same extent as the film does). But the fact that this is a film that dares to be about ideas at all, that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence even slightly, and that portrays intelligent people who actually have a life of the mind without turning them into pop-autistic sociopaths played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a minor miracle.
It’s not a perfect film, of course. Pretty much everything is shot in shades of light blue and blueish-grey, as appears to be inevitable in films these days. Note for directors — other colours exist, including such popular favourites as yellow, brown, and pink. No-one will actually refuse to see your films if you include them.
More egregiously, my wife tells me that the audio description for visually impaired people actually *lied* about when in time some sequences are set, which for a film as nonlinear as this is a pretty major shortcoming.
But for those like myself who like their science fiction to be *about* something, and ideally about multiple somethings, the problems with the film can easily be dismissed. It’s easily the most intelligent SF film of the last twenty years (that I’ve seen), without sacrificing spectacle, emotional engagement, and the other things that mass audiences respond to. HIGHLY recommended.
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