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Entry updated 6 May 2022. Tagged: Film.

Film (2016). Paramount Pictures presents a 21 Laps Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment and Lava Bear Films production. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Eric Heisserer, based on "Story of Your Life" (in Starlight 2, anth 1998, ed Patrick Nielsen Hayden) by Ted Chiang. Cast includes Amy Adams, Tzi Ma, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg and Forest Whitaker. 116 minutes. Colour.

The life of a Linguistics expert reveals itself as comprehensible through Time when she learns an Alien language.

"Be patient," advises Kurt Vonnegut in the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Slaughterhouse-Five (1994). "Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and loves you no matter what you are." Or, as the narrator says at the beginning of the Ted Chiang short story from which Arrival is adapted, "I know how this story ends; I think about it a lot." Controlled revelation is the very essence of narrative.

Chiang's story – the revised version of which appears in Stories of Your Life and Others (coll 2002), complete with story notes that quote Vonnegut – conveys two interpretations, one causal (intended to connote the sequential awareness of humans) and one teleological (intended to connote the simultaneous awareness through time of its alien species). Demonstrations of the variational principles of Physics direct the events of "Story of Your Life" but it is the story's form that imparts the greater part of its emotional impact: the text is the shape of the paradigm it seeks to depict. That the film adaptation must transmute some of this slow-burn epiphany to a last-reel final "twist" is understandable: Cinema lends itself more readily to the visual delivery of the relationship between outer Dimensions and Inner Space than to descriptions of how one species' mode of Perception might alter its means of understanding the universe. It is to the credit of screenwriter Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve that they manage to exchange some of what is lost from the internal logic of Chiang's story for a Sense of Wonder borne by alien ships above human Cities, immersive soundscapes combined with the Gravity-like effects on humans of boarding the craft and a persuasively graphic portrayal of an extraterrestrial language, designed here for the film by artist Martine Bertrand. Arrival is technically impressive.

Linguist Louise Banks (Adams) is grieving for the death of her teenage daughter from cancer when twelve alien Spaceships appear at twelve locations around present-day planet Earth, engendering globalized military Paranoia. US Army Colonel G T Weber (Whitaker) partners Banks with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) in a bid to establish First Contact with the "heptapods", who are large, cephalopod-like creatures with seven limbs organized in a circle around a barrel-shaped corpus – a form-factor that influences not only how the creatures move and communicate but also the way in which they use an inverted system of Mathematics to describe the same physical laws of the universe. Two heptapods dubbed "Abbott and Costello" by Banks and Donnelly converse with their military reception party at the Montana landing site by squirting circular Rorschach-reminiscent blots of black ink onto the clear window that separates them and their breathable atmosphere from that of their human interlocutors. Banks's comprehension of the heptapods' semasiographic writing system (its ideograms are based on meaning, not sound) and the heptapods' corresponding insight into human Psychology and Biology is the hinge on which the plot of Arrival swings.

Banks asks what the heptapods want and when they answer "offer weapon" or perhaps "use weapon", several of the military-led encampments at the landing sites close Communications with both the heptapods and their network of human allies around the world, a situation that quickly worsens when China scrambles its military and rogue soldiers from within the US camp plant a bomb within the Montana spacecraft. "Abbott" saves Donnelly and Banks but dies in the blast. Donnelly discovers that the circular symbols he and Banks have been studying refer to interrelated concepts of time distributed equally among the twelve nations playing host to the heptapods: humans must cooperate in order to receive the full benefit of the "gift" the heptapods have brought with them.

The Cliché of a gung-ho military set against an alien visitor disposed to teach the world to coordinate its efforts is much the weakest part of the film, and something that occurs only by allusion in Chiang's "Story of Your Life". The middle part of Arrival is disproportionately long and one imagines the filmmakers felt the need to spice things up. As the Chinese prepare to attack the spacecraft in their vicinity, Banks rushes aboard the Montana craft and learns from "Costello" that the flashbacks she has been having throughout the film are in fact a form of flash-forwards: the language she has learned from the heptapods is allowing her to experience Time Out of Sequence. Banks begins to see herself interceding in the unfolding of events: she is at the United Nations, she is being thanked by General Shang (Ma) for persuading him to call off the attack by the Chinese, visions of the future everywhere inform her actions in the present; the oncoming military Disaster is (according to the sequential awareness of the humans) averted. The twelve spacecraft leave and as the film ends, Donnelly turns to Banks and asks: "Do you want to make a baby?" And Banks replies, "Yes," despite knowing that this is the child for whom she has been grieving throughout the film.

That Donnelly and Banks have become romantically involved (and subsequently separated) is evident much sooner in "Story of Your Life" and there is much careful calibration in the story between the motives and point of view of the heptapods and that of the humans, and of how in turn Banks gradually understands that she is the bridge between one form of understanding and another. That Chiang uses the variational principles of physics to show that neither form of understanding contradicts the other and that both conform to the physical laws of the universe is elegant: rarely has Hard SF been at once so plausible and so life-affirming. That the shape of Chiang's narrative further communicates this by being both sequentially surprising and simultaneously syncopated to Banks's and the reader's subsequent understanding of what is really happening in the story heightens the epiphanic aspect of its Conceptual Breakthrough. Banks's daughter is 25 years old when she dies of a climbing accident in "Story of Your Life" and is clearly intended to encompass the full life-cycle of a human available only to the combination of mother and child: she is the lingua franca not only between human and heptapod but between Chiang and his reader. This immediacy is lost in the film adaptation. Arrival nonetheless shows that it is possible for a science fiction film to be both scientifically qualified and commercially successful, and informed moreover by a fine-honed literary sensibility. It won a 2017 Hugo as best dramatic presentation (long form), and also the Ray Bradbury Award (see Nebula). [MD]

see also: L'Arrivo Di Wang.


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