RogerBW's Blog

Arrival (2016) 16 May 2023

2016 SF, dir. Denis Villeneuve, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner; IMDb / allmovie. The alien ships arrive, but nobody knows how to communicate with their occupants.

I'm starting from a slightly odd place here. Basically every SF reader I know who's read Ted Chiang's writing reckons he's great and can do no wrong… except me. There's something in my reading experience of his work (which doesn't include Story of Your Life, the specific work on which this film is based) that just feels off to me, perhaps the superficial use of buzzwords without any real understanding of the underlying concepts, and I can't be enthused.

So I went into this without the baseline eagerness (and, to be fair, caution) that I would have if this had been an adaptation of an author whose work I loved. It's a pretty loose adaptation anyway; the core plot is the same, but screenwriter Eric Heisserer (A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), Final Destination 5 (2011), The Thing (2011), which is a CV I really can't see as a recommendation) has trimmed quite a bit and invented a lot of new auxiliary material.

And the feeling I take away, overall, is the last act of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but for grown-ups. No mystical five-tone sequences, but actual linguistic effort (even if, as usual in film, it's presented as a series of breakthroughs rather than the honest slog of this kind of work in real life).

Visually it's very effective, though once you notice the aggressive colour grading to set a mood in each location it's impossible not to see it thereafter. Great set design, decent camera work.

Adams is solid here, though we're seeing yet again the trope of a personal tragedy in backstory to account for a female scientist – and even if that's not what's actually happening, it certainly looks like it until the final scenes. Male scientists don't need this kind of motivation, but obviously no normal woman would want to do that. On the other hand, Renner is basically playing the pretty sidekick who provides emotional support and doesn't advance the plot - which is at least an amusing role-reversal.

Unfortunately the underlying plot goes hard on an overblown version of Sapir-Whorf, so that if you learn the alien language you will have access to all your memories from past and future. Oh, we just eliminated free will, and any reason for anyone to strive for anything. Does anyone care? I don't think they even notice, except in the whole Dead Kid Subplot.

This is 94% positive on Rotten Tomatoes and on lots of people's best-of-the-year lists. Yay you. I'm glad you enjoyed it and I'm not saying you're wrong to do so. But it never floated me enough to get me clear of the sharp débris at the bottom of the river.

I talk about this film further on Ribbon of Memes.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 09:17am on 16 May 2023

    I like Ted Chiang's writing, although Story of Your Life is not a favourite. However, what I like is the writing, the cleanness and simplicity of the way he uses language while still telling a strong story. That isn't likely to translate well to a different medium, even without major revisions by a screenwriter.

  2. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 09:28am on 16 May 2023

    I agree, even though I'm less negative about the elements that disturb you.

    Writers seem to love Sapir-Whorf, but there again they also love Freud and Jung; all the conjectures arising from these men's work being as best weakly correlated to 'reality' (whatever reality is), and at worst just plain wrong.

    But, and you knew there might be a but from me, determinism and free-will are not totally exclusive to each other, if you consider free-will as degrees of freedom (the ability to stop and think/calculate your options), then determinism become the boundary of actions limited by the laws of physics.

    Obviously, a lot to unpack there. Feel free to ignore.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 05:07pm on 16 May 2023

    John - interesting, thanks. Certainly there's very little narration, which would be the best chance for original prose to survive – which is fair enough for the medium.

    Ashley - my objection is not to "we've just proved that all events are predestined", it's to "we've just proved that all events are predestined and nobody seems to regard this as worthy of notice". (I gather that the original story does at least give a nod to the idea that this realisation might be a bit disconcerting for some people.)

  4. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 08:45am on 17 May 2023

    Thanks for the clarification, Roger.

    Free will is a bit like the weather, predictable by probability, but subject chaos from turbulence.

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