I wonder how this movie will be viewed in years to come. Prescient or the last gasp of a dying order? The movie, Arrival, released this weekend to overwhelming positive reviews paints a simple but nuanced perspective of the universe. Do we still live in a universe capable of nuance?
Based on a beautiful short story by Ted Chiang, (The Story of Your Life), Arrival is essentially a first-contact story. And parts of it reminded me of "Contact," although I like this movie considerably more. This is a cerebral movie, unafraid to let powerful images and solid acting deliver its message rather than spectacle (although there is certainly a little of that, too). It's also an excellent movie, probably my favorite depiction of First Contact in movies, owing the simple fact that the movie is unafraid to depict truly alien aliens and their profound impact on truly human humans.
Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist brought into the landing site of a enigmatic alien craft with the hope of initiating communication. The military has set up a rough base camp around the alien ship (one of twelve set down at more or less completely random sites around the world) and is attempting to remain calm in the face of a clearly far more advanced species. The basic question is what the aliens within the crafts want of humanity. What is their purpose in visiting Earth? It says a lot about this movie that one of the most compelling and mind-expanding scenes involves Banks explaining the difficulties of simply asking that question and understanding the answer.
To say much more will pull away at the threads of mystery of the story so this might be good point to pause, slap a SPOILER AHEAD on this post and address the most important question for me, about this movie.
What relation does "Arrival," have with the short story it's based on? When I first saw trailers for the movie, I noted the cast and the clear attention to details and became interested. When I saw it was based on Chiang's story (which at that point I hadn't read) I put it on the 'must-watch' list. Then I read "The Story of Your Life" and became a little discouraged. The trailers for the movie focus on the military nature of the first contact and while I didn't see anything that felt like a complete betrayal of Chiang's meditative and rather chilly original, I couldn't see how they would make a Hollywood sci fi movie from the source material without some considerable distortion. The answer is that they didn't change all that much. The basic point of the story is still there, as is the centrality of the aliens' language. Tone is the biggest difference and, in particular, to make the jump from page to screen, it appears the film-makers (the movie was directed by Denis Villeneuve) gave a much less ambiguous motivation to the Heptapods of the movie and somewhat more dubious implication regarding Louise Banks' decisions.
Chiang's Heptapods arrive on Earth to 'witness' humanity. They engage in conversation with humans, gradually teaching them their language, and unique perspective, then leaving before Earth Humanity can learn much from them. The meaning of their visit is beautifully, hauntingly obscure even as the impact of the experience ripples through Banks' subsequent life.
In "Arrival," the Heptapods come to Earth on what amounts to a recruiting drive. By teaching their language, which imparts upon those fluent in its use the ability to see the future, the aliens hope to gain humanity's help in a distant future. As I've said in many prior movie reviews, I generally have zero difficulty accepting a cinematic adaptation as being different from its text. That's basically the case here. Although "Arrival" offers the viewers a far more comprehensible alien than the story, it's not so greatly altered as to ruin my enjoyment. I think of it as collapsing the wave function of Chiang's story into one possible implication out of many.
I'm more interested in the very subtle but important difference between how the encounter with the Heptapods influences Dr. Banks. The twist is that the tragedy the audience assumed happened prior to the events of the arrival, the death of her daughter, actually happened afterwards. This happens after she had already gained an awareness of future events through her language. In the story, her knowledge of her daughter's story and her eventual death, is balanced by the great joy she knows her daughter's life will bring her.
In the movie, this decision is somehow messier and more ambiguous. Banks gains the ability to see and manipulate her own sequential experience through foreknowledge of the future. So if she is able to make alterations she could clearly choose not to have her daughter on that particular night. Chiang's story suggests that decision is not fully within her power, or that her perception of free will is an abridged version of how reality works. Because this is a movie and great geo-political crises are afoot, cinematic Banks does have that agency. She uses her freewill to bring the challenge posed by the Heptapods to a happy conclusion. War is averted, the world grows in its understanding of the universe. Banks marries Ian Donnelly, the physicist she had grown close to during the course of the movie and, late one evening, he asks her if she wants to make a baby.
She says, "yes," knowing all that is to come, all the joy and the misery, and her own ability to change that event. If perhaps they had answered that question on a different night, things might have been different or maybe they would have been the same. But the implication is muddier here.
I'm not sure if this is meant as a criticism. I like well handled ambiguity and this is certainly well-handled. But in a movie that in most respects attempts to simplify, this is one area where I think it complicates.
In other news, my next chapter of "Agent Shield and Spaceman," is now available. Even as Spaceman's situation at the Delta Omega base becomes more precarious, he remains calm in the face of disaster. The nicotine helps.