WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD
There’s a point early on in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival where a team of scientists and soldiers, entering the alien vessel for the first time, hike through a tunnel until they reach the seeming end of it. One character tosses a Glo-Stick up in the air….and it continues to fall upwards. It is at this point that we realize we have entered, to quote Walter Pidgeon’s Professor Morbius in Forbidden Planet (like Amy Adam’s character, a professor of languages ), a completely new set of scientific values. Villeneuve’s film may seem on the surface to be just another alien-first-contact movie but it’s actually something much more interesting and unique. It’s a true rarity, a film adaptation of a quite recent, highly-acclaimed science fiction short story that manages to do its source material justice. While not the masterpiece some are hailing it as being, it’s still a triumph on the part of its director and cast that stands with Interstellar as one of the best and most thought-provoking big-budget science fiction films of the past decade.
The film is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s Nebula-winning short story “The Story of Your Life” (1998), and while it belongs to the tradition of such classics as Murray Leinster’s “First Contact” and especially H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual” which also deal with characters trying to learn alien languages and systems of communication, it’s also kin to Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao and Ian Watson’s The Embedding and The Martian Inca. Like those novels, Chiang’s story is about how language determines our thinking and perceptions, both individually and socially, and draws upon the Whorf-Sapir model of linguistics (long since discredited but still obviously irresistible to authors) for inspiration. It also belongs to a special subset of science fiction stories that have been called “lateral thinking” tales. In this particular variation of the science fiction “puzzle” story, the solution is found not primarily through the use of the scientific method or application of scientific knowledge as it is in the typical hard science story, but by thinking outside the box, finding means outside conventional logic or reasoning that are not immediately obvious to the characters or the reader. This type of story was popularized by A.E. Van Vogt (The World of Null-A and “A Can of Paint”) and Henry Kuttner (“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” and The Fairy Chessmen) during the heyday of Astounding Science Fiction, and remains popular to this day in written SF, although less so with its cinematic equivalent (a notable exception being Vincenzo Natali’s Cube). Chiang’s story is very much along the lines of more recent variations on the lateral thinking tale such as Greg Bear’s “Tangents” and Charles Sheffield’s “Georgia On My Mind” (which also intersperses the protagonist’s memories of a deceased loved one within the main storyline), where the lateral thinking process is not merely a plot device, but has a profound influence on the development of the characters themselves, and with the author’s own writing style.
Both the short story and the film adaptation center around the experiences of the lead character, Dr. Louise Banks, in trying to decipher the language of the Heptapods, the first intelligent extraterrestrial species to make contact with Earth. In Chiang’s original story, this investigative process is interspersed with the main character’s seeming reminiscences of her daughter’s birth, life, and tragic early death, disconcertingly made in the future tense as if in anticipation of the inevitable, and as if she was addressing her daughter herself. We learn in the end that in discovering how the Heptapod’s system of thought and communication is structurally based on Fermat’s Principle of Least Action in Optics (that a beam of light or any other form of electromagnetic wave will traverse two points through the shortest distance possible), Dr. Banks has not only been able to learn their language but has had her own cognitive sense of time affected as well: the “memories” of her daughter are really flash-forwards (as in the Robert Sawyer novel and subsequent TV adaptation of the same name) she has been experiencing during her studies. Chiang provides a solution to the sort of quandary put forth by Terry Carr in his classic short story “The Dance of the Changer and the Three,” which suggests that the alien psyche will forever be inaccessible to human minds: Chiang proposes that modifications in our own cognitive architecture will enable communication and mutual understanding between us and the alien. Moreover, such cognitive modifications will also assist us in coming to terms with our own relationships and limitations, a similar outcome to another Robert Sawyer novel, Factoring Humanity.
As may be expected, there are some significant changes made in expanding Chiang’s story to meet the needs of a nearly two-hour long feature film. One of the most important is that the heptapods do not have the two distinct spoken and written languages as in the original story, but instead are given a single language based on inky circular patterns they emit from their tentacles. Restricting the aliens to the use of visual representation both allows for a more cinematic treatment of the story’s ideas and helps to simplify the depiction of the translation process. It also, strangely enough, makes them less alien, and more like earth’s own highly intelligent cephalopods- octopi, squid and cuttlefish- who also communicate through visual cues, in their case color and pattern changes on the surface of their body (see Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Shining Ones” which anticipated many findings about this fascinating behavior). Yet they remain tantalizingly alien thanks to Villeneuve’s direction, which keeps us at arm’s length from the creatures and instead makes us part of the puzzle the human characters have before them. Villeneuve’s technique of cutting away between wide shots of the aliens and tight close-ups of Adams and Renner places no doubt where he thinks the film’s emphasis should be, and quite correctly, as even in science fiction, the characters need to take precedence. Some have criticized Villeneuve’s for being too low-key in his approach and deliberate in his pacing, as well as for the film’s visual scheme. Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young have deliberately shot the film in a washed-out tone heavy on shades of gray and deep blue, and even the aliens themselves (who closely resemble the descriptions in Chiang’s story, albeit larger and without the ring of eyes) are mostly featureless entities, being elephant-hide covered crosses between the aliens featured in Dagora, the Space Monster and Gamera Vs. Viras who are usually obscured by the thick fog of their own atmosphere. I disagree with those who have considered this particular directorial choice to be a flaw; by intentionally drawing back stylistically, Villeneuve is able to better convey the clinical detachment of the main character and successfully build the film towards her final revelations. Whereas most movies about first contact are about the immense and immediate shock and awe of learning we are not alone, Arrival is about the awkward moment after the first meeting when mistakes are made and conversation and empathy develop. If it sounds like I’m talking more about relationships between people than first contact with an alien race, it’s because the movie draws upon these similarities as well.
Inevitably, comparisons have been made between Villeneuve’s film and both Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the story has even deeper cinematic roots, owing a lot to such early films as The Thing From Another World (disputes between the military and scientists, as well between scientists themselves, on how to approach the alien), The Man From Planet X (the use of geometry to communicate with extraterrestrials) and especially It Came From Outer Space, the first movie to feature non-humanoid aliens and being specifically about how miscommunication and misunderstanding result in fear and apprehension. Arrival perhaps owes even more to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass television serials and their subsequent film adaptations, for their sober, intelligent, decidedly low-key treatment of its themes and premise as well for its ideas themselves. Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is also a likely thematic influence, dealing as it does with the inability of humans to fully understand alien ways of thinking, and drawing connections between the main protagonist’s drive to understand and the personal tragedy and failed relationships in his/her life (Tarkovsky’s film has also been similarly criticized for its slowness and obscurity). The use of flash-forwards also brings to mind the elliptical editing of Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, probably the saddest of all alien visitation movies. At least Arrival offers some hope in the midst of its sadness, whereas the Roeg film ends on an unremittingly despairing and pessimistic note; certainly, Villeneuve and Chiang offer a more optimistic perspective on not just human nature than Roeg and Tevis (contrast the way aliens are treated by Earth scientists in both films!), but on the consequences of first contact for all parties involved.
Of course, no film is perfect, and there are some minor flaws in Arrival. For this viewer, the biggest disappointment is that the physics aspect of the short story which provided it with a solid hard-science basis has been largely marginalized despite the fact that the character of the physicist itself has been expanded. In his afterword to the story’s publication in the collection of the same name, Chiang states that it developed specifically out of his fascination with principles of least action in physics, so the minimization of this facet of the story is particularly ironic. Forrest Whitaker’s military man remains woefully underdeveloped, although this is the first movie I’ve seen to break with the Whitaker-Robbins Rule (a heuristic I came up with years ago: no science fiction film featuring Forrest Whitaker or Tim Robbins can be any good). Although the film takes the bold move of criticizing both the dictatorial socialist governments of China and Venezuela, the finale seems to be yet another instance of studios bending over not to offend the PRC censors. Lastly, the title is not just generic and unimaginative, but is almost identical to that of the excellent, much-underrated The Arrival from twenty years ago, which will likely cause confusion along the lines of the 2005 and 1995 films both named Crash.
These are minor quibbles with what is nonetheless one of the most intellectually stimulating and provocative science fiction film to come from a major studio of late. It has already engaged critics into thoughtful analyses (one of the most interesting being Kyle Smith’s interpretation of the film as a pro-life allegory ) and will undoubtedly be the subject of many an academic paper in years to come, maybe even a volume or two dedicated to the movie itself. And it certainly allays any fears about the upcoming Blade Runner sequel currently being directed by Villeneuve.