It’s fifteen years since I read ‘Story of Your Life’ (1998), so my memory of it was extremely vague, but I decided to not re-read Ted Chiang’s deservedly Nebula- and Sturgeon-winning novella until after seeing Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 adaptation of it. There will be more than enough people complaining that the film is not as good as the story – I find that kind of statement pretty meaningless, even if the screenplay is by the Eric ‘Hours‘ Heisserer, the man who also wrote 2011 The Thing remake/prequel.
Arrival very sensibly cuts a lot of the material about the investigation into the alien heptapods’ knowledge of physics in favour of an even stronger focus on learning to comprehend their language, on interspecies communication. Moreover, once the film has established the distinction between the heptapods’ spoken language (Heptapod A) and their semasiographic written language (Heptapod B), it focuses on the latter, which is presented with a beautiful simplicity visually extrapolated from the behaviour of the heptapods’ nearest terrestrial analogues – as is the sound of Heptapod A.
Indeed, as one might expect of Villeneuve, the consistently not-uninteresting but oddly over-rated director of Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), Sicario (2015) and the in-production Blade Runner 2049 (2017), the overall look of the film is as picturesque as ever (no-one does helicopter shots looking down on and heading into non-urban terrain as well as him, whether his dp is Roger Deakins (Sicario) or Bradford Young (Arrival)); and as always, this picturesque sensibility cannot avoid moments of tedious obviousness. The visual design of the aliens, their ships and their environment is quite beautiful, though. All of which is a real bonus, since Chiang’s story follows in the grand Asimov tradition of more or less indistinguishable heads talking to each other in barely described places (although the proleptic passages come closer to delineating character and human interaction).
The film does a lot to round out Chiang’s linguist protagonist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and the physicist, Gary, renamed Ian (Jeremy Renner), with whom she falls in love. In the novella, they are more (Gary) or less (Louise) ciphers. As in the novella, Louise is kept front and centre in the film, while Renner lurks, Hawkeye-like, in the background. Perfectly cast as a bit of a dick, he is slowly humanised with an early pratfall and even more so by the decision to sideline the physics. However, this, along with the reworking of the novella’s proleptic passages, exaggerates the gender politics in the story’s DNA. The woman does language, communication, intuition, caring, nurturing; the man does physics, reason, emotional stuntedness. Possibly the worst line in the film – ‘You want to know about science, ask your father’ – comes from Louise, herself not only a scientist but the one making all the breakthroughs with the aliens. And since the physics is pushed aside, Ian becomes sufficiently competent in linguistics in a matter of days to make a key breakthrough in the enigma posed by a mass download of Heptapod B (although since he ‘compliments’ Louise by saying she approaches language like a mathematician, maybe this is only him being better at maths than her, which of course he would be, being male and all).
Villeneuve’s tricky reworking of the proleptic material from Chiang’s novella brings the story much closer to the kind of play with temporality found in European arthouse time travel movies, such as Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). This, despite the occasional picturesque cliché, adds a strong sense of melancholy, mourning and loss, as well as yearning and hope, to Chiang’s rather dry and unadventurous musings on free-will and determinism (those that are directly stated rather than those instantiated by the form his story takes).
However, this also reinforces (along with elements of the visual design) that always-present Hollywood tendency to equate women with motherhood (if not in quite the relentless over-the-top manner of The Girl on the Train (Taylor 2016)).
And the naming of Louise’s daughter is a nice touch, even if you spot the reason for it before it is explained – but not as nice a touch as the moment during the second ‘interview’ with the heptapods when, in contrast to the Voyager plaque, it is an active woman who steps forward with a raised hand to greet the aliens, while the man lingers passively behind.
Changing the nicknames of the two key heptapods – from the novella’s Flapper and Raspberry – is also a good move in terms of getting an to audience to take them seriously; and it makes sense, in terms of his character, for Ian to come up with Abbott and Costello, but why is it always the guy who gets to name shit, and why must the names he chooses be gendered ones? (Not being a fan of Jeremy Renner, who keeps saying dumb sexist things in interviews, helps at moments like this cos you can enjoy blaming him for things he is clearly not responsible for. See, he’s even made me end a sentence with a prepostion. Damn him.)
Chiang’s story happens, more or less, in a geopolitical vacuum. Arrival distributes the twelve vessels in which the aliens arrive around the globe (Russia, China, Sudan, Australia, the UK, Venezuela, Sierra Leone and others), leading to attempts at international cooperation and potential global conflict as – with the deluded self-righteousness of US cinema, it is China, Russia and Sudan who lead the way in escalating conflict. (There is a moment completely free from irony when the CIA guy points to examples of imperial powers trying to set factions against each other so as maintain their own power, but fails to mention the US backed coups in Venezuela.) In a similar unironic vein, when examples of colonial situations in which the coloniser all but eradicates the indigenous people, it is Australian Aboriginals who are mentioned, rather than, say, native American indians – and the words this time are put in the mouth of the black Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Rather unnervingly, for all its well-intentioned chatter about the need for humans to cooperate, regardless of nation or creed, the film resolves into a sort of hymn to ‘humanitarian’ intervention.
Some have claimed that Arrival is the best sf film of the year (or decade). That seems to me more an indictment of sf cinema than a sensible response to a quite smart, unquestionably well-acted, film that is interesting on multiple levels – and it sure is purty to look at. It is well worth seeing. Especially if you want to know what lo-fi sci-fi looks like when it has $50 million budget and goes all middlebrow.
 I cannot endorse the presence of Her (2013) on this or any other list. I apologise for reminding you of its existence.