Arrival Ship concept art. (via Conceptartworld)
Arrival is one of those films where people are going to say, “Well, you have to read the noooovella it’s based on. EYEEEE... read it. It’s far superior to the fiiiilm.”
It’s true, though, but only in a few instances in this adaptation. The story centers around language of and communication with mysterious alien visitors. For all intents and purposes, this plays out like a classic monster movie. In this loved genre, you can’t show the monster right away. Seeing it is what everyone wants. The story could be horrible, lame, perplexing, but if the monster is cool, everyone is satiated. With Arrival, fortunately, you get an awesome story. However, you’ll have to wait for the classic-cliché “glimpse of the monster” about 32 minutes into the show. Full view, as if following the monster movie rulebook, is held off until the end.
The coolest shot of the Arrival ship.
That isn’t all the movie has to offer, the story will keep you captivated throughout. The main character Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is right off the bat shown to have lost a child who seems to only have been around ten or twelve. My immediate reaction, “Not the babies! Come on! It’s unfair!” But, that’s the point, how do you cope? Getting lost in your work seems to be the answer. Which, as an engineer, I can identify with the strategy. I’ve made a lot of progress feeling down and out.
Dr. Banks loses herself, in linguistics it seems. The goal eventually become her communicating with the visitors, “Heptapods” as they are called for their limb asymmetry. The language they eventually discover, in written form, is quite clever. It’s a circular written language with no start or stop in any point in the form. The story takes on the idea of when you know a language; you begin to think in that language. It changes your view of the world, it changes your pattern of though. This happens to be known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity.
The story elegantly explores this idea with a language unbound by beginnings and endings and how that would change the human mind. This is where I will leave the main plot synopsis.
But, of course, I have a few issues.
The screenplay was adapted by Eric Heisserer from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Heisserer had been trying to get the screenplay adapter for some time, under the one requirement that the film be just like the story, about linguistics and void of violent action that happens to be a staple of science fiction films to date. He, indeed, was able to get that… almost.
This is where I have the most issues. For some reason or other, they add scenes of rioting in the streets, military moving around doing army stuff, and a group of nervous and intolerant soldiers surrounding Dr. Bank’s research facility at one of the alien crafts. What happens? The solider try to appease their paranoia by blowing up the Heptapods, but fail, making for a pointless sequence that doesn’t technically push the plot in any direction. Edit those scenes out, you wouldn’t miss it.
Oh, I forgot to mention; the military personnel doesn’t trust the scientists in any of their actions. The biggest sci-fi cliché ever made. Take a look at the film “Spectral” for the exact same military vs scientists scenes. How about we start to embrace intelligence and nerds in film already. I swear there was even a scene that had a military guy practically say, “now say it in English, poindexter.”
Plenty of science in this movie to make us salivate. Linguistic relativity, nonzero sum gain, gravity shifts, optical image analysis. Though, the spaceships do give a District 9 feel and look, looming over the countryside.
On image analysis, Wolfram Research was tapped to take the alien language and create new characters/sentences. SHOWN ABOVE. They wrote actual code, shown running in the film, to generate each character. Instead of flashy Hollywood tech magic, this is real code producing real images, of a “new language.” Very cool.
The movie isn’t the Matrix, nor is it the thinking-person’s Matrix, but it is great in its own right. Slow and intellectual can be thrilling. It will keep you hooked throughout, despite some of the clichés and sappy dialog. (Waiting for a purists edit to remove those issues.)
After you watch the film, if you liked it, the original short story awaits your read. The short story is different enough to keep you hooked again.
It’s a must watch for any engineer.
I give it 4.23 out of 5.00 (I increased my rating precision to two decimal places, by the way. Have to be accurate when it comes to films.)