The Inevitable Broken Heart
If you’ve read the story Arrival is based on, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, you already know the alien language and you will understand everything about the movie from the first frame, you will know exactly how it’s going to unfold, and you will watch it all anyway, enthralled. And it will break your heart, as you always knew any adaptation of this story must in order to be successful.
If you have not read the story, the movie will strangely and wondrously unfold in much the same way reading the story does. You’ll be confused but intrigued, then you will suspect, then you will understand, and then your heart will break.
The breaking heart is mandatory in any case.
This may be what struck me most about this film, is how brilliantly it captures not just the theme and heart of the story—that communication with aliens will be alien, it will be difficult, and it will fundamentally change us. It also manages to capture the experience of reading the story, which is nonlinear, written in second person point of view, and which ought to have been unfilmable. The film is, appropriately, the story translated. You might, as I did, cry not just at the heart of the story but at the miracle of its impossible adaptation.
The story: A talented linguist, Louise Banks is called on to help initiate communication with the aliens on board a mysterious craft that has stationed itself in Montana—one of twelve that have landed all over the world. Partnered with a wry astrophysicist and overseen by an increasingly paranoid military, Louise must find a way to communicate with the Heptapods, a species so fundamentally different from us that at first there seems no real basis of engagement. Until she begins writing, and they write back.
Soon after, Louise starts having visions. Or are they memories? Or maybe even prophecy? In fact, the film opens with the history of Louis and her daughter Hannah, who dies tragically young. Only as the story progresses do we realize that history hasn’t happened yet. As Louise’s understanding of Heptapod writing increases, her perception of time and space changes. It’s not so much that she sees the future. Rather, she begins to experience her entire life simultaneously. Thus begins a race to see if Louise can convey and use what she has learned before human governments and military forces engage in typically stupid bouts of violence in the name of defense and safety.
“Story of Your Life,” first published in 1998 and winner of the Nebula and Sturgeon awards, is one of the most talked about short stories of the last twenty years. The film is a worthy adaption, and joins a small but significant list of peaceful first-contact movies—The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Contact, all of which are some of my very favorite science fiction movies of all time. The primary cast—Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker—are understated and solid.
Louise reminded me of two other woman scientists in cerebral science fiction films: Ryan Stone in Gravity, and Ellie Arroway in Contact. All driven, passionate, intelligent, career-focused women, enough alike that it seems like a trope, one I could probably delve more into across both written and film science fiction. I’ll just focus on these three movies.
Gravity drove me a little bananas because despite its riveting focus on the difficulties of surviving in space, carried by an engaging woman character, by the end of the story it was abundantly clear that the grand adventure was primarily a metaphor for surviving grief, particularly the poignant grief of a mother for the death of her child. I wanted space adventure, and the grief seemed cliché. It wasn’t the story I wanted.
I brought friends to Arrival who had not read “Story of Your Life.” So, unfamiliar with the source material and what they were getting into, they assumed the scenes of Louise and Hannah were flashbacks. They were fully immersed in the trope and trained to read Louise as a mother who has drowned her grief in her work. Only as the film progressed did they realize: these aren’t flashbacks. The child hasn’t been born yet. I was delighted to see that along with everything else it does, Arrival neatly overturns audience expectations of a trope that was played with such melodrama in Gravity. Arrival can be viewed as a metaphor for grief, for grief as inescapable, but rather than subsuming the science fictional conceit, the metaphor here is absolutely dependent on it. They’re intertwined, not interchangeable.
Arrival is a rather obvious successor to Contact, and Ellie Arroway a conceptual ancestor for Louise Banks. But rather than seeking out alien contact as Arroway has, Banks is thrown into it. And while Contact offers a benevolent, literally patriarchal (the alien Ellie makes contact with takes the form of her father) imagining of advanced alien races who understand us, are looking for us, and will shepherd us into greater understanding of the universe, Arrival presents a much less comforting scenario: the Heptapods are so alien as to almost be outside our comprehension. I want to mention here that the Heptapods are beautiful. Their movements are believable, built out of whatever serves them as bone and muscle and sinew, with visible joints and sensible mechanics. Most importantly, they aren’t typical Hollywood CG phantasms. They aren’t designed to elicit a specific reaction from the audience, whether fear or revulsion or attraction. They simply are.
This is the first first-contact movie I’ve seen that demonstrates just how amazingly difficult communicating with aliens is likely to be. Most films present aliens as invaders, conquerors, or would-be benevolent overlords—scenarios we understand because humanity has done those things itself. But to communicate with beings who have an entirely different outlook of time and space? Beings who present the concept of “gift”—but the linguists interpret it as “weapon” because that’s what humanity is looking for and fears? And yet, the film, like the best peaceful first-contact movies, unabashedly declares that attempting such communication is worthwhile and necessary and must be done with peace as the desired outcome.
I imagine some fans of the short story will be annoyed at the intrusion of the larger world, politics, and paranoia into Louise’s personal story. The addition of a plot about the Chinese government steering violent confrontation and the explosive sabotage planted by a disaffected soldier—recalling the act of sabotage at about the same point in the plot in Contact: This was the Hollywoodization we were worried about. But the addition of the wider world was necessary to expand such an intimate short story to the size and scope of an A-list Hollywood movie. It doesn’t betray the story’s core. The exploration of time and emotion remain. The bulk of the film focuses on Louise, on her hands as she squeezes a tremor out of them, on her eyes as she encounters the Heptapods, and as her gaze turns inward on some tangled thought. The film is more intimate than not, beginning and ending with her voice.
Arrival gives us what we desperately need now, a mainstream movie featuring scientist characters in a story that celebrates problem solving in the name of peace and exploration, part of a trend that continues what we saw in Interstellar and The Martian. I hope Arrival is wildly successful and this trend of intellectual, accessible, problem-solving science fiction in mainstream movies continues.
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