Movie Review: Arrival

This has been a weird month – I rarely see as many theater movies in several months as I’ve seen in this one. So here’s another of my cutting-edge movie posts. Not only has everybody probably already seen this one, also, but even I saw it last weekend and am only writing it up now. Arrival is based on the brilliant Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and I wanted to re-read that before talking about the film. It just took me a week to do so. It doesn’t really change much of my impression of the film, except to underscore how expanded, yet thinned, the adaptation is. (This post covers all sorts of thematic issues from both the story and the movie and focuses on all sorts of details but I don’t believe any climactic plot elements or big surprises are spoiled.)

(Edit: Actually, to be on the safe side, if you haven’t read the story, then I guess maybe this is a spoiler of a review. If you haven’t read the story, it doesn’t spoil that because there’s no “big twist” and, if you have read the story, then the film can’t have any “big twist” to spoil but, I guess, if you aren’t familiar with either, then the movie is supposed to have that twist. Again, I don’t think it helps to treat it as a twist but, still, to be on the safe side, maybe skip this review until seeing the movie (which this review does conclude is worth doing).)

Arrival begins with the aliens arriving, naturally enough, and it is a remarkably well done sequence taken by itself. The sense of strangeness colliding with normalcy has a feeling of, “Yes, this is how it might happen. How it might feel.” I don’t know that the sequence is really necessary, though. It certainly wasn’t to the story as it wasn’t in it. Further, while it is fascinating in its way, it is also a slow moving sequence which sets the pace for the whole film. I don’t know why science fiction movies seem to come in almost nothing but two flavors: popcorn-movie action and speed using science fantasy and comic book elements and “the proverbial good science fiction movie” which somehow manages to be somewhat slow and boring. You’ve got your Star Wars movies, your Marvel movies and whatnot and then you’ve got 2001, Contact, and others, including this. So that’s one thing the movie gets quite wrong in an adaptive sense and in an intrinsic sense. Chiang’s story is quiet but not really slow. This movie is, despite sometimes being flashy and noisy. Chiang’s story is quite focused and small in a character/scenery sense, while it’s gigantic in a conceptual sense. The movie preserves some of the concepts but adds a bunch of international politicking and intrusive soldiers and generally spends a lot of time on things outside the main core of ideas.

Another thing that’s odd about the movie is that it actually demands quite a bit of an uninitiated audience in the sense of playing with time and the narrative in a way that may not be readily understood. Yet part of the core of the story was the linguistics and that is basically heavily abridged for cinematic convenience, especially in a key part when the protagonist and the aliens basically start talking like they’re native to each other.

A final small, but severe, problem is that, while many participants may be up for awards, I sure hope the sound editor is not (unless it was a problem with my theater). Much of the movie’s dialog was very hard to hear.

Aside from those two or three gripes, however, the movie does at least keep its eyes on the story’s prize. The movie is about language and time and causality. It is about a man, a woman, and a child. It is about humans and aliens. It keeps at least hints of all the essential things. The things it adds, while sometimes somewhat “Hollywood,” are somewhat plausible and not entirely at variance with the core. The things it modifies stay essentially true to the story. It’s hard to say without spoiling but one thing the movie modified actually tremendously improved on the story: let’s say the specific reason for why deciding whether or not to have a child might have been difficult. Other modifications, such as the barely different heptapods and their slightly different writing and the interface between the humans and aliens, are quite interesting and look really good. Even if the alien ships and the method of entry is kind of silly, I felt a genuine thrill and sense of wonder at that point. And the actors are quite good. It amazes me when I recollect that I probably first saw Amy Adams in a bit part on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer – look at her now.

In sum, I didn’t quite love the movie and I don’t quite understand what seems to be the overwhelmingly positive response its gotten from out-of-genre circles but it is worth seeing. I would still prefer to read and re-read the story, though. And there is something extremely… I’m not sure if it’s ironic or apropos… but something odd about this story being the first thing of Chiang’s to be adapted to film. The story (like all literature) is very much like the Heptapod B language: you can read its last line before its first, skip around within it, focus on any part of it. Whereas movies are very much like ordinary human languages (and lives), moving in time from point A to point B with little certainty of what’s to come next and little ability to catch up with anything you’ve missed (unless you get it on DVD). So, in a sense, the story is about translating into the worldview of Heptapod B and uses a congenial medium and the movie sets itself the audacious task of doing that in an antithetical one. Given that, it does a pretty good job.

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