So, here are some initial thoughts on Arrival. Spoiler alert is most definitely in effect!
Things I loved:
- No stealth female protagonists here, but an actual, full-time, proper female lead who isn’t there for her boobs and butt, but brains!
- Top notch plotting, dialogue, and characters, all in all. Also the directing, sets, music, and effects were impressive.
- Some of the trailers make it look like the linguistics lecture in the very beginning is in a huge auditorium with only a handful of students attending, which might have meant that the movie university was going to have a neglected linguistics department or lukewarm students. Not so. There was a good reason why students didn’t show up, i.e., the alien landing.
- Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) was treated as an expert almost universally. Notable exceptions were a CIA bloke at the Montana camp and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), the male lead. The latter, upon meeting Dr. Banks for the very first time, quoted something she’d written and said something to the effect of “Too bad it’s wrong.” Tut tut. He got over himself, though.
- Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), the army liaison for the civilian consultants, was an actual ally to Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly, not an antagonist. It would’ve been so easy to take the lazy road. (Then again, they did take it with the antagonistic CIA bloke.)
- The complexities of language and communication were explained with easily understandable comparisons.
- Languages were treated as the complex systems that they are, i.e., other levels beyond the lexicon got attention.
- Many of the English translations of the heptapods’ language were messy (e.g., “Abbott is death process” = “Abbot is dying”). As a non-native English speaker who operates with two languages on a daily basis, I found it very realistic. There are times when quick and dirty is what you need, and others when you can spend more time pondering. In a first contact situation where political and military pressures are high, there might not even be a need to polish the English syntax as long as the message is unambiguous.
- Some of the aliens’ language was subtitled. I’m a visual person; in addition, I can’t always hear everything in noisy environments such as movie theaters or restaurants. ❤ subtitles!
- The story is very explicit about the need for people work together to solve problems without feeling preachy. YMMV.
- A male hero doesn’t punch an alien in the face at the end. I’m all for punching the bad guys—now and then. I explicitly do not want all of my reading and viewing rehashing the same old stories over and over, because SFF is explicitly about examining other possibilities. It feels (’cause I haven’t seen any statistics or anything) like lately we’ve mostly gotten the punchy kind of SFF. It was so nice to face a different fare for a change.
Things I didn’t think were quite as successful:
- Only one prominent female speaking role. For realz. Surely you’re better than that, writing team.
- The conflation of linguistics and translating. Of course the two disciplines are related, but each comes with its own set of principles and tools.
- Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly each got their own team in Montana, but the teams were hugely underused. They might have been completely omitted for all the difference they made.
- Dr. Banks’s visions affected her thinking and behavior, but weren’t integrated into the dialogue terribly well. The one time they tried (“Are you dreaming in their language?”), she responded very defensively, and the matter was dropped without further exploration.
- Non-linear time as part of the plot. It’s a very difficult concept to pull off successfully. I haven’t come across a story yet where I think it works to its full effect. (I might feel differently about “Story of Your Life.” Note to self: Find it & read.) Even so, the execution in Arrival was one of the most elegant I’ve encountered, and the reveals were well-paced.
- At the end, the aliens indicate that they’re sharing their full language with Dr. Banks because in 3,000 years they will need humanity, but that was it. What a cliffhanger!
I’ll finish with a couple of links:
How the writer of ‘Arrival’ spent a decade getting his sci-fi Oscar contender made. An interview with screenwriter Erik Heisserer that sheds light to the difficulties in getting a movie project greenlit and adapting the inspiration story.
‘Arrival’ Author’s Approach To Science Fiction? Slow, Steady And Successful. An interview with Ted Chiang, whose short story “Story of Your Life” (1998) was the basis for Arrival.
Ted Chiang, the science fiction genius behind Arrival. Another focus piece on Chiang.
In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.