SPOILER ALERT: I am writing about the film Arrival specifically as an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, so it will be spoiler heavy for both.
I loved this film so much, I think it is a great film in its own right, and I think it is probably the best adaptation possible, even if it doesn’t manage to do the central concept of Chiang’s short story justice.
I re-read ‘Story of Your Life’ before going to see Arrival (and I read it again to write this post); I wanted to make sure I really understood the original ideas before seeing the adaptation. The only downside to this is that I will never get to see the film fresh, unaware, I will never really know if it works on its own. I want to see it again already, so I can just enjoy it, instead of constantly anticipating how well it does/does not match the short story.
Ted Chiang’s short stories contain more craft, more in the way of ideas, than most full-length novels. His stories are what I think of when I say ‘hard SF’, where the ideas are central to the story; most science fiction is merely adventure stories with an SF setting, and you could tell the same story in a fantasy or historical setting. But, unusually for hard SF, ‘Story of Your Life’ is also fully engaged with human emotions, there is no ‘action’ in the short story at all.
Films have to be visual, hence the ‘looking glasses’ of the original are replaced with giant spaceships (and the visuals of these are stunning). I love the way the aliens and their writing were actualised on screen; making the heptapods vaguely squid-like creatures who appear to ‘swim’ through their heavily gaseous atmosphere, and their written language rendered in squirted ink, is brilliant, and builds on and augments the original descriptions in the short story.
There has been a lot added to the story, there is military control of the alien contact in the original story, but nothing about how the rest of the world reacts, except one brief line near the beginning of the short story: “The government said next to nothing about them, while the tabloids said every possible thing.”
But it all makes sense; of course there would be mass panic, of course there would be military and political machinations, of course there would be military grunts influenced by internet based right-wing shock-jocks. And of course, for the film, there needs to be a plot, something big at stake.
There is something very prescient and necessary about the ideas of co-operation and communication in Arrival, and about the importance of getting communication right; the Chinese use Mahjong to communicate with the heptapods, pre-biasing their interpretation of the alien conversation to one of conflict.
Some things have to be glossed over, like the long hard work of deciphering the heptapod languages, which is there in the short story, but handled in a voice-over and montage in the film – it was wonderful, though, to see the acting out of verbs kept in, as Ian (renamed from Gary in the short story for no reason I can think of) walks along and a heptapod ‘walks’ along beside him.
The biggest change is adding a purpose to the alien’s visit, they know humans will help them in 3000 years time, so they are making first contact now. In the short story, there is no discernable purpose to their visit.
In the short story it isn’t that the aliens can see the future and change their actions accordingly, their subjective experience of time is entirely different to our own. We only experience time, past and present, cause and effect, because that’s the way our brains are wired.
At this point it’s easier to quote from ‘Story of Your Life’ than to try to explain it in my own words:
“The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand these concepts; they don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons. What distinguishes the heptapods’ mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history’s events; it is also that their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.”
“For the hepatapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they use language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already know what would be said in any conversation; but in order for that knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”
“Even though I’m proficient with Heptapod B, I know I don’t experience reality the way a heptapod does. My mind was cast in the mould of human, sequential languages, and no amount of immersion in an alien language can completely reshape it. My worldview is an amalgam of human and heptapod.
“Before I learned how to think in Heptapod B, my memories grew like a column of cigarette ash, laid down by the infinitesimal sliver of combustion that was my consciousness, marking the sequential present. After I learned Heptapod B, new memories fell into place like gigantic blocks, each one measuring years in duration, and though they didn’t arrive in order or land contiguously, they soon composed a period of five decades. It is the period during which I know Heptapod B well enough to think in it, starting during my interviews with [the heptapods] and ending with my death.
“Usually, Heptapod B affects just my memory: my consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing sliver crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind: there is no real combustion. But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive – during those glimpses – that entire epoch as a simultaneity. It’s a period encompassing the rest of my life, and the entirety of yours.”
Arrival shows the cognitive changes brought about by immersion in the heptapod language as a literal time travel, as a super-power, with Louise ‘jumping’ into a future event, where the Chinese general feels compelled to give her vital information she needs in the present to influence events. This is a crude rendering of the central idea of ‘Story of Your Life’, but a necessary one, I don’t think there is any better way it could have been shown on screen, not in a commercially viable SF film anyway.
‘Story of Your Life’ is as much about human emotions, particularly of motherhood, as it is about first contact, the micro and the macro. It’s there in the film too when Ian says that meeting Louise was just as important to him as making first contact.
This centrality of motherhood/emotion/relationships is as interesting for an SF film as it is for a hard SF short story. The scenes with Louise and her daughter at the beginning of the film reminded me of Malick’s Tree of Life. It is in jarring contrast with Nocturnal Animals, another Amy Adams film, which I saw about a week before Arrival. I found Nocturnal Animals to be entirely hollow, a millimetre thin shell of style with absolutely nothing underneath (I know that’s supposed to be the ‘point’, but I still found it pointless). There are some things, films and TV programmes particularly, which simply come across as ‘men men men men men’, and I switch off completely, this was one of them. Women being raped and murdered to further a man’s storyline is a tired old trope (but credit where it’s due, at least the husband/father says at one point that he wanted to know how his wife and daughter felt while it was happening).
It’s good to see SF showing something different, to see an SF film showing the full potential range of the genre, to have an SF film outdoing a more mainstream, ‘artistic’ film; it is not entirely unprecedented either, Interstellar placed a high value on the emotional bonds between characters (albeit to the point of silliness at times).
Cerebral SF films are few and far between compared to action SF films. As well as Arrival and Interstellar, I would count Gravity as cerebral, but maybe not Inception (dreams don’t actually work like video games); The Prestige counts, but is more fantasy than science fiction. Otherwise you need to go back a few decades to films like Blade Runner and Silent Running. I hope Arrival‘s success will encourage more filmmakers to take a risk on this type of film.