Consideration of Works Present: The Arrival

(Picture from here.)

The Arrival opened last Friday (November 11, 2016) and the SF book club saw it together. It is a good film (mostly) and it is actual science fiction. There are no hidden references to deities, the Force or other non-secular mechanisms to take the edge off. There is actual science involved. The script is good. The special effects are limited and well done. It’s a character driven story where the actions of the individuals derive carefully from their motivations. The actors are good.

It is well worth seeing. From now on I’m going to talk spoilers so if that bothers you leave now.

Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last several years must have noticed that we’re in the boom times for films of the fantastic.

We haven’t seen such a bumper crop of science fiction films since the fifties of the last century and most of those are worth watching only for pure nostalgia. We have never seen the fantastic embraced by so many large budget efforts prior to now.

SF, fantasy and horror were the orphan step children in movies for a long time. This hasn’t been true for horror for a long time. Fantasy has been big budget for a bit and now, in the last number of years, science fiction.

By SF I do not mean fantasy using technological trappings such as Star Wars or its quirky sibling, superhero movies. I mean real SF where the trappings of the fantastic have scientific, technological and secular metaphors.

There have been a number of quirky, independent SF films for a while now (Think Primer and Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel) but most of the large budget attempts have been leavened by safer fantastic fare: hints of a deity as in The Adjustment Bureau, or mixed with adventure as in Paycheck or Blade Runner. (For a long time it seemed that every big budget SF film that was actual SF depended on Philip K Dick. I really wish someone would actually make a film of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.)

The Arrival is based on Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life. TSOYL won the 2000 Nebula. I would have gone to see The Arrival for that alone. I haven’t read TSOYL yet but this is the theme sentence for the story: “The major themes explored by this tale are determinism, language, and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.”

How could I not see it?

In the film, Louise Banks is a linguist that is tapped by the military to attempt to communicate with one of twelve alien spacecraft that have appeared on earth. She, and physicist Ian Donnelly, attempt various ways to communicate and settle on learning their language. At first the countries where these craft have landed cooperate. But then, different countries decide that the craft are hostile for one reason or another and opt out.

Meanwhile, Banks starts to crack the language and in so doing begins to have hallucinations of a life with a child. The child in the hallucinations eventually dies of an incurable, genetic disease. Eventually, this becomes clear to Banks that this is the future she is experiencing. She’s also divorced in the future in part because she told her husband she knew the child would die before they conceived it and he doesn’t take it well.

While this is going on, the tensions build up until war is declared against the craft. Banks remembers a future event where she meets with the Chinese general at a party of earth unification and he tells her that she called him and that changed his mind. As she experiences this as a future self, she uses it as a present self to actually call him and avert war and catastrophe. The aliens leave. She is gifted with both knowledge of the events of the future but also the knowledge of a book she’s written in the future that enables her to read the alien language.

At the end, she embraces Ian Donnelly, who’s to be the future husband.

Okay. There’s a lot to unpack here.

There’s an obvious paradox here in that the knowledge she gets from her future self is what she uses to decode the writing in the present. This makes that knowledge an object that passed from future to past and without actually having any creation outside of the time loop– a paradoxical object. It has no independent creation outside the time loop. That’s not a terrible thing but it is never acknowledged in the framework of the film.

There’s also a problem with Ian D in the film. His main purpose (in large part his only purpose) is to serve as future husband. He also utters a couple of clunkers that don’t stand up under even the slightest scrutiny. At one point he proclaims that the mark of civilization (not great civilizations or modern civilizations) is science. Immediately I thought: ancient Sumer wasn’t civilized?

He’s there as a foil for Banks. It’s also important in the context of the narrative. If Ian shows up in the flash forwards it’s an instant giveaway to Banks (and the audience) what’s going on. Having him not there preserves the mystery for just  little bit. Not that the mystery is preserved all that long– SF audiences are condition to accept a fantastic element as true in the narrative even if everybody in the narrative thinks the fantastic element is just crazy talk.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as described in the film, suggests that the individual mechanisms of language modify thought and that learning a new language modifies the thinker. This is a good idea to talk about in the film and it would have been nice for it to have had more than about five minutes.

At least it fares better than determinism in the film which gets no discussion. I mean the underlying narrative of the film essentially presumes determinism but it’s never really discussed.

In point of fact, there are several points of the film that suggest that time is not so deterministic. The paradox mentioned above is one. Another is that when Banks learns of the phone call in the climax scene, in the future, it appears that she is learning it for the first time. Either Banks is experiencing the events non-linearly– which isn’t really supportable elsewhere in the film– or time is being modified as it happens in two time points. Which is interesting but never addressed or discussed.

It’s a good film but it’s also a romantic film– not in the sense of male-female relationships but in the sense that the feelings of the film sometimes overcome its good sense.

It does raise a question about film making in general. Can we have a film that engages intellectual discussion in SF? We can have it other places. The Big Short— a terrific film– embraces the technical and intellectual issues of economics in a novel and interesting way. Why can’t we do that in SF?

So: it’s the heyday of SF films. This is a good one, though flawed. It doesn’t presume its audience is stupid– though it does take them a bit for granted. Say, 4/5 stars if you’re into that sort of thing.

I have a different scale. It’s how much I would have paid to see the film and not feel ripped off. The film cost me $14.50 but I had people with me. If I’d gone by myself, $10. That, for me, is a pretty good number. There are other films I’ve seen were a buck would have been too much.




Consideration of Works Present: The Arrival — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks, Steven — a good discussion. I just saw the film and really enjoyed it, especially, as you point out, that it’s not a big special-effects fest and treats interesting ideas. I did have some of the same reservations you expressed, but then I always sort of short out with time-travel/time-loop stories: Was she fated to take these actions? How can you change the past and not change the future? How can the aliens know they will need help in 3,000 years, if they are now participating in changing the present conditions that lead to their future…? Thor and I had a good time chasing around our questions afterwards, so any film that makes you think gets a thumb’s up from me.

  2. I enjoyed it. It’s definitely worth seeing, though afterward I wondered if I’d seen any other women in the film besides the main character. I think there was a student…