by Brenda W. Clough
Is there anything that makes heart and mind race better than a truly smart science fiction movie? Surely Arrival is going to be a finalist for the film Hugo and Nebula. It’s also garnered considerable critical acclaim and been nominated for a ton more prestigious awards in the industry. Based on a novella by Ted Chiang, it is that rarity — an SF movie that doesn’t insult the intelligence.
I sat in the movie theater almost weak with joy, watching it come together. Not a foot is wrong. This is no juvenile action film skating along on its SFX. The characters are hardworking and brave in addition to their Ph.Ds. The plot is twisty and does not go at all where you think. The aliens are deliciously alien, entirely nonstandard. The Bechdel test is blown through pulling away. There is first contact, and time travel, and romance. And when you leave the theater you look back and realize they knew what they were doing, all along. It is better in retrospect, how often does that happen?
The key scientific theory driving this movie is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, actually a much older notion about linguistic relativity that SF has been happily mining for years. But this movie goes even further than Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Human beings have always know that language is magical, Wizard of Earthsea-style. I have a theory that deep in the core of even the hardest of hard SF is a tiny kernel of magic, and Arrival does not disprove me.
It is argued that we are now in a golden age of filmed science fiction. Another way to think of is is that science fiction is now mainstream, able to draw upon the best directors, actors and scripts. This one is superb — don’t miss it.