written by David Steffen
Arrival is a science fiction first contact movie released in November 2016, which is based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. The movie stars Amy Adams, with Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner.
The movie begins shortly after 12 gigantic alien aircraft suddenly appear over various places around the globe, including one in the United States in an isolated spot in Montana. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), struggling with memories of a lost daughter, is recruited by Army Colonel Weber (Whitaker) to find out why the aliens have come and what they want. Louise leads the team alongside Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist aiming to use science as the medium of communication. It’s a race against time, because the other 11 eleven alien vessels are communicating with the governments and militaries of other countries. Do they mean us harm? Are they willing to share their technology? Will they share weapons? What if they share weapons with all those they are in contact with? What if they share weapons with only some of them? What if the aliens support one country against another. The Army has set up protocols for the meetings, about what exact topics may be spoken of, and exactly how the aliens can be approached, but Louise is willing to take big risks to try to make a breakthrough happen. Meanwhile, as Louise becomes more and more fatigued from overworking, she struggles with memories of the loss of her daughter, coming to mind at odd moments.
This movie was very good and had me captivated throughout. The casting was great, and Amy Adams in particular did a solid job. The scenes in the aliens were the highlight of the movie for me, as one is watching their every movement and the team’s translations for signs of their intent, and the different concepts of the alien language were very interesting. I appreciated that the trailers for the movie were very low-key–they didn’t give me a particular feeling about whether the aliens were hostile or not, so I honestly had no idea whatsoever what to expect. For a movie like that, that’s what I really want, is to just find out as it happens with no advertising preconceptions.
I quite liked the special effects in the movie. They are not the most flashy, but I thought they did well to add to the aura of mystery around the aliens–these days I find flashy special effects rather boring, because they’re a dime a dozen, it’s nice to see some other effect wrought from them.
The only minor quibble that I had is that it uses the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis of linguistics to justify some parts of the movie, and by what I understand (as someone who is not a linguist) the hypothesis has been largely discredited based on lack of data support. But, it feels plausible to me, and works to me as a storytelling element, even if I was picking at that edge a little bit.
I haven’t read the short story that it’s based on, but I’ve heard that the movie did it justice reasonably well, and that it is one of Ted Chiang’s best. Saying that it’s “one of Ted Chiang’s best” is no minor feat–he is not prolific, but every story of his that I’ve read has been incredibly well done. You can read it as part of his collection Story of Your Life and Other Stories. I definitely need to read that.
I highly recommend the movie.