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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Arrival: Movie Review + Commentary/Analysis

This story, an adaptation of Ted Chiang's ("Story of Your Life" discussed here), follows the original fairly closely.
The movie opens with Louise Banks reminiscing on the life and death of her daughter. Then it cuts to her attempting to give a college lecture while most students are focused on the news of twelve space ships arriving. Col. Weber comes to recruit her. She demands to be taken to the aliens to interact with them. At first they refuse until they see she is the better candidate.

At first, they meet failure until she starts to communicate with written language and gets them to do the same. Twelve other countries initially do the same until they receive a message from the aliens that gears them up for war. Ms. Banks must learn the language and try to find a way around the inevitable showdown.

This movie is worth your time. The opening could have been slimmed down, and it is not an action film, but definitely worth your time. A moving piece that opens your head to new ways of thinking.

Commentary with Spoilers:
And lo, Banks sees answers to the questions she has in her future as bits of understanding finally fall into place. She sees herself lecture on the meaning of the terms and receives future private messages from the war instigator.

Chiang's written version has an immediate advantage over the film due to its verb tenses. The past is presented in past tense, future in future tense. This clarifies events from what is happening in time (although the scenes don't necessarily tip their hand until the last third or so). The movie does open with the reminiscence so that the clarity of flashbacks works there, but due to its form (and lack of verb tenses), the next flashback should have been pushed back to Banks's first interpretation of the language and surprise her with a flashforward. Otherwise, it was technically sound.

The movie's unusual feature is shots of ceilings. This clever shot prepares us for the reorientation we are about to feel--not just in the scene on the space ship where sideways becomes the new down--but overall, when time itself becomes reoriented into a continuum to be experienced at once. Banks also walks on clouds in a climactic scene with the aliens.

Clouds seem critical, as well, although I haven't yet pinpointed how they service the story. The cloudiness of time? of the future? They come upon the aliens through a fog bank (humans are in a fog? but no, the alien tank is full of clouds). Maybe its just the dwelling/acceptance of uncertainty. But if you know the future, surely it is no longer uncertain.

The quote below is not random. It fits into the film's theme. War is misinterpreted by one interpreter, and will be again later... although it could be said that "a desire for more cows" is the perfect incitement to war if cows are considered one's prime monetary system.

The movie may succeed over its predecessor in the degree of its involvement with the future child, to invest us in her welfare, so that her passing and life becomes more moving.

One thing the aliens and protagonist seemed to suggest was that the entire Earth would soon possess this sense of time once they grasped how to interpret the language. Banks's future husband, Ian, however, apparently does not possess the inevitability of time and the ability to relish the time that exists with family members as he divorces her once he learns of his child's inevitable demise. One might think that he would be one of the first to learn it. He does not, presumably.

Some of Chiang's ideas are lost from the original: notably, Fermat's Principle of Least Time (see link above). I'm not sure if the concept could have easily been displayed in a film format. And little seems to have been lost due to its disappearance (yes, it explains the primary reason for arriving at its conclusion, but we arrive, anyway). Unfortunately, the loss does erode Ian's role somewhat.

While "Story of Your Life" is clever in that it could apply to the baby or the reader, "Arrival" plays a nice double entendre: the arrival of aliens and the arrival of the baby.
Dr. Louise Banks: Colonel?
Colonel Weber: [Answering a previous question about the Sanskrit word for war and it's meaning] Gravisti.
Dr. Louise Banks: That's the word but what did he say it means?
Colonel Weber: He said it means an argument. What does it really mean?
Dr. Louise Banks: A desire for more cows.

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