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November 11, 2016

Giant alien ships appear and hover above a dozen points around the Earth. National militaries surround and study them, trying to determine whether they come in peace or mean to destroy us. Very good-looking movie stars play scientists trying to understand what’s going on. It seems like the setup for a gritty action sci-fi flick, especially with Denis Villeneuve in the director’s chair. And yet Arrival delivers this year’s most beautiful and thoughtful piece of true science-fiction cinema.

This is mostly the result of the source material: Ted Chiang’s the Nebula award-winning “Story of Your Life”. Chiang is among the finest contemporary writers of hard science fiction, as opposed to the space-operatics and science fantasy that dominate the genre. Many of his stories are available online, and you’d do well to check them out.

But they can be, well, hard. Harder than a mass-market movie can really handle. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer may have made his early career on horror scripts, but he does a fine job here of paring down the story and giving it a more commercial spin.

We still have the radially-symmetric, seven-legged “Heptapods”, but now their ships float weirdly above the ground. The screen where linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) interact with them is now inside the ship, in a gravity-distorted hallway that gives Villeneuve and his special-effects team a chance to show off.

But the core of the story, Louise’s efforts to decipher the aliens’ written language, remains intact. Resembling nothing so much as a the stains left by the rim of a coffee mug, Heptapod writing — like the Heptapods themselves — has no distinguished direction or order. Unlike these words and thoughts I string together one at a time, Heptapod writing exists as a whole, converging all at once into its form.

In the story, Chiang ties this in with a fascinating meditation about two different perspectives on physical law. Sometimes it’s written down in terms of cause-and-effect, showing how a system in one state evolves into another state, step by step. But sometimes it’s written in terms of optimization principles, which determine the whole history of the system at once. We tend to find that viewpoint confusing, which is why you won’t see it in introductory physics classes, but to the Heptapods it’s the more natural one.

Heisserer sweeps all these technical considerations under the rug, but nails the important human lesson. In learning the Heptapods’ language, Louise begins to learn how they think. She starts to think like them too, coming unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim. She gains a global perspective, getting glimpses of a world where every moment is part of every other moment, rather than lining up like a chain of dominoes.

In this view, the grand sweep of history is less an meandering path from one incident to the next, but a single, all-encompassing whole. Moments that look confusing or infuriating as we experience them are necessary curves between the others. It’s a perspective somewhat akin to Zen. A Heptapod might also say “this too shall pass”, but the future tense of “shall” would be weird and alien to them. Maybe something more like “this is water”?

In a way, it’s something that should appeal to cinephiles. The best films are far more than any mere collection of scenes. A movie that can be “spoiled” by revealing a plot point in advance can’t be very good begin with. A beautiful structure is less about the delivery of the pieces than about how they fit together to become something greater.

But as much as I’m sure I’d love the version of Arrival that sticks close to Chiang’s novella and disappears up its own shell in its meditations, I appreciate that Villeneuve and Heisserer have managed to deliver something with more commercial appeal. Where Chiang explores these ideas calmly and laconically, reflecting them in the written structure, the film adaptation adds tension and geopolitical drama.

The team in Montana led by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) cooperates with the others around the globe, but their alliance is uneasy. Different factions have different feelings about the Heptapods, and the Chinese general Shang (Ma Tzi) in particular is not inclined to trust them. The situation is hardly made any easier by the resident CIA officer (Michael Stuhlbarg) or a jumpy company of soldiers whose captain (Mark O’Brien) has been watching too many cable news pundits.

But even with these additions, this is a far less nasty and violent film than Villeneuve has typically made. His skills have always been evident, but until now he has been mired in the dark side of human nature. With Arrival, he turns to more contemplative fare. The long-arc perspective understands that life is tragically short, and often painful, but it can be wonderful as well. It can be precious and beautiful precisely because it is so fleeting. Even knowing the end in advance, we embrace and love it anyway.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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