Arrival …um …arrived in US theaters over the weekend. Based on Ted Chiang’s Nebula and Sturgeon award winning novella, The Story of Your Life, the movie opened to mostly good reviews and a modest third place domestic box office take. How did the movie hold up to its source material? Let’s chat after the break (and yes, lots of spoilers!)
Told mostly in the second person, Ted Chiang’s novella presents the text-book definition of non-linear story-telling. Within the first two pages, the narrator – speaking to her daughter – dances from the day she and her husband decide to have a child, to explaining to the daughter the difficulty in determining when to tell her this story (with the foreboding line “the right time to do that would be when you’re ready to have children of your own, and we’ll never get that chance”). She reminisces about the daughter as a teenager, brushes past the narrator’s apparent divorce from the daughter’s father, and finally mentions that that alien ships appeared in the sky a few years back, and somehow all this is related. It’s a brilliant opening that immediately makes you wonder how these pieces fit.
The story begins in earnest at that point and we find that these aliens had left 112 communication devices scattered throughout the world. We’re introduced to the narrator (now identified as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist) as well as two other main characters, Gary Donnelly, a physicist, and Colonel Weber, a military man who recruits Louise and Gary to study the aliens, a race called “Heptapods” because they have seven limbs. The storytelling is dense, descriptive, and slips into very detailed analysis of their interaction with the aliens and linguistic theory; it even includes diagrams to get across key points. It definitely leans heavily on the “science” side of “science fiction” in a way that’s similar to Michael Crichton’s writing style, where the plot and the science walk firmly hand in hand.
Scattered throughout the story are the Louise’s memories of her daughter – including her daughter’s death at 25. As the plot progresses, Louise learns more of the heptapod language, she begins to fall in love with Gary, and we discover that the aliens don’t perceive time like we do; that to them, past, present, and future are the same. Louise, by learning their language, begins to gain some of that insight, and it’s revealed that these “memories” of her daughter are actually from the future and that Gary is, in fact, the unnamed father Louise mentions in her conversations. It’s a trippy end to a strange tale, that deals with the concept of free will and destiny and where those concepts meet.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) did an excellent job converting Ted Chiang’s work for the screen. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, who starred together in David O. Russell’s American Hustle in 2013 (which garnered Ms. Adams her first Oscar), are excellent choices as Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly. Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire) plays CIA agent Halpern, and Forest Whitaker rounds out the main cast as Colonel Weber. The movie follows most of the same plot points and themes as the story, but leaves out a lot of the science and most of the interaction between the Heptapods. These are replaced with additional interactions between the humans, including conflict between nations, (with China and Russia taking a hard-line stance against the invaders), and an American plot that puts our heroes in harm’s way. Much like the novella, memories of Louise’s daughter are scattered throughout the film, providing depth to her character. The big reveal, that these are memories of events that hadn’t occurred yet, are handled much differently than they are in the novella, with Louise’s epiphany occurring amidst a backdrop of escalating tension as the threat of a short-sighted attack on the alien craft looms. Louise uses her newfound perception to defuse the situation, calling upon a “memory” of a future conversation with the Chinese leader to contact him in the present and say the exact right thing to stop the attack. Later, she sets in motion the romance that will lead to her daughter being born, despite the fact that it will ultimately end in tragedy. It’s a powerful film, less a science-fiction movie than a study of determinism with a little science fiction (and some Whosian timey-wimey stuff) thrown in.
Arrival is one of the few cases where the limitations of making a film make the story better. Ted Chiang’s work is excellent, imaginative, well-researched, and thought-provoking, but by distilling the story down to its core, Villeneuve has created a uniquely powerful experience that resonates with the viewer. The science and description in The Story of Your Life is interesting, but ultimately the science isn’t important, nor are the aliens. What’s important are these two people and what their relationship and genius will bear someday. Amy Adams’ portrayal of Louise has much to do with the movie’s strength. Book Louise is a good character, but somewhat removed; even in her conversations with her doomed daughter she seems a little analytical, a little detached. Adams portrays Louise with the same level of professionalism – she’s a scientist and she knows her stuff – but also with certain vulnerability, a sense of quiet sadness that is missing from the written work. You ache for her in this movie – first because you think this tragedy is in her past, and then because you find the tragedy is actually in her future, and she still resolutely moves forward, not despite having this knowledge, but because of it.
There is a scene towards the end of the movie where the daughter asks Louise why her father left, and without going into the details (which would be traumatic to the little girl), Louise lets us know that she told Ian the future, that their daughter was destined to die, and he couldn’t handle it. It’s just mind-blowing, imagining Louise holding that information for a decade, and then finally telling her husband, and it being to much for him to bear and leaving. And you ask yourself, could you do this? Could you really know what the future holds and keep on living. And you wonder… did she tell him because in her “memories” she faced her daughter’s death alone and she knew this would drive him away? Or was this just destiny playing out: she told him because she was always meant to tell him at this time. The novella covers all of these same themes very well, the movie just does it better.
What do you think? Do the works compare? Did you find the movie confusing without the exposition provided by the book? Let me know in the comments.