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Let’s note the ‘Arrival’ of Ted Chiang

Dan Webster

"Arrival" isn't likely to break box-office records, which is too bad. Then again, how much money a film makes is only one measure of quality — and, honestly, not a particularly good one. In the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I explain why Denis Villeneuve's film is so worth seeing:  

Ted Chiang is one of those writers that science fiction fans adore. His short stories have won a cluster of awards – Hugos, Nebulas and more.

Now one of his most famous stories – titled simply “Story of Your Life” – has been adapted into a movie. Based on a screenplay by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve, “Arrival” is an example of hard science fiction that doubles as a meditation on time and relativity and that explores contrasting perceptions of existence.

Anyone who has paid attention to “Arrival’s” trailers, or even just the stand-alone ads, should be familiar with the film’s presumed set-up, if not the actual plotline.

The trailers make Villeneuve’s film seem like another version of either “War of the Worlds” or “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” The stand-alone ads usually just show the character played by Amy Adams, mulling over some inner conflict as a some sort of UFO hovers in the background.

As effective as both campaigns might be, they give a wrong impression about what Heisserer and Villeneuve – much less Chiang – want to achieve. In short, “Arrival” is not about an alien invasion. It’s about, succinctly enough, how language affects the way we appreciate reality.

Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist recruited by the government – in the person of an Army officer played by Forest Whitaker – to help communicate with one of 12 alien spacecraft, and the so-called Heptapods inhabiting them, that one day suddenly emerge from space.

The government – as governments tend to do – wants to know what the aliens are after. To be specific, are they a threat? Banks, though, is after something more pure: She simply wants to decipher a complex language that has about as much in common with standard English as simple arithmetic does with advanced calculus.

In a departure from Chiang’s story, Heisserer – who reportedly wrote a hundred or so drafts of his screenplay – adds in a complicating factor: Afraid because of an early translated message that seems to indicate the Heptapods are offering use of, or threatening the use of, an unnamed “weapon,” the world’s governments – including factions in the U.S. itself – announce their intentions to attack the alien ships.

So Banks and her physicist colleague, played by Jeremy Renner, are tasked with doing an impossible job in an inordinately short amount of time.

This invented plot element, which might cause Chiang purists to roll their eyes, could have ruined an otherwise fascinating film. But in the hands of the talented Villeneuve, that doesn’t happen. Just as he skillfully used the talents of cinematographer Roger Deakins to film last year’s “Sicario,” Villeneuve gives Bradford Young leeway to create a series of haunting visuals that perfectly complement both the movie’s patient pacing and Adams’ poignant, bravura performance as a woman emerging from a waking dream.

The result is a wondrous achievement, one that combines mystery and meaning in a way so rarely found in mainstream movies. It’s a tribute to the work of Ted Chiang. And it’s one of the best films of 2016.

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