Silver Screen Resolution: Arrival

So you may notice that this Silver Screen Resolution post is… belated. There is a reason watching twelve movies in a year is a personal resolution: I am extremely bad at wanting to watch movies. Extremely bad. In July, I just hit the wall. My brain screamed NO. It is not good at listening. It gets tired of subtitles. And it is not good at paying attention to the same thing for more than an hour (unless it’s a book!). So here I had Arrival, which I’d heard was a good movie that rewarded careful watching, and my brain ran off to reread romantic thrillers instead. (Karen Rose is crack, by the way. Crack.)

But, eventually resolve returned.

A reminder of the rules.

  1. It must be spec-fic. For review here on Spec-Chic and for myself. I just prefer it. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror. Even kid’s movies if they fit one of those genres!
  2. For the most part, the movie must be popular spec-fic. Something people around me have been talking about.
  3. I have to see at least a third of them in the theater, for the truest “in the moment” connection. (This rule has since been modified, since most of the in-the-theater movies I plan to see will show up on Sound-Off rather than as a Silver Screen Resolution review.)  So technically, this means I’m seeing MORE than 12 movies, which means, I’m really suffering for the cause of my resolution. Damn it.

Why I Chose It: Arrival was always on the list, though with some trepidation. Some years back, a friend of mine with excellent taste in fiction passed me a book and said, Read this now! Now! That story was Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” and it was as impressive as my friend said it was. It won the Nebula Award (2000) and the Theodore Sturgeon Award (1999), so obviously lots of people agreed.

Why I Didn’t See It In The Theaters:  “Story of Your Life” is a great piece of writing that I loved. But filmable? I had grave doubts. By the time word of mouth reached me that the adaptation was primarily well-done, it had already left the theater. Quiet, character-driven SF tends to zip in and out quickly.


What I Thought: I really loved the story. So even with the good word of mouth, I expected to be aggravated by the movie. Some movies are better than their sources, but a movie about linguistics? I was still dubious. That said, I enjoyed the movie, quite a lot. They’re really two radically different experiences for me. Interestingly, I didn’t feel like either came up short, which is a strange, but good experience. Usually, one or the other — book or movie — is a clear winner in my brain. Scriptwriter Eric Heisserer did a really stunning job.

The Good: I was worried that the added military and looming war aspect would detract from the quietness of the story. It did and didn’t. Overall though, the rattling sabers were kept to a minimum, and I actually liked their addition both because it added plot drive and … for another major reason I’ll discuss below in the only thing I thought was “bad.”

The cast was better than I expected. I’m not an Amy Adams fan. I don’t dislike her, but she’s a little south of neutral for me and the entire movie was going to hinge on her. I like Jeremy Renner, but these days, I think of him as a wise-cracking superhero. But Arrival did what I like more realistically-styled movies to do: dissolve the actors. Jeremy Renner is freaking Hawkeye, and I forgot that. Forest Whitaker is always Forest Whitaker and I forgot that too. And Amy Adams reined in the perky princess to play a worn-down scientist. (Blame Enchanted. That’s the role I always think of when I think Amy Adams.)  So I believed all these people were just… people.  Not shiny, glamorous actors.

The Heptapods were awesome.  I do love a good alien, and their indeterminate feet/hands worked really well at keeping them strange.  And the ink writing was just lovely.

Screencap from

I loved their undersea qualities, from the squid ink to their whale sonar-like vocalizations.  I liked that in the movie, there’s more physical closeness with the creatures as opposed to the story’s “mirrors.”

I liked that the scriptwriter gave the Heptapods a motive for coming to Earth and sticking around, even if it’s not part of the original story. With a single caveat that I’ll mention below.

I liked the general look of the film. The picture reminded me of some of the British crime dramas — muted colors and foggy days, and men isolated by big landscapes and claustrophobic clothing and buildings.

Remaining screencaps from

For all my mental wriggling about not wanting to watch it, why are movies so looooong, two hours of focus, I’m gonna diiiiiie, I actually had very little trouble sitting through this. (The dog sadly insisted on going out every ten minutes during the first act to hunt cicadas, and ended banished to the yard, mournfully yodeling and adding a weird high-pitched layer to the Heptapods’ whale-song. Ah, pets.)

The vaguely bad: Jeremy Renner’s character had no real relevance. He was a sidekick. Support staff, and even at that, he wasn’t really utilized. I loved how Louise was so self-contained, that she wasn’t running to him to see if her weird experiences were happening to him too. But, I felt like that connection was missing, and I realized why. They didn’t give Ian enough physics stuff to do. I felt like he was working with the Heptapod language as much as she was, so it took me some time to realize that no, he wasn’t even close to attaining the fluency she was. It felt a little unbalanced. Like they’d brought this pivotal character in, but then didn’t do much with him. His purpose is “follow Louise’s lead”. Which on the one hand, I’m amused by. Take that, male hero!  You’re just the sidekick! I loved that this was Louise’s movie, but… he really kind of felt like a romantic afterthought. Again, turnabout is fair play, but it’s still kind of boring to have one character reduced to a yes-man.

There’s a pivotal moment when two soldiers decide to attack the aliens for the good of humanity, and while I didn’t mind the moment happening, the set-up for it felt odd, just because the movie is very focused on Louise, so bouncing away to show the soldiers felt… jarring.

Revelations: There are two or three major revelations in the movie, and for me, one of them fell flat, because I assumed Louise had remembered the identity of Hannah’s father the minute she and Hannah started talking about him. But no, she doesn’t recall that until the end, where it was apparently a big reveal? It kind of undercut things for me. That said, the revelation of both the way the Heptapods’ language affected her mind, and Hannah’s place in Louise’s timeline worked well for me. So poor Renner gets another heaping of my disappointment.

One thing that bounced into my brain from the movie instead of the story worried me. And this is my caveat from above.  When the scriptwriter gave the Heptapods a motive for keying humans into their language — we save you now; you save us in 3000 years — it changed more than I think he intended to change. Especially when Louise uses the ability to wander through her own future memories to save the day from war. Whereas in the short story, Louise’s ability to drift in her own timeline felt personal and intimate, in the movie, it becomes a sort of very effective time-travel. It made me wonder how vastly and swiftly the world will change. It made me wonder if the government would even let Louise teach whole classes on Heptapod languages. Seems to me, if you have an entire segment of the population who can remember forwards as well as backwards, you start having massive change. You know there would be lines around the block to learn an alien language.

In the story, there was a strong aspect of “fate” wrapped up in the language time shifting. Louise didn’t so much make a choice to have Hannah, as embraced the fact that she would. But because Louise is pivotal in stopping the worlds’ militaries declaring war on the aliens, in the movie, fate feels… mutable. Here, Louise remembers the future, racking her brains for it, keying up pivotal moments and using them to inform her past/present. It would have been just as simple for her to not rack her brains quite hard enough. Time, in the movie, feels more changeable.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did have the end effect of making me feel like this was a time-travel movie just as much as it was a first-contact, xeno-linguistic movie.

The Actual Bad (Maybe):  In the story, I loved Louise’s choice. I thought, well of course, she embraced having the baby — that the joy she felt in Hannah’s existence outweighed the pain of inevitably losing her. It felt weirdly life-affirming, and hopeful. She might not be able to change what was coming, but she could accept the good parts and minimize the bad.

In the movie, I couldn’t get behind that same choice at all. Maybe, because in the movie, it felt more like a genuine choice. I thought Louise was selfish, and her decision kind of terrible. In the end, then, the military threats that had to be stopped (a movie addition) saved the movie for me, because it shifted the focus slightly. She had to save the day by remembering her future, and her feelings about Hannah got mixed up in that. Hannah wasn’t the sole point, though. Thankfully.

This is the vast difference between a reading experience and a movie. In the story, we’re immersed in Louise. It’s all Louise all the time; we breathe her experiences and feel her feelings and see the world through her eyes. So we’re primed to accept her decisions because it was the right decision for her, and we are her. And I’ve already talked about the differences between embracing your fate and the ability to change your future.

In the movie, though, we’re not only Louise. We’re Ian. We’re Hannah, dying slowly and painfully of a rare disease. We know that Louise tells Ian (too late) that Hannah will die, and I was infuriated. If you’re going to make the first decision (to go ahead and have the baby) without letting Ian know that she’ll die, then for god’s sake have the decency to keep the secret all the way through. Don’t tell him midway through so that he can feel hopeless for the rest of her life and start distancing himself from her physically and emotionally. Urgh. And what about Hannah? Since we see her suffering, since we hear her tell her mother she hates her, since we see her die over time… her suffering is much more apparent than it is in the story. More, it brings Hannah’s own personality into the picture. Is this what Hannah would have wanted? A truncated life? I don’t know. Louise could have talked to Ian, but no way she could talk to Hannah. Unless of course, Hannah was fluent in Heptapod B as well….  Right? Could they have talked? Adult to teen? If people can see their future, then surely Hannah would have realized hers stopped sooner than expected.

I wondered if Louise ever told Ian, or if he figured it out partly himself — slowly catching up to her fluency in Heptapod B — and asked her about it. The Louise in the movie is a liar. We know that. She lies for good causes, but she lies. At least once. And I don’t think we can just dismiss the whole “offer weapon” thing. She is the one who wrote “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict,” and she’s a master at language.

As a side note, since this is the first thing we hear Ian say and he points out that it’s what she wrote, I was particularly impatient with Louise failing to understand that the “weapon” the Heptapods kept talking about was the language they were teaching the humans.

In the story, Louise was an utterly sympathetic character. In the movie, she’s no less sympathetic, but… she might be unreliable.

So… in the end, I’m not sure this shift in perception is even really a bad thing. Thought-provoking for certain and it made Louise a more interesting character. Even if I felt sorry for the people in her life. I guess the Hugos agreed with me, because just before this post was set to go live, Arrival won 2017 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form). I can’t argue with that! Heisserer did an impressive job with a story I considered both damn near perfect and unfilmable.

Overall though, I enjoyed the movie, and would recommend it to others. Especially people who actually like movies. I am really curious as to how it unspooled to someone who hadn’t read “Stories of Your Life” before Arrival. Come let me know! Did this feel more or less like a time-travel movie to you?  How did you feel about Louise’s decision regarding Hannah and Ian?


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