Remembering Why They Will Arrive, Wondering Why They Left
Arrival is marred by its departures.
For those who have yet to see Arrival and plan on doing so: set all SPOILER ALERTS to DEFCON ONE. This post reveals the entire plot of this movie and more, including even the short story it’s based on. Then it salts the earth with spoiler tears.
Let’s start with the good stuff: strong performances; awesome (and subtle) visual effects; solid pacing; intelligent treatment of complex ideas on communication, language, and technology. Plus a clever, satisfying twist to cap it all off. It makes you think long afterward, too. (Unfortunately, further thought diminishes the work. But still.)
Anyway, about that short story Arrival is based on….
After watching this fine film from director Denis Villeneuve (he was at the helm for Sicario too, so this guy’s good), I looked into the details of its production, believing that the writer would be up for a Best Original Screenplay award next year. That’s when I found out that it’s based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (published as part of this collection). So I guess Best Adapted Screenplay is still in play.
A movie is different from a short story. Making changes is fine and expected, and necessary. But in this case the missteps of the film all stem from decisions to depart from the original, and these departures demote what could have been a great film to just a very good one (which is still captivating and beautifully shot and go see it).
Arrival is very good but it has three flaws. One is mostly trivial; one is a major missed opportunity that doesn’t quite derail the film but does cheapen it; and one is more serious, in that it transforms a major character from a charming, intelligent, and bighearted person into a loathsome one.
Here they are in ascending order of seriousness, and how they result from changes to Chiang’s original story.
1. The Bipolar Military
The depiction of the military is uneven and self-contradictory. The film’s generally understated approach is undermined by the capricious treatment of the sometimes menacing, sometimes blasé armed forces, which itself causes careless violations of premises that are critical to the story.
The problems here start right away, with a small detail. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, perfect in this no-nonsense authoritarian role) — who we soon learn is the commanding officer at the site of one of a dozen alien spaceship “landings” (#ACTUALLY the ships never touch the ground, thanks) — barges into the university office of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, captivating and knowing and nuanced). He just barrels on in, no knock on her door or anything. It plays awkwardly and rings false, as an officer would not behave in such a way. Perhaps the intention was to immediately establish the character’s authority. In any case, it was vindicating to learn that in Chiang’s short story, Louise returns to her office to find the colonel politely waiting for her in the hall.
But the true problem is that the soldiers’ treatment of the scientists vacillates between total domination to absurd lenience — whichever is more convenient to move the story along at any given time.
Sometimes the scientists are entirely constrained by the military’s decisions and priorities, while other times they seem to do whatever the hell they want, with zero consequences. This includes a dramatic scene where soldiers draw their weapons on both Louise and mathematician–physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), with threats to use deadly force to stop what they understand to be active treason . . . a situation that is inexplicably resolved and never brought up again. The very next scene even features Louise in a military-provided blanket calmly looking out at said military’s evacuation. (“Hey, we were about to KILL you five minutes ago but no biggie! Nope, no need to even ask you any questions about your nefarious collusions with China. Have a blanket. We’re good here.”)
Later a group of soldiers undertake a rogue attack that may or may not have caused the death of one of the aliens (“heptapods”). This scene doesn’t occur in the short story. It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem except that the aftermath of the attack is treated so cavalierly and ambiguously, just as Louise’s actions are later on.
Did the explosion kill the alien? Maybe? Not to mention the fact that this inserted scene confounds one of the main pillars of the story’s internal logic: the heptapods “remember” the future, and in all other aspects don’t do anything to alter the course of fully anticipated events. Yet they dramatically save Louise and Ian from the explosion, while apparently allowing their comrade to die. Why save them, but not do more to stop the assault altogether and also save their friend?
The inconsistencies mount, and the sloppiness detracts from one of the film’s strongpoints: its dedication to staying largely plausible, even within the story’s fantastic science-fiction parameters.
2. The Disappearing Language Barrier
The spaceships, the alien technology, the heptapods themselves — all are wondrous on the screen, all thought-provokingly rendered. But most brilliant of all is the visual representations (Chiang calls them “semagrams” and “nonsegmental graphemes”) of the heptapods’ language, plus the depiction of the challenges inherent to communicating with intelligent aliens — with one unfortunate exception.
While the first two thirds of the movie focus almost entirely on the difficulties of translation and the essence of communication itself, the filmmakers dropped the ball at the most crucial point of this process. After an epiphany in which the characters learn the names of the aliens (in both their own spoken language and in their mysterious symbols), the film jumps ahead to a time when the scientists are equipped with tablet computers replete with a full Heptapod-to-English dictionary.
Learning their proper names is nice, but there’s never a true eureka moment that allows us to experience the breakthroughs needed to understand their language. We see the aliens create their mysterious signs for the first time, and then we see the characters make what is apparently the connection to those aliens’ names, and then all of a sudden we zoom ahead to a time when they’re passably fluent.
Considering the outsize role language plays in the story, this is disappointing. The original short story doesn’t exactly offer an elaborate course in Heptapod 101 (and has the advantage of not having to demonstrate the symbols visually), but the leaps in understanding are more gradual and are more clearly explained in Chiang’s version. The film misses out on what could have been an emotionally charged, triumphant moment.
3. The Deadbeat
This last flaw, while the most serious in the film, also happens to be the most understandable in its own way.
Arrival relies on an impressive twist — the big revelation that the technology the aliens are delivering is in fact their visual language, the use of which rewires users’ minds to allow them to “remember” the future and experience time in a non-linear way.
For the twist to be effective, the audience must be kept from learning of Louise’s and Ian’s future relationship, which would in turn betray that those “memories” we glimpse throughout the movie haven’t happened to Louise yet at all. In other words, the future events we experience along with Louise cannot ever include Ian, or the illusion that they occurred in the past would collapse. (After all, the film later depicts the moment they first meet, on a military aircraft.)
In the short story, Louise’s reveries of the future are handled by deft changes in verb tense by Chiang (“You will have…”, “You’ll be…,” etc.), lending them an ambivalence in meaning that becomes significant only when he decides to clarify them for the reader, allowing the twist to be revealed on his terms. A film has no such luxury — it’s not like we can just have Louise explain her own memories. That would be boring as hell. And again, we can’t see Ian in those future reveries, or the trick would collapse. That means that some sort of departure was necessary here, which explains why this — the film’s most serious flaw — is simultaneously its most forgivable.
Not showing Ian is one thing, but further departures from this thread in the story prove destructive. In the short story, Louise’s daughter dies at the age of 25 in a mountain-climbing accident, and Louise and Ian’s marriage ends in a mundane divorce.
The film, on the other hand, opens with a heartrending sequence showing how their daughter succumbs to a rare form of cancer when she is just a young teenager. To maintain the twist, the audience is led to believe these events happened before the events of the film. And her father is nowhere to be seen, in any of it. There’s even a “memory” of the daughter (at age 6!) lamenting that her father doesn’t treat her the same way any more and is never around — and Louise vaguely alludes that it was her disclosure to him of the girl’s future cancer that was the reason he left.
These departures transform what was a normal divorce in the original story into an unconscionably callous betrayal of a young daughter by her father, showing the lovely, otherworldly love story we spent a whole movie watching in a terribly harsh and bitter light.
While knowing such a traumatic future could devastate a marriage, it’s taken for granted that his subsequent abandonment of his daughter, even to the point of being absent throughout her terrible sickness and on her deathbed, is within bounds.
Granted, human beings are frail and selfish and cruel and unpredictable, and who knows how any individual would react to knowing his or her horrible future. But this is fiction. Why purposely make a character so callous after devoting so much energy trying to get us to root for him and for the start of the family you’ve created only to detonate?
In truth, Ian’s absence could have been addressed or handled in a more realistic way. They could have stuck closer to the original story, in which the daughter lives into adulthood and the marriage’s end has nothing to do with the powers of time perception Louise gains from learning Heptapod.
While keeping the twist intact, these decisions lead to further reflection of that introductory sequence and the blossoming romance we witnessed between the two academics — and the only conclusion is that it was all a transparently cynical emotional manipulation made even shallower by its convenience.
Jeremy Renner has established himself as a fine leading man, capable of conveying action and intelligence on the big screen, and with an Academy Award for Best Actor to prove it (The Hurt Locker, 2009). He puts those talents to great use in Arrival, and his performance is up to the task.
But then we’re left to conclude that his character was essentially a heartless prick the whole time. Oh well. What a waste.
It’s one more dent in the film’s otherwise laudable pursuit of plausibility.
Luckily, the implications of these decisions are left hanging out there by the story but aren’t expressly shown. Just don’t think about it too much, I guess. (That policy would probably make most movies more enjoyable, to be honest. Hmm, definitely something to ponder there.)
Despite all this carping, Arrival is still commendable, so let’s end on a good note. The film did make at least one improvement: rather than Flapper and Raspberry as in Chiang’s story, the two starring heptapods are instead named Abbott and Costello.
Posted on November 30, 2016