Friday, December 9, 2016

Belated thoughts on Arrival

Okay, it's been out for almost a month now, but I really wanted to get down some thoughts on Arrival, the recent film by Denis Villeneuve. An adaptation of Ted Chiang's 1998 Story of Your Life, the film follows a linguist and her team as they try to communicate with some decidedly non-human aliens.

A couple things to note right off the bat. Firstly, if you're an SF fan, you need to go see this. It's one of those incredibly rare science fiction films that doesn't just look science-fictional, it's actually powered by ideas. That's a very small family—Garland's Ex Machina last year springs to mind.

Secondly, if you haven't read Chiang's story, that is also a thing you should really do. Chiang is among the absolute best short SF writers, full stop, and Story of Your Life is one of those works that is already a touchstone for the field, tackling two heavy ideas—the relationship of language & cognition, and determinism & the nature of time—in a story that is still intensely human, and stylishly-written to boot.

Taylor Clark had a great piece on Chiang leading up to this film in the California Sunday Magazine, by the way. Recommended.

My thoughts below are pretty critical of the film, but please remember that I really enjoyed this film, I want to see more like it. It's an interesting case-study, though, in how adapting really science-fictional (i.e., cerebral) ideas from print to film is problematic, and it also showcases a few tendencies in current block-buster-y film that bug me, perhaps the more so because of all the things this does right.

Spoilers likely for both film & story below. Also, I should note that I saw this with other Think Galactic members, and a lot of thoughts below came out of our discussion.

Three lines of critique here: 1.) some relatively minor quibbles with how the film looks. 2.) The overall feeling of the film. 3.) How the film handles, and sort of mildly flubs, the ideational core of the story.

How it Looks

This is a small quibble, and a purely personal one, but I was kind of bummed out by the overall visual impact of the film. This is particularly strange because I think the actual filmography of Arrival is really quite good, verging on brilliant—which we should expect, coming from Villeneuve & his cinematographer Bradford Young. How it's shot is great, and includes some really dramatic, iconic scenes that call to mind films like 2001.
Stuff like this. We also noted that Arrival is also in a very
2001-ish tradition of "cool reflecty faceplate" shots,
and also in the tradition of "nonsensical but filmographically-
understandable internally-lit helmets".
How it looks is depressing. The film mostly alternates between two different color approaches. Monochromatic, artificial & underlit in the "army/bureaucracy" scenes:
Bluerest Whitaker? I'm trying.
And washed-out, primarily grey everywhere else:
More like Jeremy GREYnner, eh? Eh?
The overall feel of the film, based purely on the color, is one that alternates between a sort of mildly creepy tension and a kind of strained exhaustion. The only exceptions are the flashes of color in Banks' visions, and the hazmat-suited "talk to the aliens" scenes, which are fairly monochromatic.
Oh, also, if you were hoping this was gonna be the film
that broke free of the "all films are Orange & Teal" curse,
don't hold your breath.
These color issues are something that more and more people have been noticing: see for instance Patrick H. Willems' video essay, Why Do Marvel Movies Look Kind of Ugly?, which incidentally uses Villeneuve's Sicario as an example of flat, concrete-y color grading used intentionally. They (the issues) are partially technological, partially a conscious/unconscious stylistic trend right now.

How it Feels

Arrival's sound is a departure from
Jóhannsson's usual up-beat, tropical
melodies celebrating Iceland's
colorful bossa nova & tango heritage.
Tense, slightly creepy, yet exhausted. That's the vibe the movie gives from the very beginning, and it seems to be a conscious choice—it's reflected not only in the color scheme, but also in the direction to the actors (Adams is great, but she just looks intensely worried all the way through) and the score. The music is very cool, but, again, has a weird emotional effect, alternating between disturbing and panic-attack-y. I thought there were also some probably unintentional conflicts between the score & foley—as an audience meeting aliens for the first time, we're very interested in what they, their ship, and their language sound like, but it was extremely difficult to separate those aural cues from an atmospheric, fairly non-melodic soundtrack.

Incidentally, the wonderful podcast Song Exploder, which looks at how songs are composed and mixed, did an interview with Jóhann Jóhannsson about the creation of "Heptapod B".

Even more incidentally, Jóhannsson's use of arrhythmic vocals reminded me of "The Rockist" by School of Language, bonus connection points for linguist names am I right?

Where was I?

Oh yes: creepy, panicky, exhausted vibes. Now, I think these were largely intentional choices, and I'm not saying they don't work for the film considered on its own. But, more than any plot changes, it's this tonal switch from Chiang's story that saddened me.

In Story of Your Life, the heart of the story is the intellectual excitement of learning about Sapir-Whorf and some mind-expanding facts about time & causality, and a meditation on how an "atemporal" view of human life effects the main character, and particularly how she views her daughter. Chiang makes it a "cerebral safe space", if you will: the ideas are introduced gently, but are terribly exciting once the reader starts wrapping their head around them, and the aliens are both weird enough to startle and funny enough to avoid horror. Furthermore, the excitement and competence of two very different scientists—a linguist and a physicist—are allowed to shine.

In Arrival, the heart of the story is about avoiding nuclear war or some such, in a very short time-frame, with people from the army yelling at you the whole time, while talking to giant booming terrifying elephant squid. The language stuff is there, the time-stuff is there, even the daughter is there, but the interesting ideas are overwhelmed by the sense of danger.

The more I think about it, the most damning thing about Arrival is that it portrays a linguist meeting and talking to aliens joylessly, which is just bizarro. There are tiny flashes of the scientific camaraderie and excitement that fill Story of Your Life, but they are almost completely washed away in the sleep-deprived, impending-disaster-driven film.

It's interesting to compare Arrival to Ex Machina; they both have similar tones and moods, and fairly similar cinematography—but while the color, score, and tone of Ex Machina matched its thematic concerns (fairly creepy uncanny valley questions, and a deeper and creepier theme of female objectification and the male gaze), Arrival's mood indicators are appropriate only to the plot it added to Chiang's ideas, not the ideas themselves. And, unlike Garland, Villeneuve seems content to keep his film very monotone—while there are occasional moments of tension spiking up for a second, it's all in the same vein.
Ex Machina knows how to change it up for a second.
Some of my coworkers who had read Chiang's story before seeing Arrival also pointed out that the aliens' name-change—from "Flapper & Raspberry" to "Abbot & Costello"—is also a weird misstep. "Abbot & Costello", of course, could be a funny thing, but it's just tossed off in the midst of a tense scene, whereas "Flapper & Raspberry" in Chiang's story come from genuinely funny behavior, and confident & excited scientists talking about them from a position of relative safety.

However, "Abbot is death process" was a pretty bad-ass line, it must be said.

How it Handles Big Ideas

So: Arrival bails pretty hard on the cerebral excitement that characterizes Story of Your Life. However, it still utilizes the core ideas: "language rewires your brain" plus "alien language that doesn't rely on linear time perception" equals "learn to speak it, see the future". Which is cool! And while those ideas are kind of allowed to blossom in the short story more than in the film—the reader is encouraged to learn the concepts, rather than just being presented with them—Arrival still makes them major plot points, so, kudos.

Arrival changes the mechanics, however, in ways worth exploring. Biggest and saddest is what happens to language—rather than actually focusing on and walking us through the process of learning the Heptapod languages, we're just kind of told the major steps. In the book, "Heptapod A has essentially no relation to Heptapod B, including word order" is a cool, exciting plot-point. In the film, it's tossed off in a list of "things we've learned". Likewise, the idea of linguistic relativism is tossed off in a single sentence, rather than explored and gradually made concrete.

The linguistic changes, however, are nothing compared to the changes to the theory of time. Story of Your Life goes out of its way to avoid paradox: it introduces the reader to the idea of non-temporal perception gradually, using actual examples from physics. When, by the end of the story, we realize the ability that Banks has gained, we also understand why she's unable to change the future. The story becomes a meditation on ephemerality, on mortality, and how eventual deaths and endings don't deprive any given moment of meaning.

George Roy Hill's 1972 film
is a remarkably faithful adaptation
of a difficult & cerebral book, perhaps
especially given its budget & SFX
Story of Your Life is thus picking up some of the philosophical concerns of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). "Among the things that Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future." The question for Banks in Chiang's story is not: how can you decide to have a child, knowing they are going to die? But rather: how do you think about a life, knowing all lives have to end some day?

Arrival, by contrast, has a very different take on how Heptapod B affects humans: it just gives Banks the ability to "see the future" in a conventional, not-very-deep way. When she averts the world-war-or-whatever, she does so simply by telling a Chinese general something he told her in the future, thus creating a paradox. If you extrapolate from the way the film works, you have to start thinking about multiple timelines or, at the very least, a kind of arms-race of precognition, since a future-seeing-and-therefore-changing ability is now available to anyone willing to learn the language. Yikes. Totally different than the mechanics of Chiang's story; rather than a consistent-but-mind-altering thought about time, we're given a cool-but-magical-and-inconsistent technology.

I have to give Villeneuve & co. credit for changing the way Banks' daughter dies—in the story, she dies from a climbing accident; in the film, from a rare untreatable disease. If Banks has the kind of disaster-aversion precognition she just demonstrated in the film, then telling her daughter not to go on the mountain that particular day would suffice, but it still makes sense that she might choose to have a daughter who'd die young from disease. (This gets into a very murky ethical area about what we owe potential humans, quality of life, oy.) But that's a very different world than the one of Chiang's story, with a completely different philosophical spin.

In Conclusion

Okay, griping done. This was a good film. It's still very idea focused, and although the tone, to me, seems a mismatch with the ideas, it didn't devolve into an action movie. Even the one (unnecessary, IMHO) action-addition towards the end didn't derail it for me. It wasn't another franchise movie! It wasn't about blowing stuff up! And it's commercially (as well as critically) successful! All good things, and makes me hopeful for more good really science-fictional films.

TNG, season 5, episode 2. You should probably watch that.
Open question whether it's as good as "Darmok", however.

Also, if you're reading this and wanting some more language-based SF, might I suggest:
  • Delany's Babel-17
  • Stephenson's Snow Crash
  • Elgin's Native Tongue
  • Much of Cherryh's work: particularly the "Foreigner" series, and also Hunter of Worlds & 40,000 in Gehenna
  • Miéville's Embassytown
  • Barry's Lexicon
And, if you haven't already, read Story of Your Life and everything else Chiang has written.

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