Sunday, November 13, 2016


(This is intended to be a non-spoiler. I hope to thoroughly confuse anybody who's not already familiar with one or the other of the prose fiction or film I'm discussing.)

A couple weeks ago, as reported here, I went to a preview showing of the film Arrival, and was impressed with this thoughtful, intelligent, cerebral SF film. Of course, I'd already read "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang on which it's based, so I had a leg up on the actually profoundly disorienting plot. (It is a Ted Chiang story.) But the publicity people told me that others who'd seen the movie without knowing the story had found it intelligible.

Now it's been released, and I'm reading the reviews and I'm not so sure.

San Jose Mercury News: "Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics called in by the U.S. government to attempt communicating with the visitors. Banks still wrestles with the guilt of losing a daughter to an incurable disease and is immediately presented as a complicated and passionate character."

The Guardian: "Unknown to anyone, there is a secret tragedy in Louise's life: a lost child, dead of cancer in her late teens. Her attempts to communicate with the aliens cause painful, illuminating echoes in her consciousness."

Are these misdirection to avoid spoiling the ending, or did the reviewers actually not get what's going on? The Guardian might be the former, though I'd guess not; but the Mercury News definitely the latter, even though the reviewer also wrote, "as in “Interstellar,” the point remains hidden until nearly the end." I wonder what the reviewer thought the point was.

I'm dismayed, because I thought the filmmakers handled this really well. Not only did they include verbatim my favorite moment from the story, the vertiginous shift in perspective pivoting on a single term that occurs between p. 295 and 296 of the original publication, but, just in case anyone missed it, they used it as lead-up to a more blatant appearance of the same effect later on that was entirely invented for the film. (The phone-call scene.) What impressed me about this is that it's the opposite of what Peter Jackson would do. One of the besetting sins of his Lord of the Rings films was repeated anticipation and flattening: he'd copy Tolkien's most striking effects and add them to scenes earlier on in the storyline, thus undercutting the drama of Tolkien's part of the story when it finally arrives.

Arrival does the opposite: by putting its invented scene later, it underlines and emphasizes what it reproduces from Chiang's original. See, it really does matter what order you experience events in, doesn't it?

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