The Arrival is a science fiction film based in part on the short story by Ted Chiang called The Story of Your Life. It would be difficult to review the film without mentioning the differences between the film and the short story.
The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.
In the short story, Dr. Louise Banks is approached by the military when nine alien ships show up in the United States and 120 of them across the planet. Louise is a linguistics professor at an unnamed college. Colonel Weber is the man who drafts her into helping the military understand the aliens’ language. With Colonel Weber is Dr. Gary Donnelly, a short unattractive physics professor with a thick beard and mustache (who looks and acts nothing like Jeremy Renner in the film). In the story, Louise is more of a free spirit and Gary is a stick in the mud who has very little personality and seems OCD. They spend approximately a year inside a little tent with a monitor hooked up to a VCR recording sessions viewing a “looking glass” the aliens have brought which is basically a thick plastic-like screen the aliens project images onto.
The linguists made great strides immediately, recognizing the aliens’ speech as completely separate from their written language, a series of circles with intricate patterns weaved in to represent sentences and paragraphs. The physicists, however, get nowhere very fast until nearly a year has gone by and one of the physicists brings up Fermat’s Principle, what physicists consider advanced math and aliens consider basic math. Fermat’s Principle is that light traveling from a point in the air through water will refract in a way to create the fastest path. Not the shortest path. The fastest path. Herein lies my biggest complaint against the short story. Chiang spends almost half of the short story dwelling on Fermat’s Principle.
Louise names the aliens Flapper and Raspberry (no reason given why) and describes them in great detail, especially how they eat. After imparting their written language, which allows the person learning it to see the future, they leave. There’s no ulterior motive, just friendly aliens sharing something to make life better for humans. This ability to see the future, however, allows Louise to see her future in which she and Gary get married and have a daughter who then dies at 25 years old while rock climbing. After their daughters’ birth, Gary leaves Louise because she tells him their daughter will eventually die. He takes off with a young student and she ends up with a ruggedly handsome guy named Nelson. Their daughter is never named in the short story, but she is very much like Gary, unbending and unyielding, always wanting what she wants which is why she excels at dangerous sports like rock climbing.
Arrival (the film)
The first thing that makes the film dramatically different from the short story is the obvious advances in technology. The short story was written in the 80s when VCRs were still high tech. The film has high tech equipment and Louise, Gary, and Colonel Weber enter the alien ship and talk to the aliens directly, along with a military crew who film everything. That high tech equipment enables them to quickly decode the alien written language, the “gift” they came to bring us.
The second thing that makes the film dramatically different from the short story is the war aspect. Only 12 ships appear across the planet and one hovers over China whose dictator, General Chiang, wants to blow it out of the sky. If he attacks the aliens, there are at least four other countries who will follow and we’ll have a war. The film is condensed into a one month time period because of the urgency of communicating with the aliens before China can attack them.
The worst change from the short story to the film is the manner of their daughters’ death. Louise and Gary have a daughter named Hannah who will be born with a very rare disease that will kill her in her teens. She will die most painfully. And it’s that cruelty that Louise is willing to subject Hannah to that makes Gary leave her. Much more compelling than a rock climbing accident. That makes Louise a very unlikable, miserable character.
Fermat’s Principle is never brought up and because war is imminent, the reason for the aliens coming is to save us from war so that in 3,000 years we can help them. There is no spoken language, just a series of grunts. The part of learning their written language is also explained more fully and beautifully, in my opinion.
7 out of 10 stars. The ending is sad in more ways than one which is probably why this film got such bad reviews when it first came out. If you can, watch a digital copy so you can rewind, repeat, and watch it over and over. There are small nuances you will pick up each time you watch it.
Reviewed by Devin.