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Arrival Thoughts [Uncertain Principles]

Saturday, November 19, 2016 5:33
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People have been raving about the new movie Arrival, which is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” which I did a guest lecture on for a colleague’s class on science fiction some year ago. It’s unusual enough to see a science fiction movie hailed for being smart that Kate and I actually arranged a babysitter for the night, and caught it in the theater.

It’s a surprisingly credible effort at adapting a story I would’ve guessed was unfilmable. I wasn’t as blown away as a lot of the folks in my social media feed, though. I think that’s largely because I’m too familiar with the source material– a lot of the raves were from people who had either never read the story, or who had forgotten its plot. As is often the case when watching an adaptation of a favorite, I was distracted by noting changes from the source material.

There are fewer of these than I feared from the first trailer I saw, which overemphasized soldiers and helicopters to a worrying degree. I wasn’t really thrilled with those additions to the story, but they kept it to the minimum necessary for making a full-length movie out of it. I was much less happy with the resolution of the big crisis, which introduces a different sort of SF element that just confuses matters. And also makes the whole movie turn on an incredibly stilted and awkward conversation.

The thing I missed the most, though, you will likely be unsurprised to learn, was the physics. The original story justifies its premise not only with a Sapir-Whorf “learning languages changes your brain” sort of thing, but with a pretty good discussion of the alien’s approach to physics, which starts from Lagrangians. This unfolds in parallel with the translation work, and the two reinforce each other, and the emotional impact of the story, perfectly.

The physics part is basically completely absent from the movie– I caught one very brief reference to the aliens not responding to algebra, but showing interest in something more complicated, and that was it for science outside of linguistics. This has two negative effects: first, it shifts the story more toward “mystical aliens are mystical,” and second, it means that Jeremy Renner as the physicist character really doesn’t do much of anything.

Which is not to say that it’s a bad movie, by any stretch. Amy Adams does a great job in the lead, and the supporting players are all good. And it looks amazing. Everybody should go see it, or at least buy a ticket at the multiplex before going into a different theater to watch something else, so they make tons of money and will make more smart, great-looking SF movies.

It’s not going to displace the original Chiang story in my affections, though. It might seed a blog post over at Forbes about least-action principles, though…


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