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Arrival shows there’s still room for literary science fiction films in Hollywood

Science fiction concepts are all over blockbuster filmmaking right now, but Arrival’s willingness to engage deeply with those ideas is still rare.

Amy Adams communicates with aliens in Arrival
Amy Adams communicates with aliens in Arrival
Paramount Pictures

It’s difficult to express why I enjoyed Arrival so much. In part it’s because it’s so gripping and well-made, but in part it’s because I grew up devouring science fiction short stories, plowing through collections at the local library and subscribing to magazines like Asimov’s and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science, looking for the focused bursts of novelty, imagination, and insight that could only ever really come from short speculative fiction. Director Denis Villeneuve’s chilly and beautiful first-contact story is one of just a handful of films to replicate, or at least approximate, the experience of reading an engrossing science fiction short.

It helps, of course, that it’s based on one of the great science fiction short stories of the last 20 years, Ted Chiang’s remarkable “Story of Your Life.” Like Chiang’s story, Arrival is both intimate and cerebral, built on strange and fascinating ideas about human and alien nature, and yet never short of awe-inspiring. It’s one of the best movies of the year, and one of the best science fiction movies ever made—and it’s a reminder the deep and rare pleasures of literary science fiction films.

Over the past 40 years or so, science fiction has all but taken over Hollywood. From Star Wars and The Matrix to Terminator and Guardians of the Galaxy, sci-fi is Hollywood’s inescapable genre, its go-to for the sort of big-budget, special-effects-driven films that increasingly dominate the studio release calendar.

Most superhero movies are, in some sense, science fiction films, derived from vaguely sci-fi scenarios and concepts; so are most video game adaptations. Action movies now rely on science fiction so often that you barely even notice it, and even kids’ movies now commonly employ sci-fi elements. At this point, a successful film franchise that doesn’t have some sort of science fiction or fantasy element is a rarity.

But most of the science fiction that comes from Hollywood is pulpy, popcorn entertainment that relies on genre tropes to generate spectacle rather than to examine the science behind their fictions. Star Wars is a sci-fi film, in the sense that it relies on space ships and laser weapons rather than dragons and swords, but it is really more like a fantasy that relies on machines rather than magic. A monster movie like Godzilla relies on a handful of science fiction concepts, but isn’t really concerned with the mechanisms that created a giant-sized lizard monster. These are fantasy scenarios, conjured up for spectacle.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach. These movies offer a visceral excitement that more cerebral movies can sometimes have a hard time matching, and the best of them are marvels of cinematic craftsmanship. They don’t even always require you to turn off your brain: Even if they’re not attuned to the technical aspects of science fiction, they can work as metaphors and mood pieces, as fantasy visions, even if not every detail is explained.

But in an important sense they are different types of movies, different types of stories, doing very different things. Fans of written science fiction have long been attuned to this distinction, and over the years have argued for terms to distinguish between what they see as two essential genres: The Godzillas and Star Wars of the world are “sci-fi,” while the harder, more technical stuff is “speculative fiction”—or “s.f.” (For more on this distinction, watch this great old SyFy channel interview with science fiction author Harlan Ellison and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski discussing the difference between sci-fi and science fiction.)

Some movies blend the two, of course: Think of brainier sci-fi action films like The Matrix or District 9. But it’s relatively unusual for a major studio to produce a film that works entirely at the level of top-notch literary s.f. Sure, there are films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Solaris, and Ex Machinabut there aren’t too many of them.

Like the story it is based on, however, Arrival is most definitely “s.f.” It’s measured and patiently paced, with stunning low-light photography and dialogue that doesn’t shy away from technical explanations. (There’s a mid-film montage set to a voiceover explanation of how an alien language works.)

Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams, surrounded by the alien language, in Arrival.
Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams, surrounded by the alien language, in Arrival.
Paramount Pictures

And, like the best science fiction shorts, it prioritizes inventive use of language and ideas, using them to make a point or elaborate on a concept. They work almost like the literary equivalent of mathematical proofs, explaining an idea and then demonstrating how it might work, or what you might conclude from it.

That’s more or less the approach that Chiang, a technical writer with a background in computer science, takes in “Story of Your Life.” In this case, the big idea is about the nature of language itself. The story uses narrative fragments and tense changes to draw readers into a linguistically created temporal jumble, in which time and memory cease to be experienced in a linear manner, and all events and times exist simultaneously. Villeneuve employs a cinematic version of the same trick, cross-cutting between different parts of Dr. Louise Banks’s (Amy Adams) life, as her memory begins to encompass the future as well as the past.

Both the story and the film are explorations of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which in its simple form posits that language determines how one thinks, shaping and filtering one’s ability to perceive the world. The aliens in both the movie and the story rely on a language that has no word order and no ability to capture the passage of time. So as Banks begins to learn their language, her own perception of time expands to encompass events that haven’t happened yet, transforming past and future into an eternal present. Both Chiang and Villeneuve, in other words, use their respective forms to not only describe a different way of thinking and perceiving the world, but to simulate that sort of nonlinear understanding for readers and viewers.

It’s the sort of thoughtful science fiction that I grew up reading, and that I wish we saw more of on screen. And maybe, thanks to Villeneuve, we will: His next project is a sequel to Blade Runner. I’m as skeptical as anyone of a late follow-up to one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, but Arrival suggests that if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s Villeneuve.

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