“Arrival” Versus “Story of Your Life” — Take Your Times, Aliens

This was a tweet from me yesterday:

I’m convinced the movie “Arrival” is a big deal, one way or the other. Will try to do some yap about its science and its fiction tomorrow.

A pret-ty obvious notion, I guess —since it’s now been done with more polish and detail than I could ever manage.

Still, I have a few small glosses.

LOTSA SPOILERS ahead — if you have seen the movie and read the novella, no problems. If you need to do either, stop reading.

Ted Chiang’s story is exceptionally smart and inventive, but the movie is a vastly greater work of art — the current-best model for how to expand and deepen source material.

The oddest thing that nobody mentions is that “Story of Your Life” was written in 1998, a far calmer and more peaceable era than today. I agree the military-assault sequence that’s not in the original story feels nailed onto the narrative, but it would seem bogus to be as accepting as the nations Chiang depicted.

It’s smart to make the ships appear only in a few places rather than hundreds. Also to make them colossal and intimidating (though “Story of Your Life” does include its own trick about the aliens’ physical presence).

Yes, Chiang is hardcore computer-nurd. He has the aliens using their own variety of thinking machine. Ho-hummer. The octopus-ink alternative in the film is genius.

Unfortunately, the aliens themselves in “Story of Your Life” are much more cartoonish — based as much on starfish as octopi — and with a ring of “lidless eyes.” I know eye structures reoccur endlessly in evolution, but I thought the business of creatures that suggested a face at times without having one far superior.

As a brainiac run-through, I enjoyed the explication of how Heptapod B was decoded in “Story of Your Life.” Very convincing. But it would have dragged the movie to a brutal halt.

Finally, I think the death of the daughter is handled better in the film. If she dies from a fall during cliff-climbing and it’s made an aspect of her defiant nature, there’s an unavoidable whisper that it’s at least a smidgen her “fault.” Incredibly rare disease indicates the aliens might not have known all the ins and outs of exposure to their environment on human DNA.

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