Dec. 6th, 2016

drwex: (WWFD)
There are lots of movies that come out labeled as SF and most of them are action-adventure and a lot of them are horror with blinky lights. But the central tenet of science fiction is that you are telling a story that could not be told without at least one scientific element.

Mind you, the other way isn't all bad. Star Trek was an episodic Western set in space and Firefly was even more explicitly a space Western. But it's hard to name one scientific idea without which you couldn't have told those stories.

Gattaca, by contrast, was explicitly built around the idea that anyone's DNA could be read, quickly, and manipulated extensively. Arrival is built around the idea of "What happens if First Contact is with really alien aliens, who may not even think like we do?" 4/5 stars or maybe even 5/5 not because I so loved this film but because it does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it well.

Amy Adams' portrayal of Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist tasked with discovering and understanding the aliens' language so we humans can communicate with them is spot-on. The movie is based on Ted Chiang's novella(*) The Story of Your Life which I didn't remember until about 1/3 of the way through, when one of the characters references the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis. (**)

As in the story, Banks finds herself being affected by her immersion in learning the aliens' communication. She may even begin to think and see the world as they do, and it's an interesting contrast between the moment-to-moment action and the overarching what's-going-on. To say more would be spoilery, so I won't. The movie rises on the strength of Adams' performance, as a mother and as a scientist and as a person struggling to figure out how to relate to these other beings whom she might be closer to than she is to other humans.

The movie manages to have tension and conflict without resorting to Bad Guys vs Good Guys and that's also a mark of a good SF movie, to me. The supporting cast are mostly there as props for Adams but they're good props. Jeremy Renner manages to be supportive and likable despite being set up to be authoritarian and male-dominant. Forest Whitaker is believable and earnest as a military man put to an impossible task. It's really interesting to see the mirrors between Whitaker's American military man and Tzi Ma as the Chinese General Shang whose off-stage and then at the last moment on-stage actions make all the difference. It's a rare movie that manages to show its military characters as patriots and also as non-villainous people.

Don't miss this one - it's worth seeing in a theater but I suspect it'll translate just fine to smaller screen.

(*) both IMDB and Wikipedia refer to it as a "short story" but it won the Nebula for Best Novella and in the hardcopy I own it's referred to as a novella, so there!

(**) I remembered because one of the things that irked me is the novella seems to be based on the strong version of the hypothesis, which I disagree with on pure instinct. The movie doesn't play it as strongly.

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