Reason for watching it: I was completely fascinated by the idea of a film of the marvellous Ted Chiang short Story of your life. I started out thinking the film probably wouldn't do it justice but wanted to see it anyway. And then lots of people started posting really positive reviews of it, which made me even more excited to see it. Not to mention lots of articles about constructing the alien language made it seem even more intriguing.
Circumstances of watching it: jack and I managed to catch about the last showing before everything is taken over by the new Star Wars. We had an early dinner in the somewhat fancy Chinese place, Orchid, mainly because it's close to the cinema. Things I like about Orchid: the ambience, which is very calm and feels much more relaxingly atmospheric than many anglo-Chinese restaurants. The way they have fancy teas as well as fancy wines (for about the same sort of price range.) The amazing grilled aubergines which are like a kind of vegetarian steak. Things I am not so keen on: they have a bad habit of putting shellfish in the dishes labelled vegetarian, and there's little choice of actually veggie food. And they're a bit overpriced, we ended up spending about £30 a head, which isn't ridiculous but there are quite a few places locally when you can get a good meal for quite a bit less than that.
Then we saw our film at the Vue in the Grafton Centre. I'm not a huge fan of this new system where they're trying to encourage people to shell out for cinema tickets by providing fancy reclining seats for everybody, since my legs are too short to sit comfortably in a huge chair, I felt as if I were stuck in a kind of padded bucket. Anyway, I'm really glad I got to see the film as part of a proper date with jack, we so rarely get to have an evening out together like that.
Verdict: Arrival is really lovely thinky SF with brilliant aliens.
I really love first contact stories, and this is a fantastic example of the genre. The whole film is built around giving the audience the emotional experience of encountering aliens. They aren't at all humanoid or human-like, and they're also not merely monsters that need to be blown up before they destroy the earth. At the same time, they're kept mysterious, there's no excess infodump showing off how the script writers invented these cool aliens and their biology and culture and technology. The characters, and the audience, learn about as much about the aliens as is plausible in a first contact scenario, and there's a real sense of otherness throughout, which just made the film for me. The palette of the film is mostly greys, with the only green being rain-soaked grass. So the visual strength of the film is in the beautiful animation of the monochrome aliens and the way they communicate with swirling ink (as well as sounds and body language).
I really liked that the film made the attempts by the linguist protag and her team to communicate with aliens really tense and exciting. I was absolutely thrilled when there was clear two-way communication, and scared and frustrated when nobody could be sure of mutual understanding. In some ways this part is backstory in the original novella, and I really enjoyed the focus on it.
I was less excited by the tacked on military drama about the US team trying to stop China from being disastrously aggressive. Partly because it's self-serving and borderline racist – I mean, IRL responding to every little thing that goes wrong with massive, destructive military force seems much more like an American habit than a Chinese one. And partly because it's just like every other Hollywood thriller ever and far less interesting than the alien contact and linguistics and time paradox bits. However, one part of this that I did like was the way it's resolved through a time loop thingy, that was a really good way to illustrate the SF core of the story. The version of the original Chiang storyline about the daughter's death is very sentimental, but it fit well with the gradual reveal of the time paradox shenanigans.
So yes, I really enjoyed that film, it was very much what I was hoping for and I'm really glad I got to see it.
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