There was excitement in the air on Nov. 7 at Atkinson Auditorium in the Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego for the world premiere of the science fiction film, “Arrival,” released in theaters Nov. 11. The sold-out crowd was anxious to find their seats.
Paramount Pictures, which owns the rights to the film, allowed it to be screened as a benefit for the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, held on campus for six weeks every summer. Austere-looking Secret Service-type guards were posted at the entrances to make sure no one filmed or photographed the film.
In the audience were sci-fi fans, teachers and students, including this year’s Clarion workshop students of Ted Chiang, a 1989 Clarion graduate himself, who wrote the short story, “Story of Your Life,” upon which “Arrival” is based.
Chiang has won four Hugo Awards, four Nebula Awards and four Locus Awards. He is also the recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.
The film turned out to more than satisfy everyone’s hopes and expectations. It is a wonderful, visually beautiful, musically intriguing, dreamlike tale about the interaction of a small group of scientists, headed up by linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and U.S. Army employees lead by Colonel Weber, (Forest Whitaker).
Banks, Donnelly and Weber are one of 12 groups around the world in a race to communicate with the aliens who have landed in multiple spots, to find out why they are here and if they intend any harm.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer did an excellent job of enhancing Chiang’s short story, creating a movie that is, at once, a sci-fi thriller, a romance, and a tearjerker mom/daughter yarn with the a lesson about humanity’s need for improved communication and understanding.
Director Denis Villeneuve makes use of overcast dark days and blurred backgrounds, with a back-and-forth flow of current time — Dr. Banks investigating the aliens — juxtaposed with Bank’s memories of situations with her daughter, which grow in vividness due to Bank’s acquisition of the alien’s circular time language Hepatod B. All is spiced-up by her growing romance with Dr. Donnelley.
The aliens are an advanced race of seven-foot-tall squid-like creatures that have seven arms/legs that they can glide along with or fold up against their sides. They have 10 eyes, a mouth under their legs for eating, and an orifice on top of their head for breathing and speaking.
They arrive in 1,500-foot-long, black, shell-shaped ships that hover in place 40 feet above the ground. Every 18 hours, a door on the bottom of their ships opens and humans can climb up a long, rock tunnel to a viewing room where the aliens will appear behind a silicon screen in the midst of clouds and fog, for brief encounters with humans.
The aliens have a spoken language of buzzes and rumblings, but it’s not related to their highly advanced written language, which they emit as a black vapor from their four-fingered hands, much like a squid releases ink. The aliens write with a complex circular script that looks like a wreath. Commented Professor Sheldon Brown, Director of Arthur Clarke Center for Human Imagination, “The script resembles Chinese Yes Paintings.”
The alien writings are quite different from human script in that they can be read backwards or forwards, like the word Hannah, which is the name Dr. Banks gave her daughter, who dies of cancer at age 25. Learning the language allows one to see time differently, a fulfillment of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which supposes the language we speak and think in structures how we view reality.
In Chiang’s short story, the aliens end up leaving Earth abruptly without sharing much of their selves. Screenwriter Heisserer brings in the idea that the aliens are here to give humans the gift of their language, which will improve world communication and bring us all together in peace. The aliens give this gift hoping for reciprocity because they have seen the future and observed that in 3,000 years they are going to need our help.
After the screening
Chiang came to the stage for a panel discussion with Brown and Shelley Streeby, an ethnic studies professor with an interest in popular culture and sci-fi. Brown thanked Patrick Coleman, the Clarke Center’s new program manager, for coming up with idea for bringing the movie to UCSD. Chiang then discussed his involvement with the Clarion Workshop in 1989, calling it, “a life-changing experience ... and one of the foremost ways of becoming a writer.”
He added that he was fortunate to have his story selected to be made into a movie and praised screenwriter Heisserer for his passion for the project. “The story is basically about thinking ... I’m very happy with the film and the choice of Amy Adams as lead star. People should see the film multiple times — each time you will see more things.”
After the panel, Chiang obliged a long line of well-wishers by signing books and movie posters.
Want to know more? I found the movie highly recommendable, a “two thumbs up.” Chiang’s book “Stories of Your Life and Others,” is available at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore, 5943 Balboa Ave.