Last night Songdog and I went to see the new movie Arrival, which I had been very much looking forward to because it features a linguist as its hero and was rumored to do so pretty well. I’m here to tell you that it surpassed my expectations; it’s not only a wonderful movie from the cinematic point of view (I realized that was going to be the case at the very beginning, when the camera slides over/down a mysterious surface which turns out to be the ceiling of a room, leading to a spectacular view through tree branches to a body of water), it is that rare science fiction movie that had a similar effect on my brain to that produced by a good sf novel. (The gold standard in that regard is still 2001: A Space Odyssey; most sf movies are just westerns, adventure movies, or romances dressed up with spaceships and/or time travel.) That’s not to say it’s flawless; I agree with the reservations expressed by Anthony Lane in his New Yorker review about the blurred focus and the “rushed and scruffy subplot,” but I also second his enthusiasm:
The first forty minutes of “Arrival” consumed me utterly. I gave up taking notes and resorted to scrawling sketches in the dark, as one prodigious image followed another. So sure is the stride of the narrative, and so bracing the air of expectation, that you feel yourself, like Louise, beginning to spin, and barely able to catch your breath. […] It may be weaker in the resolution than in the setup, but that is an inbuilt hazard of science fiction, and what lingers, days after you leave the cinema, is neither the wizardry nor the climax but the zephyr of emotional intensity that blows through the film.
Amy Adams is convincing both as a woman who’s going through hard times and as a linguist; apparently she “studied as much as she could about how linguists do fieldwork, including watching documentaries about preserving endangered languages,” and she won me over early on by first telling someone the well-worn anecdote that kangaroo comes from an Aboriginal phrase meaning “I don’t understand,” then turning to another character and muttering exactly what I had been thinking: “That’s not true, but it’s a great story.” For more on the linguistic aspect, see Ben Zimmer at the Log; he avoids spoilers, but the thread below may well contain them if LH readers feel the urge to talk about the plot, so if you want to see the movie — and I hope you will — you might want to do that before joining the discussion. (Warning: Arrival gets loud at times and contains varying elements of anxiety and grief, all of which will keep my wife away, so if that sort of thing bothers you, now you know.)
Addendum. How I Wrote Arrival (and What I Learned Doing It): Screenwriter Eric Heisserer shares notes and extracts from early drafts as he breaks down how he adapted Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Via MetaFilter, where you will find more people burbling with enthusiasm about the movie, as well as links to Ted Chiang’s stories.
Update. Jessica Coon provides a list of linguistics-related links about the movie.