Review: Arrival/The Story Of Your Life


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Following are my thoughts about the movie, Arrival.

Despite my efforts, it’s possible that reading this post will spoil the movie for you. I’m not intending to, but would hate if I did …

So, maybe, watch the movie, or read the novella The Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang before you read further? Watching the film and especially reading the novella – well worth your while.

By the time I turned 10, I could distinguish between the dreams that were predictive and the ones of that are mere processing.

It’s not as if those early portents were of much consequence.

The structure of those early Knowings was part of their message.

Every one of those early dreams would begin with me in a place I’d never been in before.

First, I’d see every detail of my surroundings, as if the camera were panning around the place so I’d remember it when next I saw it. It was as if the Universe were announcing, “Stay turned for the following important Message.

But then what would come next would not seem to me to be an important message at all. In the dream, I’d participate in an innocuous conversation with someone, sometimes someone I already knew, sometimes not.

Sometimes, the conversation would be a disagreement, but it was not usually something I cared about very much, in the dream at least. Usually, I had very little context. These messages were not very long – maybe a minute or two of talk at most after the scene had been set.

Despite my resentment that the Universe was instructing me to store such a ridiculously uninteresting tableau, I would remember these Messages.

Then, sometime later – a day, week, month, or year later – the exact conversation that I’d dreamed would take place in my waking life in precisely the place I dreamed it would. Every word that I’d dreamed would be spoken. Every item I’d dreamed of would be on every shelf; every leaf would tremble just as it did in the dream.

Every time one of my dreams played out in my real life, I wondered, at the end of its reiteration, if I should tell the person I was talking with that I had already had the conversation we’d been having. Usually, I didn’t. Once in a while, if I were talking with someone I knew would just honor my honesty and not argue with me, I’d say something like, “You know, I dreamed this conversation a few weeks ago. I was thinking of trying to deliberately deviate from the script I dreamed, but felt bound to relive it as the dream instructed me to.” What would you do if you were talking with an 8-year old who told you something like this, or even a 20-year old? You’d move on to other topics, wouldn’t you?

Much later on, some of my dreams would predict real, consequential events in my life. These dreams would be less specific as to exact location and words spoken. After all the dreams, all the training, the Universe knew I was familiar with the drill.

In these later dreams, I’d dream the thing happening and Know it would happen and that I could not stop it. In these cases, when I’d startle awake from the dream, I’d usually tell the person I was with what I’d dreamed would happen. And we would agree, because we were grown-ups, that I could not renege on my commitment on the basis of the dream.

So, for example, on the morning I awoke to lightning flashing after a dream in which I was a passenger in a car that crashed on a wet, windy road in Princeton Junction, NJ, I got on the train that took me to Princeton Junction (should I have canceled the trip), seated myself in the passenger seat (should I have insisted upon driving), my mother driving, and the car was hit head-on by an idiot who took a curve too wide and totaled it (should I have suggested an alternate route?).

As we sat on the side of the road, I did NOT tell me mother I had known since I’d awoken that we would not be driving in that car ever again.

Needless to say, I am not good at sleeping. But now, my Messages don’t only come in dreams. Often, I just Know things that will happen. And, as even the Greeks have told us, the world does not appreciate hearing dire predictions, and resent people who say “I told you so.”

Knowing things without any basis for Knowing them is, if anything, even worse than dreaming them. In particular, with close family and friends, I often Know what will happen (sometimes very specifically) as soon as they describe some path they are considering. It is only rarely that I tell them what I Know.

There’s a movie out now. I think it will not be in theatres for long. It’s called Arrival, and it’s based on a novella called “The Story Of Your Life” by Ted Chiang that I recognized as a Message from the Universe when I first read it in around 2002.

The first time I saw Arrival, I went alone to a free Women Who Code showing. With my foot in a cast, I walk slowly and I got into the showing 15 minutes late.

Although I enjoyed the film, I felt that if I had not read the story first, I would not have been able to understand it. But I thought that maybe this was because I’d missed the beginning.

So, last week, I dragged my husband and daughter with me to see it again, beginning to end this time.

Turned out that DH, who has a terrifying ability to grok any movie plot no matter how confused, understood every single thing about Arrival.

My daughter, who is brilliant in general and a very savvy watcher of movies, was indeed confused. Also, I misunderstood when I thought she had asked me what exactly Arrival was about, and when I told her, she was extremely miffed with me.

Given its thoughtful pace and meditative mood, my feeling is that Arrival is not going to be a blockbuster. But it’s a film that adult children ought to take their parents to. The kids are unlikely to get it; the parents will on first watch.

Then, you all, read the novella. The novella avoids a lot of the silliness of the movie and gives the complete Message.

(Based on my recent Knowings, the endings of both the movie and the story feel inappropriately optimistic, but then Chiang was writing just after 9/11 and before the Iraq Invasion, when the world was a very different place.)

In this very cool piece, a linguist reality-checks the process Amy Adams’ character used to learn the alien’s language.

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