On Arrival…

Arrived at your (Thanksgiving) destination yet? I hope all went well. Now, here’s some exciting news… This year’s Thanksgiving episode of Screen Junkies is another Movie Science special! This means, as usual, that I sat down with presenter Hal Rudnick to talk about some science ideas and portrayal of scientists in the movies.
movie_science_screen_junkiesThis time, the film is Arrival. We actually had a great in-depth conversation, and a lot (not all) of it made it to the episode, so have a look. (Most of the episode assumes that you have seen the film since there are a lot of serious spoilers that will take away from the movies intended unfolding as you view… There are mild spoilers in the form of general discussion about the film to start, and then Hal stops and warns you that we’re going deeper into the details.)

The embed is below, and then after that I say a few spoiler-y things to end this post:


Spoiler-y things:

Some things we discussed that did not make it to the episode include:

(1) We’re much nicer to Jeremy Renner than the cut suggests…! We’re mostly making fun of his more famous characters, not the actor himself!
(2) I go into more detail as to why I think the physicist character is not so good as a contemporary physicist. He should *not* be surprised by the fact that the linguist’s methods are mathematical. Mathematics is the science of patterns, after all, and a large chunk of linguistics’s starting point is about encoding meaning, patterns, and so forth. Why is he so shocked by this?
(3) In addition to the poor choice of downplaying the physical sciences and mathematics in order to play up the linguistics (rather than show that they are *both* key in such a situation), the film starts earlier on with completely unrealistic argument started by the physicist about which field is more important to a civilisation… Only fictional physicists from the mid 20th century can get away which such shocking ignorance of how other fields work and their place in the world. Happily most contemporary physicists I know (or care to spend time with) do *not* go around thinking that physics is the most important thing.
(4) Am I the only one to notice that the aliens (in shape) are kind of a tribute to the Simpsons aliens?!
(5) Yes, I gave Hal a hard time about not having his jacket this time.


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42 Responses to On Arrival…

  1. Mark Srednicki says:

    Clifford, I strongly recommend reading the story the film is based on, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It’s one of my all-time favorite SF short stories. I was very disappointed in the film, which has just pale shadows of the themes in the story. Your complaints about the film (all valid!) do not apply to the story …

  2. Clifford says:

    Hi Mark,

    Yes, I plan to read it. I did indeed learn from a piece in the Guardian that the story is quite different, particularly in some of the areas I found the film problematic in. As I usually do when asked to comment, I chose to talk about the film on its own merits, and not talk about source material… film and literature are different media with different constraints. But yes, one can certainly question the choices made when making adaptations… Anyway, I’d say that by the standard of big budget SF films, it was not bad (those glaring annoyances aside), but frankly the standard is not high when it comes to such films exploring the themes and ideas to the depths that literature can and has.

    Great to hear from you!


  3. Mark Srednicki says:

    Hi Clifford,

    I completely agree that a film based on literature can and should be reviewed on its own, and I agree with your overall “not bad” assessment of Arrival. My frustration with the film is that I think a few small tweaks could have improved it significantly.

    By the way, have you seen the new NBC series Timeless? Pretty cheesy, but British actor Paterson Joseph, in the role of the time-travel project leader, reminds me a lot of you!


  4. Mark Srednicki says:

    UCSB astrophysicist and film buff Andy Howell has a half-hour segment of his “Science and Cinema” series on Arrival: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/76811

    It includes interviews with all the key people on the film. Big reveals for me: (1) Stephen Wolfram was involved, and (2) a key scene on physics (that follows the original story) was in the script, but got cut.

  5. Clifford says:

    Hi Mark,

    I know about the series Timeless since I gave them a couple of rounds of detailed notes on their pilot episode, some suggestions for general use, and some sketches of possible machinery ideas. I don’t know what they used in the end and did not watch the final results. I declined to be part of their publicity drive since I was too busy over the Summer. Maybe I’ll look in on it at some point – I’m curious to see how the lead was cast and so forth. (Is the character a scientist? This won’t be the first time I’ve done science advising on a series and then someone gets cast as a scientist who reminds people of me…. Hmmmm…..)

    I’ll look at Andy’s video soon. Knew about (1) but not (2). Figures…. It looked like there was clearly an editing gap there. (Also explains why the physicist is standing around doing no physics but there’s a board full of physics and he has a whole team we never see doing anything.