- Living in the future
Don't worry, darlin'No baby, don't you fretWe're livin' in the futureAnd none of this has happened yet–Bruce Springsteen, 'Living in the Future'
Exiting theatres with a 94 per cent 'fresh' rating on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes–denoting near-unanimous praise from critics–Denis Villeneuve's Arrival has been taken alongside Ridley Scott's smash hit The Martian (UK/US 2015) to herald the long-awaited return of cerebral sf film to cinemas. In an era in which filmic sf has been utterly dominated by the form of the franchise film–not simply the famous return of the Star Wars saga with The Force Awakens (Abrams US 2015) and its expansion into anthology films like Rogue One (Edwards US 2016), but also the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, the X-Men franchise, the Star Trek reboots, The Hunger Games (2012–15), the return of 1980s and 1990s properties like Ghostbusters, Transformers, Mad Max, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Independence Day, and on and on–Arrival's presentation of an original, self-contained story that does not rely on pre-existing IP and does not lend itself to endless sequelisation or transmedia extension still feels almost shocking, revolutionary. It certainly seemed that way to Hollywood; as the film's screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, has recounted in multiple interviews since the film's release, for many years studios simply did not see Arrival as a good financial bet. Indeed, the film was shepherded into existence largely through the sheer force of Heisserer's personal commitment to the project, eventually earning him an executive producing credit; studio executives liked the story it was based on (Ted Chiang's 'Story of Your Life'), and liked Heisserer's pitches, but frequently responded, 'But how is this a movie?'–even earning Arrival a spot on the so-called 'Black List' in [End Page 491] 2012 for the best unproduced screenplays. But Heisserer stayed at it, and the film ultimately sold to Paramount after a bidding war at Cannes for a record-setting $20 million (with Amy Adams attached as the star, the actor Heisserer had always seen in the role).
Whether Arrival really heralds some new model of production in film sf–or at the very least the return of an older, 'arthouse' sf, à la 2001 (Kubrick UK/US 1968), aimed at adults rather than children and teenagers–very much remains to be seen; the film with which it was frequently paired, the Chris Pratt/Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Passengers (Tyldum US 2016), has since proved a flop, while the contemporaneous successes of Dr. Strange (Derrickson US 2016) and Rogue One (over $600 million each) and Black Panther (Coogler US 2018), The Last Jedi (Johnson US 2017) and Avengers: Infinity War (Russo brothers US 2018) since then suggest franchise sf is unlikely to disappear anytime soon (to put it very mildly). Arrival itself made approximately $200 million in theatres, albeit of an admittedly austere budget of US$47 million–making the film a hit, though not a blockbuster. Meanwhile Villeneuve's own follow-up, Blade Runner 2049 (US/UK/Hungary/Canada 2017), proved a pretty but incoherent mess, and a flop at the box office as well–further suggesting Arrival's ecstatic critical reception may have been a bit premature.
A long-time fan of Ted Chiang's–my only complaint about him is that it takes so long for him to craft his nearly perfect short fiction, publishing only 15 stories since 1990–I greeted news of Arrival (then still called Story of Your Life) with a certain amount of trepidation. Indeed, what is most interesting about Arrival for the person who knows (and loves) 'Story of Your Life' is not so much the general success of the presentation but the second-order question of adaptation. 'Story of Your Life' is a story about theoretical linguistics and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, buttressed by a first-contact-with-aliens narrative that slowly transforms over the course of its 56 pages to another sort of story entirely. Until...