With Arrival, Ted Chiang Becomes Hollywood’s New Philip K. Dick

The new movie Arrival stars Amy Adams as a linguistics professor who gets recruited by the military to help them communicate with mysterious, octopus-like aliens. Critic Andrew Liptak thinks it’s one of the best films of the year.

“It’s not your typical first-contact movie,” Liptak says in Episode 230 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “You’ve got War of the Worlds, Battle: Los Angeles, Edge of Tomorrow, and this year we had [the new] Independence Day. These are all stories where aliens come and blow shit up, and this is not that type of film.”

Writer Carol Pinchefsky agrees that Arrival is exceptional. She gives much of the credit for that to its source material, the novella “Story of Your Life” by science fiction author Ted Chiang.

“I loved ‘Story of Your Life,’” she says. “I thought it was just such a poignant, heartbreaking story, and I wanted to see it brought to film, and it was translated so beautifully.”

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In the science fiction world, Ted Chiang is one of the most widely admired authors working today. His writing process is famously slow and painstaking, resulting in an output of less than one piece of short fiction per year, but everything he writes is of unusually high quality. Writer and editor Christopher Cevasco is one of Chiang’s many admirers.

“I’ve actually had these moments where, as a writer myself, I’ll suddenly sit back and almost feel myself getting choked up just being so in awe of how he’s managed to accomplish something he’s been able to accomplish in a story,” Cevasco says. “It’ll be something that’s so elegant and artistically done that sometimes I just have to sit back and marvel at it.”

Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley is thrilled that Hollywood has finally discovered Ted Chiang, and he hopes to see more of Chiang’s stories adapted in the future.

“After this you kind of think he’s got to become the next Philip K. Dick of Hollywood,” Kirtley says.

Listen to our complete interview with Andrew Liptak, Carol Pinchefsky, and Christopher Cevasco in Episode 230 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

David Barr Kirtley on fighting aliens:

“This is another Hollywood cliche, that 21st-century human armies could fight interstellar aliens, which is completely ludicrous beyond all imagination. Not only is their technology probably at least a thousand years in advance of ours, but they’re in orbit—all they have to do is take a medium-size asteroid and drop it on the Earth and destroy the whole planet. You have no chance of victory in this sort of situation, and I’m a little bit concerned that no movie that I can think of has ever acknowledged this reality, so that if aliens ever do come, our military leaders are not actually going to understand this reality, because they’ve just seen all these movies and will be like, ‘Well, we beat the aliens in every movie. Let’s go for it.’”

Christopher Cevasco on the politics of Arrival:

“This is a science fiction movie, and so you always expect a little bit of hand-wavy-ness, but the funny thing is that all of the science fictional elements in the movie didn’t bother me at all. They felt, for the most part, as grounded in reality as those sorts of things could be. The stuff that felt hand-wavy to me was the global politics and the diplomacy going on. The stakes kept getting escalated for reasons that were never particularly clear to me. It was like, ‘Oh, this guy’s going to do this, this guy’s going to do that. Pakistan’s going along with Sudan.’ I never quite understood what all the conflict was about. … It didn’t ring true to me, which is weird, because that was the least science fictional element in the film.”

Andrew Liptak on cinematography:

“It was a really gorgeously shot film. There was a heavy emphasis on the camera panning over some very blank surfaces, and it looked very minimal at points, from her house to the landscape, even just the texture on the alien ship. I’m really attracted to that type of cinematography, where you really just take it very slowly and you have these very wide shots with the people right in the middle. The director also did a lot of shots right on her face—she was centered right in the middle of the shot as things were going on around her. There’s this one gorgeous shot where she sort of looks to the side, and in front of her is the alien sentence, in an arc around her head. I thought it was gorgeous.”

David Barr Kirtley on Ted Chiang’s story “Liking What You See: A Documentary”:

“There’s apparently a real condition you can have, as a result of brain damage or something like that, where you can see people’s faces and recognize them, but you’ve lost the ability to gauge whether they’re beautiful or not. So in this story, there’s a community of people who have all done this to themselves through technology, intentionally, and have done it to their kids as well. So these kids have grown up not being able to judge who among them is attractive. And then the community breaks apart, and they have to go out into the world and deal with what it means to be judged for your attractiveness for the first time.”

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