“When twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.” — IMDb
Oh man, this one was so good. Better than expected, for me, and I had high hopes to begin with. It was adapted by screenwriter Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”. Since its release it has grossed more than $196 million worldwide and been nominated for (and won) multiple awards, which is no surprise at all. It is as cerebral as it is fantastic, all the while dealing with some very relevant and sobering flaws of the human race and politics in general. It manages to be heartbreaking, mystifying, and chilling, with strong characters and a plot that makes you ponder long after the credits roll.
Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is lecturing at a university when twelve mysterious alien ships appear without warning or explanation at various points around Earth. Louise is asked by U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in an effort to decipher the aliens’ language and find out what it is they came for. There ends up being near-tragic miscommunications both between the aliens and humans and the humans and their fellow Earthlings which provide much tension during the second half of the movie.
** SPOILERS! **
The most interesting thing to me about this movie is how much the tension between our countries is more worrisome than the mystery of why these aliens are here in the first place. We — with our finger always hovering over the trigger — are a much greater threat than any outside source could be, and yet we’re always using that other finger to point the blame. The vagueness of the aliens’ arrival is enough to raise the hair on the back of your neck, but it’s nothing compared to what we ourselves are capable of. The reactions that people have to the aliens’ arrival — rioting, looting, self-immolation, calls for initiating violence — seem so natural for the state of our culture today that it’s nauseating. And the miscommunication between countries and leaders — the feeling that we’re just involved in a big game of telephone — is exasperating.
The film does an amazing job of making the alien ships as epic as possible — they are these looming leviathans, hovering over the ground effortlessly despite their massive size. They are both terrifying and awe-inspiring, and the swiftness of their silent arrival only adds to the dread. And yet when we see the aliens themselves — these floating, almost delicate, sea creature-esque beings that are quickly dubbed as “heptapods” for their seven limbs — I felt nothing but awe and curiosity. The interactions between Louise and the beings is just… almost spiritual, in a way. There’s a deep connection and seeing her commitment, her full force of dedication to understand them, is beautiful. You almost feel jealous in a way of her privilege of getting to know an entirely new species.
The language aspect alone is enough to keep you deeply invested in the plot. Watching someone decipher ANY foreign language is interesting enough to me, but when that language is being burst forth in a swirling, inky smoke from the starfish-like limbs of an unknown alien species, I am 100% sold. Louise comes to find that they do not communicate verbally, but rather in these complex, circular symbols that actually are sentences with no structural beginning or end. Freaking fascinating.
The flashbacks to Louise’s life with her daughter — and her daughter’s untimely death — are absolutely heart-wrenching. They are understated and yet pack such a powerful, emotional punch. There’s a scene where Louise holds her hand up to the invisible barrier between herself and one of the aliens holding one of its 7 hands up and during their moment of connection there’s this sudden and intense flashback to Louise holding her baby daughter’s hand and it had me instantly in tears.
The special effects were used smartly — not to overwhelm or show off, but to add a punch where it was needed. When the aliens push them out of the ship when the bomb was about to go off is one amazing example, and when Louise goes up into the ship alone and is almost suspended in liquid, hair swirling around her, in slow motion fascination while she learns about their true reason for coming to Earth… so good.
And their freaking reason is just… mind-blowing. They are coming to Earth to give humans the gift of their language, which will allow them to change their perception of time. They know that they will need the help of humans in 3,000 years, so they have come to help us now. We realize that Louise’s “flashbacks” are actually her visions of the future, her being able to see the life she will share with Ian (who she is just now meeting), and the tragedy they will experience with the death of their daughter (which will result in them splitting up when Ian finds out she had knowledge of the daughter’s death all along).
This shifted perception of time is what allows Louise to save the entire project — when China decides to give the aliens an ultimatum after it is believed that the aliens have threatened warfare, Louise is the one who is able to see into the future and know what she needs to do to get them to back down and listen to her interpretation of the aliens’ message. The tension while she pieces together these snippets and evades her superiors to accomplish this is awesome.
The majority of the score — composed by Jóhan Jóhannsson — is a wonderfully done addition to the movie, but I am mostly partial to Max Richter’s one included piece, “On the Nature of Daylight”, which has actually been used in quite a few films but is a brilliantly haunting piece of music all on its own (we’ve had Richter’s album, The Blue Notebooks, on repeat in our house for years now).
I feel like I could go on and on here, but really… one of the most fascinating, sobering, awe-inspiring movies I’ve seen in a while. Highly recommended.
Rating: 8.5/10 | Director: Denis Villeneuve | Writer: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Ted Chiang (short story) | Music: Jóhan Jóhannsson, Max Richter | Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma