Early in the film, there is a shot Denis Villeneuve uses to establish Dr. Louise Banks as the focus of the audience's attention. As reports start to trickle in about the arrival of the extraterrestrials, her students interrupt class to ask her to turn on the news. When she does, she steps into the center of the frame to absorb the coverage. In retrospect, this moment is incredibly telling. Not only does it show her obscuring the view of the students, which establishes that Villeneuve's adaptation of Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life will emphasize Dr. Banks at the expense of others. It also offers so much ambiguity in retrospect. What is she thinking about as she weighs these events? Does she have any idea how important she will be in resolving the situation? Does she have any idea how important these events will end up being in her life? Amy Adams' ability to channel the most nuanced of emotions in moments like this is on full display.
The movie opens with a montage-like series of interactions between Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) and her daughter. We see childhood laughter, teenage angst, and young adult tragedy. Like the scene discussed above, there is never a doubt that Dr. Banks is the focus. When we jump to the present, we are greeted with news of their "arrival." Twelve UFOs are hovering just above the ground in twelve seemingly random locations around the world. Dr. Banks, a professor of linguistics, is called upon to evaluate the extraterrestrials and let the government know whether they are here for good or bad.
To determine the motives of the extraterrestrials, Dr. Banks must start with the basics of language. Her partner on this mission is Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), a military astrophysicist with a decidedly different approach to thinking about the situation. Through trial and error, they learn more and more about these extraterrestrial "heptapods" and do everything they can to figure out why they are here.
[Thus far, there have been no spoilers in this review, but they will begin soon. If you have not seen it and would prefer not to read more, know that the film is incredibly strong and thoughtful. You should see this.]
Eventually, what begins as one type of sci-fi experience--an alien invasion--evolves into another--a take on the nature of time. Along the way, the film meditates on co-existence, harmony and knowledge in ways that somehow compensates for its lack of narrative tension. The heptapods never feel like an urgent threat that needs to be vanquished. Dr. Banks never encounters any immediate danger. And yet, her journey through the events of the film remain wholly compelling.
Like the heptapod's language, Villeneuve's Altman-like shooting style has a certain round fluid nature that gives the film a unified feel. Coupled with Bradford Young's cinematography, the visuals offered really are special. So much of the film feels contemplative without feeling static and that is due in large part to the internal emotions Amy Adams personifies so well and Villeneuve's able hand.
Thematically, this is a movie for our times. With the multinational mistrust that appears in Act III, it overlays on our contemporary politics quite well. It winds up being a pointed commentary on the sort of Trumpian worldview that is so divisive. In the end, the fact that Dr. Banks is so handsomely rewarded provides an open rebuke to less thoughtful ways of thinking. Chiang's short story does this slightly better by putting greater emphasis on the science versus language struggle, but in the end, the idea that empathy is an intricate part of knowledge and the advancement of society shines through.
The final product here could certainly be divisive. Like the underlying events of the film, nothing is one thing. But it would be hard to argue there isn't much here. This film is layered and nuanced, requires a close viewing and would probably benefit from multiple viewings. That said, if you are willing to hand yourself over to it, I doubt you will be disappoint with where it leaves you.
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