Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I love this movie but it's difficult trying to describe it, I'm afraid I might spoil it. If you've read the story it's based on, Ted Chiang's Nebula winner "Story of Your Life", there won't be any major surprises, but you might be disappointed in the few changes. Those not familiar with the story will likely be fooled by some clever misdirection. Mysterious alien craft are hovering above twelve random spots around the globe, including a remote location in Montana. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited to attempt communication with the creatures, dubbed the Heptapods due to their seven multi-faceted limbs. Her partner is theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). In the story, there were hundreds of ships and dozens in the US, but there was no panic in the populace or antagonistic posturings from world governments. I understand the change, believe it was necessary to convey a certain point that was clear in the story but would have been otherwise difficult to portray in the film. Besides, it's more realistic. Even though the aliens are not threatening, have made no demands or ultimatums, the natural impulse for humans would be fear and mistrust, not only of the aliens but also other countries. Everyone would be afraid someone else would extract vital information and use it against their rivals.
Let me talk about the production itself for a bit. The acting of Adams and Renner is great, but the strongest points for me were the direction (Denis Villenueve) and cinematography (Bradford Young). The pacing is slow and methodical, which will probably turn off the average movie-goer, but I appreciate its subtlety. The multiple flash memories of Louise and her daughter are woven throughout the narrative, leading us to the conclusion that her puzzling over the communications from the Heptapods triggers the memories. However, not everything in the film is told in a linear fashion. Last night when I was re-reading the story, I was thinking of several quiet scenes. They featured either Louise alone, or her and Ian talking. They could have been at twilight or just before dawn, difficult to say. Was it the beginning of the day, or the end? Until you see the entire film you won't know why I think that might be significant. Enough about that though. Young's camera work is amazing, and it reinforces my argument that 3D is not necessary. The right lens, lighting, angle, focus, and movement can be just as immersive as 3D, and I think it was a wise move not to shoot it that way or post-convert it. Too much of 3D is a gimmick to focus your attention on an action sequence, whereas this film is more about substance than flash, more about thinking than doing. Still, there are some remarkable shots of both movement and forced perspective that could make you dizzy.
I'm glad they kept the female character as the central one, rather than flipping it and making Ian the hero. It is very clear that Louise is not only the smartest one in the room, she's also the bravest. Some will likely nit-pick the ending as confusing and inconclusive, but if you pay attention it makes perfect sense. One linguistic theory is that language shapes thought and how we process information. Different languages form different neural pathways, which can lead to miscommunication between nations, or even for different ethnicities that are fairly close culturally. Imagine how much wider the gap would be between different species. If you could actually start thinking in the alien language, it would be inevitable that your worldview would radically change as well. The main themes are memory vs. time, fate vs. self-determination, cause vs. effect. If you could stand outside of time and view the entire Story of Your Life, would you change anything about your past? If you felt your future was pre-determined, would you accept it or rebel and forge a new path? Can you? Does it matter? I have no idea, but I think Louise Banks knows, and she is content with it all, even the tragedies.
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