USA (116 mi) 2016 ‘Scope d: Denis Villeneuve Official site
Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.
—Louise Banks (Amy Adams)
An old-fashioned love story dressed up in a Spielbergian sci-fi package, like the return of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), where the director has formulated an intriguing opening and closing, which stand out for their novel originality, yet the middle seems to drag under the weight of standard military operations that seem to always suggest anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Only in the movies do people actually live in these picture-perfect locations, like a gorgeous, heavily windowed home on the side of a commercially undeveloped lake, where there’s no neighbors to speak of and a stunning landscape for as far as the eye can see. It’s an idyllic place of retreat that becomes synonymous with home, the place you raise your children and return to night after night when returning from work. In this setting, to the elegiac music of Max Richter - On the Nature of Daylight - YouTube (6:14) that opens and closes the film, also used in a dream sequence in Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND (2010), a narrator announces in somber tones that “I used to think this was the beginning of your story,” with this being the place where a certain child was born, as Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) announces “We are so bound by time…by its order…These are the days that define the story of your life,” as we witness a fast-moving flashback montage of her young daughter Hannah’s life quickly developing through childhood with her single mom until she dies mysteriously of a rare illness. “Now I’m not sure I believe in beginnings and endings.” What follows is an indication that there’s a different beginning, something significant that comprises the majority of the film, though we are caught off-guard, wondering if this all happened in the past, or in the future, or if time has somehow been altered in some way. Recollections of her daughter occur throughout as the film takes an eerie shift to aliens landing in twelve different spots on the globe, where linguist expert Dr. Banks is whisked to the scene by military escort along with physicist Dr. Ian Connelly (Jeremy Renner) to help communicate with these extraterrestrials. Based on Ted Chiang’s acclaimed 1998 short story entitled Story of Your Life, winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novella in 1999, the film has been adapted by screenwriter Eric Heisserer, where Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, fresh from his Hollywood action thriller Sicario (2015) that takes us into the heart of the Mexican drug cartels, Enemy (2013) , a curiously compelling indie film where a supposed body double turns into an allegorical nightmare of a coming apocalypse, Prisoners (2013), an intriguingly cast Hollywood vigilante movie that veers into torture porn, and 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #7 Incendies, arguably the best of the bunch, a search through a war-torn Middle East for the missing truth about one’s mother, all of which in some way are an exploration of grief.
From a sparsely populated university class by Dr. Banks on the Portuguese language where what few students showed up are completely glued to their cellphones following news updates on the alien landings, panic breaks out across the globe, as students walk out on class, the stock market plunges, fights break out in public, riots ensue, end of the world cults declare a coming apocalypse, while TV demagogues call for radical actions, and everyone immediately calls their moms, as this event has a way of altering the world order, with various nations developing their own way of responding to this unknown presence. While the book never ventures into a military response, that’s simply not the Hollywood way, who after all, sent the military after King Kong (1933), laying its imprint all over this picture that might have been so much better without it. Curiously, the film never shows that actual aliens landing, but instead follows the fierce public outcry, showing images of giant-sized, vertically hanging blimps, showing no signs of releasing toxic gas, while at the same time there is no follow up response from the extraterrestrial creatures, who never leave their ships and are content to sit there passively. By the time Dr. Banks arrives to a rural Montana farmland, a military protocol has been established, as they are the only units allowed close to the landing sites, as the public has been prevented from being anywhere near them, which is why television figures so prominently in the ensuing panic. While there are military officers constantly monitoring the alien ships, Dr. Banks and Dr. Connelly are escorted to the site by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), revealing as little as possible about their mission, but basically wanting to know why are they here? While Connelly immediately goes into a litany of mathematical possibilities that will be unearthed by their successful interplanetary travels, it’s Dr. Banks that insists upon basic communication first before they get ahead of themselves. Therein lies her specialty, claiming being in the presence of the aliens helps her understand how they communicate. Dressed in bulky biohazard spacesuits, where they are hosed down afterwards to prevent contamination, they are hoisted into the interior of the alien ship, as they soon learn a lower door opens every 18 hours for visitation. The anticipation of the initial contact has an extraordinary suspense factor, as no one, including the audience, knows what to expect. This aspect is deftly handled by the director, elevating the level of expectation to unseen heights, which is arguably the best part of the film. Once inside, they reach what looks like an elevator shaft that they must ascend, where surprisingly they are able to climb up themselves, as gravity disappears, though they stumble from the newness of it all and the bloated awkwardness of their suits. Their destination is enclosed with a large window panel containing the only light, behind which the aliens appear, as if rising out of a haze of smoke, strangely resembling the arachnid creatures hovering over the city seen in Enemy (2013) .
While this is the third time the director has used music from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, cinematography by Bradford Young, who also shot Selma (2014) and A Most Violent Year (2014), there are sounds emanating from the aliens, perhaps resembling oceanic creatures like whales, yet no one has been able to make any sense out of them. Described as heptapods, for their seven dangling legs, they actually resemble jellyfish, but the question remains for viewers, how would any of us attempt to start a conversation? Dr. Banks chooses to start with the word “human” written on a notecard, holding it out for them to see. The movements of the creatures is a bit unexpected, as they have a star-like appendage at the end of one leg that emits a cloud of black ink, like a squid, which mysteriously assembles into a circular image with slight variations around the edges, like pieces of growing ivy, making each image distinct, which is how they convey their language. Back in the science lab afterwards, she and Dr. Connelly pour over the images they received trying to make some sense out of it, returning again 18 hours later for another visit. We lose any sense of time, as the visits are compacted, though Dr. Banks continues to collect her images while we continue to get mixed messages about what’s happening around the world, as China and Russia are growing increasingly irritated and militarily belligerent, where they fear the aliens are threatening their authority, wanting to send a message through gunfire. Dr. Banks disagrees, thinking they have initiated no dangerous acts of any kind, and should be understood accordingly. But as the military of each nation seems to be in charge, the mere presence of these extraterrestrials is sending the world into a frenzy, while the real question is more about humans, asking how are we going to learn to understand “the other” without being afraid and resorting to violence? This is perhaps the central theme of the film, all part of the learning curve of discovery, as the military reviews any and all progress being made, holding a heavy hand over what happens next. Over time, Dr. Banks collects what amounts to a working vocabulary, with each message conveying multiple meanings, where she marvels at their originality, claiming “They can write a complex sentence in two seconds.” But when the military insists she finally ask why are they here, the answer is surprising, “offer weapon,” which ambiguously may have multiple meanings, as Banks feels weapon may also mean tool, while Col. Weber reminds her, “Remember what happened to the aborigines. A more advanced race nearly wiped them out,” but the aggressiveness associated with the word “weapon” sends military units around the world into heightened paranoia, disconnecting from worldwide communication systems, basically signing off into radio silence, first one nation, but eventually everyone, where no one wants to share what they’ve learned, overwhelmed by a sense of national self-preservation.
With rogue military units on the loose, Banks’ missions appears to be spiraling out of control, especially after receiving a much larger image with hundreds more symbols, something they had never seen before that leaves them completely bewildered. Connelly comes up with the idea that maybe each of the twelve sites is communicating only partial messages, which need to be combined to make sense, requiring mutual cooperation if they are to be understood. Of course, that’s not the way military operations see things, and they uniquely, instead of scientists, have control of the operations, while around the globe their heavy-handed approach is winning out. Unfortunately, this military angle diminishes the quality of the film, as it reduces the moral dilemma to black and white, good and evil, with the military representing the one-dimensional superficiality of the latter. This is never a good sign, and might have worked during the surprisingly benign era of Spielberg, where life always seemed to recall the innocence of the Eisenhower era of the 50’s, but in the present day they are too easy a target, with the film placing a bulls-eye on their back, making them the bad guys, including rudely ordering people around, refusing to listen to any other views, and basically being hard-asses. In an event this extraordinary, requiring as many variant points of view as possible, one would think we could rise to more sophisticated levels than this, where perhaps NASA and their people might be involved, as after all, they have actual experience in space exploration. While this element doesn’t ruin the film, but it certainly dampens one’s enthusiasm overall, as this amazing discovery and consequent burst of scientific curiosity has the possibility at least of providing so much more elevated material, where the military aspect simply bogs down the exploration of ideas. Banks, who has flashbacks of her own daughter throughout, as if having visions, suggests the aliens may be able to communicate with her even after she leaves the vessel, or is perhaps suffering unanticipated side-effects, yet it’s all part of the turmoil of the times, where China is on the verge of attack and the military is ending all communications, evacuating the premises, and pulling back from the alien ship. At that moment, when our future as a planet is at risk, Banks has a breakthrough, discovering “Time isn’t linear to them!” With that, she understands that her flashbacks are actually flash-forwards, as she’s seeing the future, something only possible through the use of the alien language. This reassembled concept of how we view time has a beautifully composed final montage filled with miraculous accomplishments and poetic ruminations, where we’re literally able to see inside the soul of Louise Banks, who becomes strangely heroic and vulnerable in the process, becoming an extremely compelling character, something not often associated with scientists in film, but Amy Adams offers the performance of her career, projecting a highly motivated figure who is bold, warmhearted, and resilient, committed to her responsibilities, exuding a maternal sweetness that contrasts with those around her, becoming a moving sci-fi film that explores the future yet searches just as deeply within the hearts of our own humanity.