Very few big-budget films draw on contemporary science fiction stories – just about the only s-f authors who get much attention at this level are Philip K. Dick and Richard Matheson, for stories published in the 1950s and ‘60s. So this elaboration on Ted Chaing’s 1998 Nebula-award winner is unusual in its commitment to what fans call ‘proper science fiction’ even as it has thematic, narrative and visual kinship with a range of films, including Contact and The Arrival of Wang.
Scripted by Eric Heisserer – Lights Out, the redos of The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street – and directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), it’s a serious (slightly solemn) picture, which adopts a hushed, almost reverential tone and chooses admirably to focus on intellectual effort rather than action even as suspense builds about the purpose of the alien visitors and the possibly disastrous reactions from unenlightened but well-armed humanity. When twelve ‘shells’ – elegant floating curves – appear at perhaps random spots around the world, a range of nations deploy their experts … linguistics prof Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is helicoptered from her campus at dead of night on the orders of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and partnered with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to attempt communication during the spells when the aliens (dubbed heptapods because they seem to look like huge seven-fingered hands, though they have another shape when mists clear) fiddle with gravity to allow entry into the shells. The key to the problem is the aliens’ written (squirted) language, which look like blurry viral marketing for the next Ring film, and what it reveals about they way they perceive time … during the process of puzzling out what the aliens mean and how they mean it, Louise has increasingly vivid flashes of the life and death of her daughter, which colour her thinking and feeling.
The story has a Twilight Zony twist, and Villeneuve consequently indulges in a little misdirection, though he lets the real situation become apparent well before any big reveal and is more interested in emotional resonance than surprise. A slight downside is that, just as Contact crossed the universe so Jodie Foster could hug her dead Dad, this shifts the emphasis away from the truly world-changing events to become yet another fairly standard family story. In the climax, the aliens don’t even seem that important. Villeneuve is good on the details of the project, and the subtly different agendas of the leads – quite apart from the military and the CIA (repped by Michael Stuhlbarg being shifty) – make for some urgency as it seems we might start a war of the worlds based on a misunderstanding of a translated phrase (‘offer weapons’) and the fragile international co-operation breaks down as the other shell sites ‘go dark’ and refuse to share findings.
Without making a fuss about it, there’s a precis of the relationship between Louise and Ian and Louise’s daughter with blanks we’re easily able to fill in that make the conceptional and emotional breakthrough (which involves some echoes of Slaughterhouse 5 about accepting the good with the bad if you live non-linearly) by no means as simplistic as such precedents as Interstellar and Contact. Withal, it’s a slightly chilly film – a desperate bomb plot is thrown in and tidied away – and takes its cues from Adams’ intelligent, academic performance.