Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) leads an elite team of investigators when humongous spaceships touchdown in 12 locations around the world. As nations teeter on the verge of global war, Banks and her crew must race against time to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. Hoping to unravel the mystery, she takes a chance that could threaten her life and quite possibly all of mankind.
This a big one and has been getting a lot of buzz and rightfully so. It stars Amy Adams and is directed by Sicario director Denis Villeneuve. I was surprised when I heard that he was directing this one as I did is quite a departure but he is also directing the new Blade Runner film so I guess it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Another funny thing about this one is that this is the second film I am reviewing this weekend that was filmed in Québec, with the first being Shut In.
Here Adams plays a linguistics professor named Louise Banks who along with a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) were recruited by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help investigate one of twelve large spaceships that have landed around the world. With world powers on the verge of war, it is up to the two of them to find a way to communicate with these new visitors before it is too late. The whole world is involved but we never get a sense of that as the film focuses on Banks and Donnelly and the American spaceship, or “shell” as they would call it.
Approaching alien encounters from a linguistic perspective is definitely an original approach and manages to bring it down to more of a human element which was nice to see as it keeps things between Banks and Donnelly and the aliens, or “heptapods” as they called them. While it could have been more about the aliens, it was about Banks’ journey of self-discovery as she was learning about them, she was also learning about herself. It was just interesting as it was almost an allegory of how to deal with things we don’t understand by taking more of a diplomatic approach. This was a constant battle throughout the film as it would show others perspectives and all the different ways they handled it.
Watching Banks and Donnelly working together to decipher the aliens and their language was compelling to watch. As she studies them, she becomes interested and fascinated in them which felt real and grounded. Throughout her time with them, she would get glimpses of herself and her daughter Hannah over a period of multiple years with her eventually dying of a terminal disease at a young age continuing with how the film started which was seemingly a flashback of her, her daughter Hannah, and her absent husband. These glimpses of her dead daughter affected how she was working. We later learn that the beginning and the other glimpses were from the aliens giving her the ability to see her future for whatever reason (I didn’t figure it out until near the end).
The aliens’ reason for being there wasn’t exactly clear as the film failed to explain the purpose of their arrival and their end game as the scope of the plot was a little too narrow. Of course Banks managed to figure out their language but nothing happened as they just came and left with very little fanfare which left no payoff and made the sense of urgency feel unearned. What made up for this was Banks and Donnelly and their great chemistry. Banks was the real lead here and the balance between the two was well done where each had their place.
The special effects were well done with the ships and the depictions of the complex aliens and the way they communicated. They did not appear too long but they were just a means to an end. The film is also looks beautiful thanks to its cinematography with its sombre, muted look and set design. However beautiful the film looked, the sound was just as good if not better. The score matched the visuals very well and did an excellent job at setting the tone.
The best part of the film has to be the acting and Amy Adams. She has gotten plenty of recognition for her performances and it is rightfully deserved. She was amazing here at conveying Banks’ emotional vulnerability, especially with learning her character’s future. She is very likable here and makes Banks out to be a real person who cares about what she does and gets us to care as well. We feel for her when her beliefs are challenged. She and Renner’s Donnelly play very well off of each other. He was just as good as more of a quiet, supportive type who did not stand in Adams’ way. Whitaker was good too but did not really have much to do.
Overall, this a unique sci-fi film with a fresh premise and excellent performances but didn’t quite blow me away as it has others.