I'm sooo outnumbered by critics and audiences but this sci-fi thriller is the
most sleep inducing film I've seen this year. Not that it doesn't start with
all the anticipation in the world when twelve elliptically shaped space ships
settle a few feet off the ground in silence around the planet, creating
pandemonium and fear.
The military is aroused and quickly formed into defense forces by air, sea
and ground, creating a lot of excitement. Are we at war? Do we
penetrate one of these ellipses seeking a confab with some alien pilot?
No one's raying us into oboivion so, perhaps, they come in peace?
As our forces surround one of the massive ships, suspense builds. An aerial
circle around them reveals that they're actually shell shaped with a concave
back side. But, what did they want, or intend? They weren't raying us into
oblivion, so their intentions might be peaceful and subject to a dialogue.
Quickly, a visiting party is put together with the mission to get into one
and have a confab with the aliens piloting the space vehicle. At this point,
the narrative and the immensity of the occasion is bursting with anxiety and
After several failed attempts at communication, it's decided that the team
needs someone equipped to bridge the language barrier with
an other-world whatever-they-are... someone like a linguistics professor...
like Dr. Louise Banks (Amy McAdams, "Nocturnal Animals").
With gestures, friendly sounds and a slow, elegiac approach, she lays her
hand softly on the protection window, holding up a sign declaring that the
word for her is "human," she gets a response indicating that their form of
communication is with graphic symbology and slowly, using her highly
developed skill for word patterns, begins to understand. As this success
proceeds, and a mutual understanding slowly evolves, the drama drains out of
the piece as it turns into a relentless attempt to join two species,
linguistic lesson and my interest recedes into a less involved zone.
Not even a subplot about Louise's dead daughter and theoretical physicist Ian
(Jeremy Renner) who partners her in breaking the barrier comes up with
"heptapods" as a clinician's name for the arrivals could reverse that
This was the first time since her amazing work in "American Hustle" that
Adams didn't keep my functions of mind and eye captivated. But, folks, I'm
telling you, this is a yawn, and I'm reminded of "Interstellar" which was on
much shakier sci-fi ground). Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber who more or
less runs the assemblage of a diplomatic meeting with military precision and
drill sergeant demeanor, turns in one of his more capable (no time or space
to enlarge the character) performances.
The source material for the movie, with its emphasis on a linguist being so
moved by learning an alien language from the aliens that became this movie
directed by Denis Villeneuve ("Sicario" -- do I smell a theme here with women
on a par with or who lead men) is award-winning sci-fi writer Ted Chiang's
"Stories of Your Life -- and Others." Publisher's Weekly came up with a
diagnosis of Chiang's approach: "He begins with a startling bit of oddity,
then, as readers figure out what part of the familiar world has been twisted,
they realize that it was just a small part of a much larger structure of
marvelous, threatening strangeness."
And herein might lie my problem with the movie. The idea is that Professor
Banks, after decrypting the arrivals' language, along with exposure
to them and what they're about (undescribed here on purpose), changes her.
But the impression on me is that this film was sold on the idea of an alien
invasion that wasn't all that invasive (though the threat of what they
could do to us is the basis of the tension--but it wears thin). That
they came to communicate. And that the emotional, human scheme of where
Louise was in life came afterward, wisely recognizing that the non-invasion
had to affect the wisest lady on the planet.
Is that meaningfully communicated or does it come down to a mechanical plot
ploy inorganically related to the initiating concept? My model of a successful
alien within an earth-being interaction story is "E.T. the Extra Terrestrial."
Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer's didn't come close. Perhaps it
was the difference in scale, putting it in the same orbit as "Interstellar."
~~ Jules Brenner