WARNING – contains spoilers
I don’t normally include spoilers in my reviews, but with this movie I wanted to elaborate more on why certain parts of it worked or didn’t work for me, and that’s impossible to do without revealing the film’s key moments. So don’t read this if you plan on seeing the movie.
The title refers to the arrival of strange extraterrestrial vessels over twelve seemingly random spots on the globe (including Australia, which left me feeling childishly pleased about it – we might be a relatively insignificant country of 25 million, but we’re included woooo). To find out the intentions of the aliens, the U.S. military recruits linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who they hope can break through the colossal language barrier and communicate with these mysterious beings. They are allowed entry into the spacecraft at regular intervals, where they attempt to establish a common language with their hosts. Their efforts are mirrored by the other nations around the world, but as the fear of the unknown grows and the lines of communications shut down, it’s a matter of time before someone opens the fire.
The good stuff first I guess. Visually the movie is rather marvellous, shot mostly with elegant muted tones that create an atmosphere of unease and suspense, helped along by the moody score. The alien ships, which resemble a gigantic coffee bean sliced in half, are wonderfully strange and the sight of them hovering closely above the earth is eerie and awe-inspiring, bringing to mind the black monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The aliens themselves, squid-like creatures who communicate by spraying jets of black smoky substance which arranges itself into fluid circular patterns, are likewise truly otherworldly. It’s hard to portray a squid-like alien without inviting some degree of B-movie cheese, but this film manages it. I also liked the reliance on brain over brawn and the CGI-laden third act, and as someone fascinated by the languages I enjoyed watching Louise and Ian’s breakthroughs in deciphering the language that makes the Egyptian hieroglyphs look like piece of cake to solve. This process, as demonstrated by the scene where Louise takes off her space suit and attempts a more human, tactile way of introducing herself, is not just about cold data – it’s about real connection and understanding.
This is where I go into real spoiler territory.
The search for answers also takes on a deeply personal meaning for Louise, who is shown to suffer a devastating tragedy at the start of the movie when she loses her daughter Hannah to some unidentified illness. Throughout the movie, she keeps on having what we presume to be flashbacks of her life with Hannah; they’re pretty much the only moments where the real colour seeps into the muted palette of movie and they have a wonderful intimacy about them, like looking through somebody’s family snapshots. The big twist is that these are in fact flashforwards – life that lies ahead of Louise – which she experiences because of her growing immersion into the aliens’ language that frees one from the linear flow of time. It’s a neat twist with an emotional punch, as Louise decides to embrace her time with her daughter even though she knows the painful ending.
However, as often the case with “gotcha!” type of storytelling, I had some issues with the way Louise’s story was handled. Because the movie wants you to assume that Hannah dies at the start of the film and the story goes from there on, it also wants you to assume that what Louise experiences throughout the movie are the painful memories of a grieving mother, and Amy Adams’ vulnerable performance and melancholic air only serve to reinforce this impression. In retrospect, it all feels rather manipulative as you realise that it wasn’t about a woman struggling with poignant memories at all. And it feels contrived that Louise doesn’t reflect on or talk about her weird flashforwards even though any normal person’s reaction would have been, what the hell is going on with me – but of course she can’t do this because that would spoil the gotcha ending. It also feels a bit too convenient that none of the flashforwards feature Ian, who of course turns out to be Hannah’s scientist dad, until it’s time to spring the surprise. Another victim of the gotcha is that, in order to not give away Ian and Louise’ future marriage, not much effort is made at fleshing out their romance, which then surfaces seemingly because of the story’s needs rather than as an organic thing between two people.
These are however small niggles compared to my issues with the macro story, which is overly reliant on the “military screws up everything” clichés and leaves far too many things unexplained. I have a suspicion that, while Louise’s story is clearly the heart of the film, writers decided that a purely cerebral film about one person’s life story wouldn’t be enough, so in the absence of evil invading aliens they threw in the paranoid warmongering military stuff to inject the film with more draaamaaah. There’s a frankly clunky development involving explosives and a couple of soldiers who decide to take the defense of Earth into their own hands, while the chief antagonist is a Chinese general named Shang. In the film’s climax, Louise manages to dissuade Shang from launching an attack on the alien ship in Chinese territory by making a frantic last-minute phone call in which she tells him his wife’s dying words… which instantly persuades him to lay down the arms, with the rest of the aggressor nations following suite and everyone now happy to cooperate and share the information? Sorry I didn’t quite buy that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Star Trek fan and I’m totally onboard with the optimistic vision of humanity learning lessons, evolving and living together in harmony, but that just seemed too much of a leap.
There’s a theme in there somewhere about the need for the humans to work together, but it doesn’t really come through with any resonance; even though there are teams of international scientists working on establishing contact, this is really a Louise show rather than a team effort in the vein of The Martian, which was all about smart people working together to solve problems. It’s not clear why the aliens needed to land in twelve different spots other than the writers’ need for international tensions to spice up the story – there’s a suggestion that each base has one-twelfth of some sort of code or knowledge, and people need to put aside their differences for the common gain, but it’s never explained what this combined knowledge is actually supposed to amount to. For that matter, it’s not clear how exactly the ability to experience non-linear time is supposed to benefit the human race, and considering that leaving humanity with this gift was the aliens’ ultimate purpose it’s a frustrating blank.
This may sound like I didn’t like the movie, but that’s not the case; I love science fiction and any ambitious attempt at serious thought-provoking story is to be applauded, however flawed it is. It’s a unique take on the alien invasion with strong visuals and an affecting performance from Amy Adams, I just wish it wasn’t so fixated on the twist and didn’t have so many gaps.