Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA, 2016. Lava Bear Films, FilmNation Entertainment, 21 Laps Entertainment. Screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on the story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Cinematography by Bradford Young. Produced by Dan Levine, Shawn Levy, David Linde, Aaron Ryder. Music by Johann Johannsson. Production Design by Patrice Vermette. Costume Design by Renee April. Film Editing by Joe Walker. Academy Awards 2016. Golden Globe Awards 2016. Toronto International Film Festival 2016. Washington Film Critics Awards 2016.
Twelve giant, shell-like spaceships descend upon Earth in locales spread across the globe, silent and patiently hovering above the ground, making neither aggressive moves nor delivering peaceful messages. The ship stationed in the United States is given over to a professor of linguistics (Amy Adams) and a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) to help with the most important issue that requires an answer: what is their purpose in coming here? Adams makes it clear that her work will be slow and detailed as there are so many variables that need to be worked out, like figuring out how the visitors conceptualize thought or language enough to even manage to communicate. Can these fascinating creatures that walk on seven legs answer a question about intent, and do they even understand the concept of a question? These details are patiently combed through in a painstaking, fascinating procedural that begins from the familiar setup of science-fiction films dating back to The Day The Earth Stood Still, films where aliens show up to teach us about getting along on our own planet before giving up like an exasperated parent with a toddler who is determined to stick their fork in an electrical socket. All the subtlety built up by the solid direction and Adams’ grounded performance is thrown to the wind when the last act cheats, abandoning all the story’s scientific basis and switching to magical powers instead; the ridiculous climax is straight out of a Best Sci-Fi Stories of the Year collection, making for a well shot but cheap ripoff of Contact that also continues the grating habit of sci-fi films only allowing women to be leads if they have a personal tragedy in their personal life (this one’s surprise twist does little to put aside reminders of Contact‘s dead dad or Gravity‘s dead daughter; James Cameron had Ripley’s tragic dead daughter backstory in Aliens but wisely cut it out in time). This one is an engaging drama with many elements that work well, but it paints itself into a corner and the decision for how to get out of it is nothing worth admiring. Also, if you’re going to bring Forest Whitaker on the set with an accent, make sure we can all understand him before letting him do unnecessary stylistic work on his characters.