This “first contact” type movie seems to polarize viewers with many loving it and many others hating it, or at least looking at the ones who are loving it with an expression that says “What are you? Stupid?” So, who’s right?
Trick question: The people who are right are the ones who agree with me, and since I haven’t told you what I think yet, you can’t answer the question.
There were some warning bells here before going to see it: You never know if the people liking it—well, critics, particularly—like it because it panders to a particular worldview. My dad used to argue that “widespread critical approval” meant the movie would be awful, but that’s a bit extreme, unfortunately. (What a handy rule that would be!)
It’s “talky”. It’s literally “talky”, in the sense of it’s all about how to communicate with aliens who are really, really alien. And whose really, really advanced technology does not include a way to communicate very effectively with verbal sorts, like humans—although keep reading for more on that. So maybe it’s not literally talky after all, since the aliens don’t talk at all in the conventional sense? I dunno.
It’s broody. It’s not what you’d call a “fun summer alien flick”, e.g. Neither E.T. nor Independence Day, here. It’s definitely “serious” and “arty”. The terrible death of a child, while not exactly portrayed, is a central element of the plot.
These are all things that might warn us off a film. Or at least the combination of “talky” and “broody” might, when mixed with critical adoration. On the other hand, it’s directed by Quebecois Denis Villeneuve, whose films (Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario) I have never regretted seeing, even when I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to others. And I would recommend the three linked films most reservedly, not because I didn’t love them, but because they are not what you’d call “easy watches”.
The story is this: Aliens show up on Earth’s doorstep, and so Forrest Whitaker (Ernest and Celestine) shows up on super-linguist Amy Adams’ (Sunshine Cleaning Company) doorstep to help communicate with them before the Russkies or the ChiComs (amongst others) do. She meets up with nerd Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy) and leads a bold and desperate attempt to get what the aliens are up to. The U.S. Armed Forces are not really super-concerned about what the aliens are all about, beyond security fears, and certain misunderstandings (or are they?) lead to increasing tension as the need for security overwhelms common sense.
By which I mean the same thing that overwhelms commons sense in every aliens-come-to-earth movie, to wit: Any aliens species who could command the forces of the universe sufficiently well enough to cross the vast distances of space needed to reach us would be so far beyond us as to make any invasion or genocide plan unstoppable by us.
But, man, what boring movies that would make for. Every film would be, “Welp. Hope they’re friendly or we’re screwed.”
That aside, it would be nice if someone acknowledged the issue once in a while.
Anyway, the MacGuffin here is (interestingly enough) time. The premise of the film (a popular, if incorrect, linguistic idea) is that human beings are hampered in their thinking by their language. It’s a dumb idea—people invent thousands of words a year in various technical fields and for fun so they can express concepts they don’t have words for—and I hate how popular it is in real life, but it’s actually used very cleverly and subverted here: The key to understanding the alien language becomes a key to understanding the aliens who think in terms that are way broader and deeper than humans do.
This sets you up for a hell of a gut punch. It’s not even a bad gut punch. It’s a good one, if that makes sense.
As for the people who didn’t like this film, I don’t want to say they didn’t get it—though most of the ones I’ve talked to didn’t—but there’s a fine line between “didn’t get it” and “didn’t buy into it”. The Boy and I both were favorably impressed, less by the artifice of the alien language and its potential, but more by the way it was used to tell a story of human experience. And not at all the one we were expecting.
So, as with all Villaneuve films, we recommend cautiously, but less so than his other films (which have tended to be unflinchingly violent), because he’s turned his acuity toward something a little less dark, and a little more affirming, even if it is still bittersweet. (Must rain a lot in Quebec or something.) This probably doesn’t help you decide whether or not to see it, alas, but that’s not always an easy call.