Obviously spoiler alerts … and this one has a lot of them because the trailers have not even hinted in the slightest where this film was headed.
One of the oldest traditions in literature is that of the hero and fate. There is the idea that fate has preordained something awful to happen, and the hero is the one that flips the bid to fate, and gets off his or her butt, and goes and changes fate. The idea of simply “accepting” fate is not something that sits well in a great deal of Western literature. As you will see, there is a good reason I am leading off my review with this obvious recapitulation.
The film opens with Dr. Louis Banks (Amy Adams) addressing the audience about the nature of storytelling, and not being sure about the difference between beginning and endings. We then see a montage somewhat reminiscent of the great film Up with Dr. Banks and her daughter as she and her young daughter have great times growing up, eventually reaching her teen years, being diagnosed with cancer, and dying. This is not in any way an uplifting beginning, though this introduction ends with Dr. Banks noting that her daughter’s story begins on the day “They” arrived.
Dr. Banks is a professor of linguistics, and sure enough, the aliens have arrived on Earth … 12 ships (called “shells”) have mysteriously arrived at fairly random places … Siberia, the Black Sea Coast, Australia, Sierra Leone, Greenland, Japan, Pakistan , Venezuela, Sudan, the UK, off the coast of Shanghai, and rural Montana. The world has gone into full blown panic as the stock market collapses, riots breakout, cults commit mass suicide. Banks is approached by US Army Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker). She had done some translation for the Army, and retained her “Top Secret” clearance, and is invited to join the team in Montana to help communicate with the aliens. She arrives in Montana joined by a physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) who is pretty convinced that language is a waste of time because science will be the common language. We learn that every 18 hours, a portal opens on the alien ship allowing visitors to enter, and Ian and Louise join an Army team aboard. They enter an antechamber with a transparent wall at one end, and through the mist on the other side of the wall, they see their visitors: giant, squidlike heptapods. Louise is at first unsuccessful, but is able to finally get them to communicate. One of their tentacles is able to spray an ink-like substance which creates ring like “characters”. Louise quickly determines that each ring-like character is in fact an entire sentence, and by measuring small variances in the shape, she can determine parts of their language. The army camp is hooked up to teams in other nations attempting communication, but Louise is the first. Soon the other teams also establish communication.
Louse takes a methodical approach of building vocabulary in order to work up to the big questions that the military wants answered: “Why are you here?” and “Where did you come from?” As Louise furthers her communication and translation efforts, she begins to have more and more dreams, sometimes waking dreams, of her daughter,and it seems that her daughter is communicating something to her at a subconscious level about the aliens.
Meanwhile, in China, the head of the Army, General Shang (Tzi Ma) has been suspicious of these aliens all along, and one day suddenly yanks all communication with the other sites around the world. The Russians, Sudanese, and Pakistanis follow suit (The Russians go as far as to kill some of their experts who attempt to break through to other sites). Louise is pressured to jump to the big question, and is concerned when the response is “Offer weapon”. The CIA liaison on site flips his lid, and to make matters worse, the Chinese are calling for an emergency UN meeting when they reveal that their aliens responded “use weapon”, convincing the Chinese that the aliens are here to get humanity to kill each other for nefarious reasons. Louise, however tries to convince people that in rushing through translations, the word “weapon” may have been misunderstood, and when she learns through video stolen by the Americans from China that the Chinese were using Mahjongg as a tool to communicate, that the aliens may have been phrasing things in terms of an adversarial game. When China decides to give the aliens 24 hours to leave or risk attack, the Americans decide to pull out, figuring that a Chinese attack will have consequences in Montana.Louse and Ian manage to get on board to make one final attempt at communication, but their session is cut short … some of her soldier assistants who have been listening to conservative talk radio have been convinced to place a bomb aboard the ship. The aliens manage to save Louise and Ian before the bomb goes off, but all of the alien ships now lift off from the surface and hover a half-mile above the planet, unreachable by anyone. Despite evacuation orders, Louise sneaks away, and a pod is sent to pick her up, and she finally has a private audience with the heptapods. She has visions of her opening a new book on translating heptapod, and giving massive lectures on teir language. The heptapods are able to clearly explain that they are here to help humanity because in the future, the heptapods will need humanity’s help. Louise then comes to the realization that these are less astronaut aliens and more time-traveling aliens … that their language has given them the ability to see the future, and their technology has developed accordingly. The weapon is the heptapod language, and the enemy is the disunity of the world. Only by tying together pieces of communication from all 12 sites will she be able to convince the world that this visitation is benevolent, and will help the world.
As Louise returns, she realizes that if the Chinese attack, all may be lost, but she has a vision of meeting General Shang at a reception, and the General being in awe of the only person who ever changed his mind, and recalls to her how she called his private phone number and spoke his wife’s dying words, which convinced him to call off the attack. Louise (and now the audience) realize that as Louise has been learning heptapod, her own brain has undergone a “rewiring” that allows her to see the future, and that her knowledge of heptapod is less about learning it on the fly, and more about cheating off of her future-self. She calls the general, he stands down, and the heptapods depart in peace. The “weapon” the heptapods were referring to was their own language, and that this would unite the world, making it stronger, and able to be an important ally to the heptapods centuries hence.
We also come to realize that the visions Louise has been having of her daughter were not memories, but were glimpses into the future. Ian will be her husband, and only after their daughter is born will she reveal to him that she has known all along that their marriage will end in divorce, because he will get upset after learning, after the fact, that Louise will die a terrible death. But, Louise comes to accept that. Roll credits.
Technically, the film is well done. In fact, kudos for being among the minority of films to give us non-humanoid aliens that were convincing. There certainly is a sense of reality in the film harkening to the Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact, and that is to be applauded. Acting is not a problem, and I need to especially call out the writers for not making Colonel Weber and even General Shang stock-villain status. Both characters show dimension to their thinking and motivation, and in many ways are even better developed from a writing standpoint than the two lead characters, Louise and Ian.
The main point of the film is that the success of our species is absolutely going to be based on putting aside differences and learning to cooperate instead of compete. That’s an even more hopeful vision than presented in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Contact. Language is used as the medium that divides humanity. However a common language (and more importantly a shared vision of the future) can bridge those differences.
However, there are a lot of problems here in the plot that raise huge questions that can’t be dismissed easily. First, I can’t even call this film science fiction, because it is not science fiction. Instead, I would classify this as much closer to magic realism along the lines of Midnight’s Children or Chocolat. When learning words gives you powers to see the future, we have a word for that, and it isn’t science … that’s called a “spell”. They try and lay the groundwork for this by saying that on earth, that different languages rewire your brain differently to see the world differently … but it is beyond science to say that any language will rewire your brain to see the future. That’s magic folks, not science.
This film then glosses over some incredibly dangerous implications. The film shows a future where Louise has written a book on translating heptapod, and is giving lectures on how to read the language … meaning that pretty soon there will be a sub-class of humans, clearly not everyone, who can accurately predict the future. Wanna bet the front row was stock brokers? Perhaps the second row were people who run the sports book at Las Vegas casinos? Basically, a small number of linguists will become the new wizards, able to mentor a new permanent overclass of humanity, and I am guessing that governments and corporations will be in on the ground floor.
Ignoring global consequences, there are massive personal consequences. Louise, whom the movie has built up as a sympathetic character, ends the film as kind of evil. She falls in love with a man, whom she knows with 100% certainty she will divorce, but not before (again, with 100% certainty) creating a child who is doomed to an early painful death. Its no wonder that Ian ends up leaving her … she was for all intents and purposes manipulating him at a personal level by not revealing any of this to him. Certainly having a relationship and children carry risks that relationships can end, and children can die young, and couples and parents weigh those risks when moving ahead in their lives, but when one part of that couple has guaranteed foreknowledge … that borders on criminal behavior to not warn others.
One might argue that if it is fore-ordained, then what can you do? However, the film implies that this knowledge of the future does not erase free will, and that it is possible to change events. This ends up making our hero, Louise, a far, far less sympathetic character in the end. This also makes you wonder what some early dating conversations with Ian were like. Louise’s ability to see the future is no secret. Ian must … MUST have asked her at one point “so how does this relationship end up”, and Louise must have lied … at least long enough to get pregnant. It is the opposite of a Cassandra-syndrome. In Greek mythology Cassandra was cursed with knowing the future with the promise no one would believe her. Louise has that power, and everyone believes her … but she clearly needs to occasionally tell some lies to get what she wants … which as she explains was what little time she could get with her daughter. Simply accepting fate feels like a bit of a cop out. Certainly, there are times you do have to accept parts of reality beyond changing … but that doesn’t mean you accept everything.
My other nit with the writing comes in the personal story of Louise and her future family taking a front seat to the greater story of humanity, which to me was the stronger story and more important story.
The music is a mix of warm, hopeful, albeit melancholy music and dissonant music, reminiscent of whale song, that serves as the music when the heptapods are present. The heptapod theme music is especially well done as it gives a true sense of their alien nature while also imparting a sense of both mystery and intelligence.
Doing some research, the film is based on Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, which (of course) uses tense in writing to address the time dissociation Louise goes through, and actually wraps up one point by saying that freedom to choose means choosing to not alter time, though this leaves me a bit unsatisfied.
I will give the film credit for triggering a lot of thinking, and that is good, but I from where I am sitting, there were a great many loose ends left in the end that were not properly addressed (or which were brought in when they shouldn’t have)..