Four movie reviews in one year; maybe I should change the title of my blog – no, just kidding. Someone (either Jake Wilson or Paul Byrnes from The Age) gave it the ultimate accolade: ‘At last, a science fiction movie with a brain.’ They also gave it 3.5 stars but ended their review with: ‘[the leads: Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner] have the chops to keep us watching even when the narrative starts to wobble.’ So they probably wouldn’t agree with me calling it a masterclass.
It’s certainly not perfect – I’m not sure I’ve seen the perfect movie yet – but it’s clever on more than one level. I’m always drawn to good writing in a movie, which is something most people are not even aware of. It was based on a book, whose author escaped me as a couple in front of me got up to leave just as the name came up on the screen. But I have Google, so I can tell you that the screenplay was written by Eric Heisserer, and Ted Chiang wrote the novella, “Story of Your Life”, upon which it is based. French-Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve has also made Prisoners and Sicario, neither of which I’ve seen, but Sicario is highly acclaimed.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the music and soundscape, which really adds another dimension to this movie. I noticed that beginning and end scores were by Max Richter, whom I admire in the contemporary classical music scene. Though the overall music score is credited to Johann Johannsson. Some of the music reminded of Tibetan music with its almost subterranean tones. Australia also gets a bit of 'coverage', if that's the right word, though not always in a flattering manner. Forest Whitaker's character reminds us how we all but committed genocide against the Aboriginal people.
I haven’t read the book, but I’m willing to give credit to both writers for producing a ‘science fiction story with a brain’. Science fiction has a number of subgenres: the human diaspora into interstellar space; time travel; alien worlds; parallel universes; artificial intelligence; dystopian fiction, utopian fiction and the list goes on, with various combinations. The title alone tells us that this is an Alien encounter on Earth, but the movie keeps us guessing as to whether it’s an invasion or just a curious interloper or something else altogether.
I’ve written elsewhere that narrative tension is one of the essential writing skills and this story has it on many levels. To give one example without giving the plot away, there is a sequence of narrative events where we think we know what’s going to happen, with the suspense ramping up while we wait for what we expect to happen to happen, then something completely unexpected happens, which is totally within the bounds of possibility, therefore believable. In some respects this sums up the whole movie because all through it we are led to believe one thing only to learn we are witnessing something else. It’s called a reversal, which I’m not always a fan of, but this one is more than just a clever twist for the sake of being clever. Maybe that’s what the reviewer meant by ‘…when the narrative starts to wobble’. I don’t know. I have to confess I wasn’t completely sold, yet it was essential to the story and it works within the context of the story, so it’s part of the masterclass.
One of the things that struck me right from the beginning is that we see the movie almost in first person – though, not totally, as at least one cutaway scene requires the absence of the protagonist. I would not be surprised if Ted Chiang wrote his short story in the first person. I don’t know what nationality Ted Chiang is, but I assume he is of Chinese extraction, and the Chinese are major players in this movie.
Communication is at the core of this film, both plot and subplot, and Amy Adams’ character (Louise Banks) makes the pertinent point in a bit of expositional dialogue that was both relevant to the story and relevant to what makes us human: that language, to a large extent, determines how we think because, by the very nature of our brains, we are limited in what we can think by the language that we think in. That’s not what she said but that was the lesson I took from it.
I’ve made the point before, though possibly not on this blog, that science fiction invariably has something to say about the era in which it was written and this movie is no exception. Basically, we see how paranoia can be a dangerous contagion, as if we need reminding. We are also reminded how wars and conflicts bring out the best and worst in humanity with the worst often being the predominant player.