This is a dream of a film, like the best are, that leaves you grasping at ideas and emotionally wobbly and, despite everything, feeling, insanely, good about life. It deals with the big subjects of language and time, as well as giving us possibly the best female sci-fi hero since Ripley in Alien. Some agenda, and it shapes up brilliantly in all those fields. That our natural perception of time is not always linear, that language may be very different from anything we have experienced – these may sound daunting subjects, but the best sci-fi has always challenged and dealt with big ideas, though not often in such human terms as here.
Louise is a linguistics expert brought in by the state to attempt to communicate with the aliens who’ve suddenly made a simultaneous appearance in many places around the world in their huge curious concave ships. Amy Adams’ Louise isn’t so conventionally heroic as Ripley. Her strengths are her mind and her emotional intelligence, and her heroism comes from facing fear and struggling with extreme discomfort and pain. She huffs and sweats in those great orange protection suits, she’s often afraid and physically weak, but her wits are indomitable. The film is austerely shot with mystery and menace, with its weird shapes emerging out of the mist, its reversal of gravity, its echoing sounds, its darknesses. There are no nudges as to what these huge knuckles set on seven dangly legs might intend, we just don’t know what to expect. Villeneuve seems to have a thing about many-legged creatures, but these heptopods, related though they may look to the menacing octopods of his terrifying and underrated Enemy in 2015, are more awe-inspiring than scary and, in the mode of Close Encounters, are benevolent.
It turns out that their language is not conventionally aural but visual, conveyed through their tentacles like smoke rings that fix into circles of great complexity. The human encounters with them are mesmerising, spiritual, but then there’s much boffinish working out of and measuring what a hook here or a space there may mean (no sci-fi is complete without this kind of bafflement of the audience, bear with it) and painstakingly Louise, along with her physicist colleague Ian (Jeremy Renner) unpicks the meaning to an extent that she can manage basic communication. The revelations might turn out only be a version of the kind of bamboozlement we’re often served up in Sci-fi films, but they strike home.
There’s suspense with the tension between the cool, scientific trust in the creatures’ intents and the fears of the world leaders, who are itching to appease their frightened populations by blasting the space ships off the earth. But in addition to all this there’s the personal back-story of Louise, which in fact becomes the front story too, as the close contact with the heptopods has opened up her perceptions, and the film itself teases us with its presentation of time. What we understood we were seeing may not have been as we thought. If there are unanswered puzzles at the end, it’s like trying to hold onto a dream you’ve just come out of, something that doesn’t make logical sense in the living world, but still has a stunning emotional truth.
Seen at Empire Cinema, Newcastle, December 2016