Amy Adams plays a language expert still suffering from a very personal grief when military Colonel Forest Whitaker requests her aid. Adams knows why, as it’s on wall-to-wall news coverage: Aliens have landed at 12 locations across the globe, and Adams is requested by the US military/government to help communicate with them. Alongside theoretical physicist Jeremy Renner, she enters the spacecraft daily to decipher their seemingly ink-blot based language of symbols and patterns so that she can eventually communicate with them and learn their intentions on Earth. Tzi Ma plays a Chinese General, and Michael Stuhlbarg is apparently contractually obligated to appear in everything.
Although a little too reminiscent of a certain late 90s alien contact film, this 2016 flick from director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”, “Sicario”) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (a horror veteran after the not-bad “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Thing” remakes, “Final Destination 5”, and “Lights Out”) is just different enough to not be considered plagiaristic. Aside from the familiarity, the opening ten minutes are terrific because you’re immediately on-side with the main character and we get the title event within 10 minutes. No time is wasted here, though it was a smart movie not showing the spacecraft at first.
I was a bit concerned early on that no one seemed shit-scared or panicked, but once the military and scientists get called in, it makes sense for them to be more matter-of-fact and poker-faced about it. Jeremy Renner being the one exception, his nervousness is amusing. He may not at first seem a natural fit for an ‘egg-head’ role, but he gets the character’s awkwardness right. He’s a pretty versatile actor, it has to be said, and the film is almost worth seeing just for his hilarious bit of narration concerning the patterns in the landing sites of all the UFOs. Amy Adams, meanwhile is personable and terrific, a very easy presence to sympathise with on screen.
There’s something both awe-inspiring and terrifying about the alien contact scenes, especially the first. The tension and nervousness are very well conveyed. Anything could happen, anything could go wrong, because they are such an unknown. Then things get even more nervous when we learn the manner in which both Russia and China are attempting to communicate with the aliens. Scary because it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility, to be honest. The aliens themselves don’t look familiar enough to anything identifiably Earth-bound, which is as it should be. Aliens, if they existed would more likely be beyond any human comprehension, though for the purposes of a film like this, some level of comprehension is obviously needed. Mostly shrouded in fog at first, when we do get a better look at them they’re certainly not little green/grey men, more like giant hand bones and even that isn’t quite accurate. The film also gets points for not making it too easy for the humans to decipher alien messages. You know they’re gonna work it out eventually, but it takes a while. I appreciated that and all the nerdy science stuff, and I also appreciated that it didn’t involve a primary school-level xylophone-tinkling performance (It’s a slightly better film than the overrated “Close Encounters” if you ask me). The UFO, meanwhile sure is a striking visage, and different enough from your standard flying saucer. I also think composer Johann Johannsson (“The Theory of Everything”, “Sicario”) gives us one of the top two music scores of 2016, alongside Michael Giacchino’s work on “Rogue One”. It’s a really interesting, creepily low-key score featuring constant droning and humming.
A solid and interesting movie, but the scenes with Amy Adams and her daughter are just a bit too close to “Contact”, albeit not as close as I’d feared. ***** SPOILER ALERT ***** Whilst it provides a way to get you emotionally invested from moment one- an actress I like and instant sympathy for her character- another way should have been found beyond the death of a loved one. Take those scenes out and just use the visions with Tzi Ma’s character and the basic idea works and is certainly fascinating, and you can find another way to pull us in emotionally . ***** END SPOILER ***** The film just could’ve been even better than that with just the one adjustment. Still, there’s some seriously fascinating stuff, it both looks and sounds great, Adams is great, Renner is good. I liked it, I just didn’t love it.