2016 / cinema

SF elements: alien language


The aliens have arrived, in 12 giant mysterious ships dotted around the planet. They are enigmatic, but seem to want to communicate. The Americans enlist the help of academic linguist Louise Banks [Amy Adams] and physicist Ian Donnelly [Jeremy Renner]. They gradually manage to establish communication, but does that important ambiguous word mean “weapon” or “tool”? Louise keeps having flashes of her life with her daughter Hannah, who dies tragically young: these images may hold the key to deciphering the aliens’ intent.

[deciphering alien language]

This is a very cerebral film, with a lot of talking about alien language and arguing about alien motives, with a small amount of misguided military action: the CGI goes into making the aliens nicely alien, not into swooping spacecraft and big explosions. The gradual increase in the protagonists’ language knowledge and confidence, and the sheer intellectual slog that involves getting that competence, are conveyed well. This description might make the film sound dull and slow, but the plot moves forward briskly and engrossingly. There’s the obligatory twist, which I am pleased to say I spotted before the reveal, but in truth it wasn’t that much before. It’s one of those interesting twists that might make you want to see the film again, to re-evaluate some of the events.

Despite the leading character being a woman, the film only barely passes the Bechdel test: her child is female, and they sometimes talk about things other than the father.

For a film about language and communication, there are a couple of places where that communication is a little opaque. Early on, the military is trying to enlist Louise, and threatening to go to another linguist if she doesn’t agree to their terms. She challenges them to ask the other linguist for the translation of the Sanskrit word for war. When they come back with the answer, it is given inaudibly against an overwhelming background of helicopter blades. I looked it up afterwards; it doesn’t seem to be germane to why they chose her over the other guy. The other communication incident, which is deliberate, is that a turning point in the film has Louise persuade a Chinese general to break off hostilities, by speaking a key sentence to him in Mandarin, and we get no subtitles. It works, even though we don’t know what was said. Again, I looked it up afterwards; the sentence is meaningful, but its content doesn’t actually matter, only that it works. In a sense, these two events seem more profound precisely because I didn’t know exactly what is said.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. It is nice to see people solving problems with their brains rather than with their fists and guns, for a change.

Rating: 2.5

[ unmissable | great stuff | worth watching | mind candy | waste of time | unfinishable ]

reviewed 2 December 2016