The film starts with a reverie about memory: how it doesn’t work the way we think.* The protagonist, Louise (Amy Adams), is given what appears to be a standard type of back-story: memories of raising her daughter, after a marital split; and the daughter’s early death. However, these memories are, indeed, not what they seem; and this eventually turns out to be key to the whole film.
Soon come the aliens: 12 giant sleek spaceships landing mysteriously across the globe. Ours is in Montana. Louise is a hotshot linguist, swooped up by the military to crack the language barrier and learn why they’re here. Right away, I’m thinking: these aliens obviously have mega-advanced technology; they come seemingly wanting to communicate; but with no means for doing so? Really? However, one must suspend disbelief and accept the story’s premise.
Louise and some guys are taken inside the alien ship, where they’re subjected to the usual proctology examinations.
No, just kidding. Actually, they meet Abbott and Costello.
Those are the names they give their two alien interlocutors. Their language sounds something like whale talk. The aliens look like something aquatic too. Their written language, we’re told, does not correlate with the sounds. They write by squirting stuff that resolves into circles with woolly protrusions, like smoke signals. Soon Louise has compiled a dictionary and is communicating in their own language. I felt like I missed a scene, showing just how she achieved this breakthrough.
Well, Louise is smart; but, typical for such movies, most other humans are idiots. I thought I was back in one of those 1950s space operas. After a month of nothing ostensibly happening (a month!), we see a Limbaugh-type loudmouth ranting that these aliens pose a great danger and should be attacked. (I think a lot of people would have gone a lot more haywire a lot sooner.) Then China gives the aliens a threatening ultimatum. Then people around the world trying to talk to all the ships idiotically cut off communication with each other. And some trigger-happy American soldiers do attack, with the consequences you might expect. Haven’t any of these fools ever seen any of those old sci-fi movies? Don’t they know the aliens, or monsters, or whatever, are never vulnerable to our puny retro weapons?
Long story short, it won’t surprise you to learn that Louise saves the world. More: the message she finally gets from the aliens transforms all of life as we know it. She also gets the guy — but not for keeps it would seem. To explain all this would be a spoiler. But here’s a hint: it has to do with the very fabric of time itself. Her memories were not memories.
Maybe I’ve made this sound like a silly movie. It’s not. It is beautifully done, and the story arc is altogether subtle, surprising, and thought-provoking. Whether it makes coherent sense is beside the point.
*I have written about this fascinating topic — click here.