Let’s be honest. It’s not often the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis(1) forms a central plank of a Hollywood movie. But be prepared to be surprised. because now of all times, that is exactly the kind of movie this is. If you’re expecting shooty bang-bang, give this a miss because you’ll only be disappointed. For the rest of you, read on.
For those not aware of the hypothesis, it says that the language you speak shapes your thinking. Given that the film centres around a linguist, Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) this is not a shock. At the film’s opening Banks is a slightly detached and emotionally distant character. We are encouraged to think this for a number of reasons, though I won’t detail these to avoid spoilers.
All this changes when the Shells arrive. Twelve of them appear around the world, including one in rural Montana. Banks is taken to the site to help communicate with the object and its occupants, along with a physicist, Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner).
It transpires that the creatures within, who are classified as Heptapods, have a rich and complex language, which is subtle and hugely contextually dependent. This causes serious issues when ambiguity concerning the translation of a single phrase ruptures the international coalition working on the contact and makes the prospect of disaster very real indeed.
As the film goes on. Banks has an increasing number of dreams/visions, supposedly in flashback. A group of rogue soldiers (encouraged by false media stories – how VERY topical) try to set off an explosion in the Montana shell, though Louise and Ian are saved by the Heptapods, who have been affectionately nicknamed Abbot and Costello by the pair.
Realising that the situation is dangerously unstable. Louise makes a final, desperate attempt to talk to the Heptapods before all hell breaks loose. Here, she finally learns the purpose for their visit, and it’s not at all what you might think.
Visually, the film is beautiful. And the issues it talks about are profound ones, deftly expressed. Adams is, as you might expect, nuanced and utterly convincing. Renner gets less to do, but gives his character real depth. Even Forest Whitaker, as Colonel Weber, is given a slightly sympathetic reading. Incidental characters, such as those from the intelligence services. aren’t mere cyphers either; you may not agree with their actions, but they are not the bad guys here. In fact, there are no real bad guys – it’s that kind of a movie
The themes running through all of this are ones of communication and understanding, the problems of reading and understanding the intentions of others, and the unreliable nature of memory.
In many ways it reminds me of thoughtful SF movies like Contact, Solaris and even in its sense of wonder and innocence, Close Encounters. It’s a truly lovely movie, really it is.