WARNING: TOTAL SPOILERS
Only a cranky, elitist misanthrope could fail to love this perfectly pitched middlebrow confection. All your friends loved it, right? Amy Adams is reliably adorable as a brilliant yet weirdly underaged linguist whose work is admired at the highest reaches of government. (The way we know she’s brilliant is that she doesn’t wear any makeup.) Jeremy Renner is reliably adorable as a besotted physicist — also presumably brilliant? — who spends the whole film mooning at Amy, yet satisfyingly stays out of her way while she does her work. Forrest Whittaker, in an attempt to be something other than adorable, puts on an indecipherable accent (Boston? New Orleans? Junior year abroad on Alpha Centauri?) in his workmanlike portrayal of some guy in the government. The movie gets to the action right away: the guy in the government, along with some other guys in the government, swoops in on the world’s loudest helicopter in the middle of the night to scoop up Amy from her ridiculously architectural-magazine-spready house next to some woods and maybe a lake somewhere (why does she have such good taste in houses but such terrible clothes and hair?) and take her to meet some aliens who have just landed in Montana. Her job is to decipher their language so that humanity can ask them why they’re here. She is one of twelve linguists leading similar efforts worldwide: the aliens have plopped themselves down in their (also impossibly elegant) flying obelisks at various sites across the globe, and apparently have settled in to wait while humanity runs around freaking the fuck out all over the place and then eventually decides to get its act together. Amy gets us there by figuring out the aliens’ language and communicating what she has learned about their intentions to the Chinese just in time to stop them (the Chinese) from blowing them (the aliens) out of the sky with some nukes.
And that is basically the plot. Cool, right? The aliens seem really chill, their written language is beautiful — they wave their tentacles and squirt out ink that forms gorgeous calligraphic circles that hover in the air — there’s some satisfying if incoherent mumbo-jumbo about time being continuous, you get to feel smart by being forced to dimly remember the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and the moony physicist ends up with the brilliant makeupless linguist in the end/beginning. Oh, but wait — this is a story about white people with tasteful houses, so that means we also have to have a sentimental plot about having babies. And it’s not just an add-on, either: the entire movie (as well as the novella on which it is based, Ted Chiang’s award-winning “Story of Your Life”) is ultimately structured around the thrilling journey that two people take in the course of deciding to engage in heterosexual reproduction. It turns out that since all time is continuous, and Amy gets to understand that truth because something something Sapir-Whorf, and she therefore gets to see the future, she comes to realize the deep determinism of reality. So even though she knows how all of history (or maybe just her own history? unclear) will play out, and she therefore knows that the daughter she will have with the moony physicist will die at a young age of a terrible disease, she goes ahead and does it all anyway. Because — get it? — it’s already happened. So of all the quazillions of personal stories that we could imagine as a complementary subplot to the fascinating stuff about the aliens and linguistic relativity and the nature of time and determinism, this is what we get. Serenely composed shots of a mom and her dying daughter adrift in a weird soft-focus world where there’s lots of symbolically bleak landscapes and yet apparently no other people whatsoever.
And this is where I start to feel like a terrible person. Yes, it’s sad, dammit! I’m not a monster. I like babies! The moments at the end where we see Amy deciding (but not really, because she kind of doesn’t have a choice) to have her doomed daughter are truly poignant. Suddenly the film’s aesthetic of tasteful emptiness (even the alien ships seem to have absolutely nothing in them) all makes sense: this is a woman whose understanding of the nature of time has rendered her profoundly alone. Okay, it’s kind of shitty that she doesn’t tell Moony Physicist that she knows their daughter will die before going ahead and getting knocked up — perhaps because she (rightfully!) fears that he might not be on board with that plan—but he justifiably dumps her when he finds out that she had known, and that just underscores her isolation. It’s also deeply satisyfing to see a woman get to be the Great Brilliant Understander of All Reality Who Is Thus Utterly Alone, while some adoring dude who is basically an adjunct to her brilliance gets into a snit about their domestic arrangements. But that’s kind of the point: is this the only personal drama we can imagine a brilliant female linguist being the star of? Picture the same story with a male linguist at its core: it’s kind of hard to imagine that the most sublime, terrifying, humbling, mind-blowing experience available to us a species — the sudden knowledge that we are not alone in the universe, and also p.s. all time is continuous — would, if imparted to a man, yield only a deep conviction that he should go ahead and have a baby. Is this the only question facing a woman? Is this the only decision we can ever imagine her having to make? And why is the answer always Yes?
There are lots of other things to take issue with in the film. Once again, white Americans save the planet when the aliens arrive. Everyone else across the globe is reactive, paranoid, and irrational (granted, most of the Americans are too, but still). When Amy finally breaks through to the Chinese general dude who seems to be in charge over there, she convinces him to stand down through another hokey sentimental plot device having to do with heterosexual domesticity. For some reason climate change doesn’t exist in the film and we are blithely assured that humanity will still be here in 3,000 years. My understanding is that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is way more complicated than it’s depicted here. The climax of the film involves Amy (perhaps unwittingly) channelling Nietzsche, which is never a good idea. Etc. Probably, though, I’m being unfair. There is also lots to like here, and lots to think about, and lots of pretty stuff to look at; there are definitely worse ways to spend two hours of your life. This was a solidly enjoyable film — I just wish it had been better than it was, that it had had the guts and imagination to push a little further beyond the predictable narrative arc that seems to be, still, the defining experience of all women, no matter how defiantly makeupless they may be.