Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Denis Villeneuve's latest film may be about aliens visiting Earth but it's the people who hold his interest." | Photo: Getty Images

Denis Villeneuve's latest film may be about aliens visiting Earth but it's the people who hold his interest - he frequently puts the focus on faces and the smallest of interactions is key from the start. Not that its difficult to be smitten by Amy Adams, who since her breakthrough role in 2005's Junebug has shown a knack for bringing an easy smile and instant emotion to characters that is hard to beat. Here she plays Dr Louise Banks, a linguist - although our introduction to her is not via her job, but her humanity, as we see her with a baby girl, her daughter, quickly growing up until, too soon, she experiences loss. "I remember moments in the middle," she says.

Cutting to the present moment, we quickly learn that aliens have arrived at various points on planet Earth in gigantic egg-shaped obelisks and the good doctor is being asked by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join a multinational project to make contact and find out what, if anything, the visitors want. It would be easy to opt for the usual sense of thriller threat and military bombast that normally accompanies such arrivals, but Villeneuve takes a different tack, lending a sense of awe to the way that people are treating the alien craft, even if those in charge are nervous.

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Teaming up with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), the two of them board the spaceship and are greeted by the dark, giant squid-like heptapods within. Despite showing us the creatures from the start, Villeneuve maintains an impressive sense of mystery around them, both by showing them shrouded in fog, so that they are not entirely distinct and, crucially, by showing how they are perceived by Louise and Ian. Our experience reflects theirs. As Louise and Ian begin to make a tentative connection with the aliens they face a race against the thinning patience of other nations who are considering withdrawing co-operation from one another. Communicating with Abbot and Costello, as the pair name the aliens, is not going to be easy. Speech is out, as they "talk" in sounds a human can't replicate and so the scientists turn to script, discovering that each alien thought is rendered as an elaborate inky blotch.

The themes of the film are equally intricate, navigating ideas of love, loss and perception but Eric Heisserer - adapting from the short story The Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang - keeps the exposition manageable. It isn't that he shies away from big ideas - he allows Louise to outline the concepts lying behind the alien communication - but he doesn't labour them or make them necessarily convoluted, so that we understand the basics without losing track of the heart of the film, which like some of the best science fiction is, of course, humanity itself.

Bradford Young's cinematography, often involving yellows and blue lighting recalls some of the uneasiness of 2013's Enemy (shot by Nicolas Bolduc), but Louise's natural warmth and desire to communicate are the dominant notes. As the film nears its conclusion, it offers the unexpected in a way that still feels like a natural progression from the thoughtful explorations of the film rather than a tacked on twist, all of which bodes exceedingly well for Villeneuve's upcoming Blade Runner 2049.

Reviewed on: 25 Oct 2016
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A linguist is given the task of helping to communicate with extra-terrestrial beings when they touch down around the globe.
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Luke Shaw *****

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writer: Eric Heisserer, based on the short story by Ted Chiang

Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nathaly Thibault, Mark O'Brien, Tzi Ma, Leisa Reid, Abigail Pniowsky, Julia Scarlett Dan, Ruth Chiang, Frank Fiola, Julian Casey, Russell Yuen, Max Walker

Year: 2016

Runtime: 116 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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