Virtue vs. Virtual

The 1980s was a great time for motivational posters. One said: “If you don’t like the world the way it is, change it.” Nowadays, besides passivity or advocacy, there’s a third option: ignore it. That’s what the world decides to do in Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s new film based on the bestselling novel by Ernest Cline. When you can escape into virtual reality for hours on end, why try to change what’s actually happening?

Cline co-wrote the film with Zac Penn, who’s done the story for several Marvel Universe films. Half of the film’s set in a dystopian Cleveland that’s become the fastest growing city in the world. Because of lack of space, part of the city has mobile homes, RVs, and old custom vans stacked on scaffolding five or six levels high – no surprise the area’s known as The Stacks. It’s a bleak world, but almost all the residents spend their days in “The Oasis,” a virtual reality universe where you can do anything or be anyone.

In the real world, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is a teenaged orphan living with his aunt and her current loser boyfriend in the Stacks. His father had chosen his name because it sounded like a superhero’s name, like Peter Parker or Clark Kent. That hasn’t worked out in the real world, but when Wade enters the Oasis, he becomes Parzival, a variation on Percival, the Knight in Arthurian lore who recovers the Holy Grail. There is a holy grail built into the Oasis by its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). After Halliday passed away, a recording he made revealed that there were three challenges hidden in the Oasis that would lead to the biggest Easter egg ever – control of the Oasis and Halliday’s fortune of a half-trillion dollars. The first challenge has been found – an insane road race that includes wrecking balls, a tyrannosaurus, and King Kong – but no one has yet conquered it.

Along with the regular avatars competing, there’s a large contingent in every race from IOI Corporation, another virtual reality company that wants to take over the Oasis. The head of IOI, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), was an associate of Halliday’s early in his career and parlayed that connection to become IOI’s director. Many of the other players have formed groups, but Parzival has resisted. He does have three friends – the tech geek Aech (Lena Waithe) who can fix anything, and the brothers Daito and Shoto (Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao) – and he’s drawn to another player, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), whose skills match his. But Sorrento’s set two subordinates on Parzival’s trail: in the real world, F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), head of IOI’s security, and in the Oasis, I-Rok (T.J. Miller), a bounty hunter whose chest is a huge skull.

Halliday, who grew up in the 1980s at the beginning of the electronic gaming, has filled the Oasis with 1980s cultural references, and there’s probably no better director today to bring that world to life than Spielberg. Interestingly, though, he eschewed any references to his impact on that era, so you see no bicycle flying across the moon – except at the beginning since Spielberg produced the film through Amblin’ Entertainment. The closest the references come to Spielberg is Parzival driving Doc Brown’s DeLorean from Back to the Future, a movie Spielberg executive produced. While another director might have dwelt on the nostalgia element, Spielberg keeps the focus on the story. Particularly outstanding is when Parzival and his group get to the second challenge, which is located in the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. It both maintains the creepy horror of that movie but blends it with the challenge.

It’s particularly fun when the real person behind the avatar within Parzival’s team is revealed later in the movie. Rylance’s performance stands out as he makes Halliday an idiot savant in his game world, yet also imbues him with a deep and abiding humanity. Between his turn as Daggett, the businessman who works with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, and his performance as Orson Krennic in Rogue One, Ben Mendelsohn has become the go-to actor when you need a heavy. (He’s recently completed the new version of Robin Hood, playing the Sheriff of Nottingham.) His Sorrento is both ruthless but flawed, but dangerous all the way through. The film also features a small but important role for Simon Pegg.

Watching the trailers on a smaller screen, along with screen shots from the film, I was concerned some scenes in the Oasis wouldn’t be watchable because of the dark cinematography. However, Spielberg’s long-time director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, has created gorgeous imagery on the big screen. The computer graphics are outstanding, so you feel immersed in the Oasis. Spielberg balances this beautifully with the vision of the real world. The one complaint I have with the movie is it takes almost twenty minutes to wrap up the story, and the energy does lag at that time.

In the end, rather than the motivational phrase I noted at the beginning, Ready Player One embraces a stanza from Prince’s song Let’s Go Crazy: “If you don’t like the world you’re living in, take a look around you, at least you got friends.”


We Have Met the Enemy

Alex Garland made a bold statement with his first direction credit. He’d been writing screenplays for fifteen years, beginning with the adaptation of his novel, “The Beach.” He’d followed that with the original screenplay for Danny Boyle’s revamp of the zombie genre, 28 Days Later, in 2002 – you could call it “The Running Dead.” He did another original screenplay for Boyle, 2007’s Sunshine, then adapted Kazou Ishiguro’s novel  Never Let Me Go and the illustrated series Dredd. But when he directed his original screenplay Ex Machina, he created a science fiction/mystery blend that stunned audiences. It was a three-person chess match where two of the characters didn’t realize that it was them who were being played. The film made Alicia Vikander an international star, while Domhnall Gleason and Oscar Isaacs went on to duel each other in Star Wars.

Now Garland is back with a much more ambitious meditation on humanity in the science fiction genre. Annihilation, an adaptation of the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, flips forward and backward in time as it tells the story of an expedition into a section of the planet that has, in effect, become an alien world. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist and teacher whose special forces husband, Kane (Oscar Isaacs), went off on a mission a year earlier and hasn’t been heard from since. Then he walks into their house, unable to explain what has happened or where he’s been. The reunion is short-lived as he soon collapses, coughing up blood. While racing to the hospital, their ambulance is cut off by the military. Lena and Kane are taken to an undisclosed lab.

There Lena meets psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who explains what has happened. A meteor hit a lighthouse in a state park area, and soon the structure was encircled by what observers termed “the Shimmer.” A park ranger went in to check on the lighthouse and never came back. Other expeditions have been sent into the Shimmer, but no one has come back, except for Kane, who’s now in a coma. As time has passed, the Shimmer has expanded. The government has kept the story quiet, but the Shimmer soon will expand to heavily populated areas and the story will be uncontainable. Ventress is leading a new expedition, made up of physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cassie Shepherd (Tuva Novotny), and paramedic Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez). Lena decides to join the expedition to discover some way to help her husband.

The story owes a debt to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The DNA of plants and animals within the Shimmer has blended with alien DNA, changing the landscape elementally. But as they travel deeper, the team finds what they’ve brought into the Shimmer inside themselves may be the most dangerous element. As the old Pogo comic put it, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Portman is a wonderfully cerebral actress who makes thinking an engrossing action, but she also began her career with the action flick Leon – The Professional. Here she has to call on her skill in both genres. While primarily an intellectual puzzle, action erupts often without warning. On the other hand, Gina Rodriguez is mostly known for her sympathetic lead role on “Jane the Virgin,” but here she turns into a bad ass who could give Schwarzenegger a run for his money. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is guarded and withdrawn even as she leads the group, though a reason for her behavior is later revealed. After playing Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, Thompson’s Josie is perhaps the most thoughtful of the team. Tuva Novotny has mostly worked in her native Sweden, amassing over 60 credits in twenty years. She’s rarely done Hollywood films – she had a role in the Julia Roberts film Eat, Pray, Love in 2010 – so she’s a fresh face here while also being an experienced and competent actress.

As in the book, the female makeup of the team passes without comment. While principal photography was done almost two years ago, coming out now was perfect timing. The old conventions have been blown apart, the stereotypes stripped away, and now there’s a chance for truly exciting films that eschew the formulae that have existed for decades.

Garland chose a different way of adapting the book. He’d read it when it came out, but rather than returning to the source material, he’s said he adapted it “like a dream of the book,” based on his memory of the story. Since the book is written as journal entries of one of the characters, the loose adaptation not only makes sense but likely improved the story on the screen.

The film is visually arresting as the familiar is twisted into an alien tableau that’s both beautiful and grotesque. In a similar way to what happens to the characters, the movie invades your brain and makes you consider this world from a very different perspective. You’ll be thinking about it long after you exit the theater.


It Doesn’t Go The Way You Think – Thank God!

The purpose of the second act in the three-act format is to drive the action to its highest point of conflict and action, leading to the resolution in the third act. The greater the conflict, the greater the potential for resolution. We’ve already seen this in Star Wars, as the second movie in the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, was almost universally viewed as the best film in the series. On the other hand, the second feature in the second trilogy, Attack of the Clones, was better than the first (only one sequence with Jar Jar Binks) but it didn’t reach the highest level of action. That happened in Revenge of the Sith, and it almost made the first two movies superfluous. The Machete version for viewing the first two trilogies has you watch them in the order of 4,5,2,3,and 6, with The Phantom Menace happily forgotten. These days you could do an augmented Machete, putting Rogue One at the beginning.

The Force Awakens was pretty much exactly what Star Wars fans hoped for, and in ways it mirrored the construction of Hope. JJ Abrams knew what he needed to do to restart the triple-trilogy originally imagined by George Lucas.  But to match the greatness of the first trilogy, the second movie had to change the playing field. It couldn’t simply be a retread of Empire.

Thankfully, writer/director Rian Johnson took a lightsaber to all expectations. He’s taken chances with unusual movies before, such as his first feature, Brick, which set a film-noir detective story in a modern high school, and with 2012’s twisted time travel flick Looper, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt must battle a decades-older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis) to save the world. Standard story telling is not what you get with Johnson.

One interesting aspect of Johnson’s script is it puts the main action within a 24 hour cycle, similar to classic tragedies. Of course, when you can jump to light speed, it means the story isn’t bound to one location. The rebels under General Organa (Carrie Fisher) are evacuating their base from The Force Awakens when the First Order Fleet under General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) appears in the sky. The last transport, carrying Lieutenant Connix (Billie Lourd, Fisher’s daughter, who has a larger role this time), manages to escape before the base is destroyed. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) mounts an attack on a Dreadnaught-class Star Destroyer – basically a smaller version of the Death Star – though it starts with one of the funniest sequences ever in the franchise. The attack succeeds but at a huge cost. The rebel fleet thinks they’ve escaped by jumping to hyperspace, but the First Order follows them.

Separately, the story of Rey picks up exactly where The Force Awakens ends, with her handing the lightsaber to Luke. It does not go as expected, and where she thinks Luke will come and restore hope to the rebellion, he quickly dissuades her. Eventually we learn the source of Luke’s disillusionment, and why he’s decided it’s time for the Order of the Jedi to end.

I won’t go any further into the plot here, except to say it’s inventive and keeps on twisting from what you expect in order to run off in different directions. I plan to do a spoiler-included Part II to this review to discuss elements of the plot, since there is a lot to discuss. The Last Jedi is the most political and the most spiritual entry in the series. Part of the reason the audience score for The Last Jedi on Rotten Tomatoes is 40 points lower than the critic score (51% to 91%) is because of alt-right trolls who object to the messages and have been purposefully flaming the movie.

Several new characters deserve special mention. Of course, the expected one was Andy Serkis in the motion-capture role as Leader Snoke. His appearance sets up one of the best lightsaber fights ever in the series. Laura Dern plays purple-haired Vice-Admiral Holdo of the Rebel forces. She projects an air of possible duplicity that energizes her scenes. There’s also Benicio del Toro as a hacker who may hold the key to the survival of the rebels. But of the new faces, the best is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a minor member of the resistance who ends up playing a major role for Finn (John Boyega).

With its inventive plot, fast pace, and powerful ending, The Last Jedi has to be seen at least on a par with The Empire Strikes Back. For me, I put it ahead of Empire. I just hope the 9th entry in the series will live up to the lead-in it’s been given.

Back to the Future

When Blade Runner debuted in 1982, it underperformed in the US and polarized critics. Director Ridley Scott had done two films at that point – the Napoleonic War story, The Duelists, followed by the seminal sci-fi film Alien. Based on Alien, hopes for Blade Runner were stratospheric, but people weren’t ready for a dystopian film noir loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” It was the first film adaptation of Dick’s work, who died of a heart attack at age 53 a couple months before the film’s release. Since then, Blade Runner has been accepted as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. Philip K. Dick’s work has been adapted multiple times for the big screen (Total Recall, Imposter, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, The Adjustment Bureau) and Amazon, who has a hit with their version of Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” will shortly premiere “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” based on the author’s short stories. Meanwhile, Ridley Scott has become an entertainment conglomerate.

Now, 35 years after the original, comes the sequel Blade Runner 2049, which picks up 30 years after the first film. The years haven’t been kind to the world, or to the Tyrell Corporation that created the original Replicants. After the rebellions of the Nexus Series 6 through 8 replicants, the corporation went bankrupt. An event called the Blackout wiped almost every digital record in 2022; only partial files remain from before that time. The world’s ecosystems collapsed causing a massive famine that swept the Earth. It was solved when Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) invented synthetic farming. That made him a wealthy man, allowing him to absorb the Tyrell Corporation and introduce the Nexus-9 replicants.

The return of the corporation meant an expansion of the Blade Runner program to control the replicants, though now Nexus-9s are used for that purpose. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is one such Nexus-9, working under Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). He lives in a poor section of LA, which is now surrounded by a dike system because of the rising waters following the melting of the ice caps. K’s only companion is a holographic program called Joi (Ana de Armas).

When K comes to “retire” an older model Nexus (Dave Bautista) on a protein farm outside the city, he discovers a crate hidden beneath a dead tree. It contains bones of a female with marks that suggest she died during a C-Section delivery. The bones are also marked with a serial number; the woman was a replicant. Joshi is shocked since replicants weren’t supposed to be able to have children; it could cause the line between human and replicant to be obliterated if this became known. She orders the evidence destroyed and tasks K with finding the replicant child and retiring it. K begins his search by heading for the old Tyrell building to find out what he can about the replicant with the serial number on the bones. Wallace’s replicant assistant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), leads K to a partial audio file of the female replicant. When it’s played, we hear the voice of Rachel (Sean Young) being questioned by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) 30 years earlier.

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is in somewhat the same position as Ridley Scott was when he made the original Blade Runner. In the last four years Villeneuve has made several stunning films: Prisoners, Sicario, and one of my favorite films of last year, Arrival. He is a strong visual stylist like Scott who works every single shot with a perfectionist’s eye. While the images of 2049 blend with the original, he also makes use of angles so that streets and reception desks seem to run to a vanishing point. The neon and building-size screens of the original are now expanded to 3D holographs. It’s like the director has stretched the original to cover a wider canvas.

Gosling gives a restrained, interior performance as K that makes the impact powerful as he goes deeper into the mystery. Wright, Leto, and Ford are effective in their roles, but the movie is stolen by Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks. De Armas was born and raised in Cuba, but moved to Spain to pursue acting. She’s had supporting roles in the Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone and the comedy War Dogs, but here she gives a luminous performance as Joi, a hologram who is the most human character in the film. On the opposite side is the Dutch Hoeks, who was an Elite model in her teens before attending the Maastricht Theater Academy. She’d become a leading actress in Europe before taking the role of the beautiful but thoroughly ruthless Luv in her first Hollywood film.

Villeneuve matches the pacing of the original, which here means the film runs for two and three-quarters hours. With the slam-bam pace of most movies 2049 may seem slow to some, but here it’s Villeneuve giving the audience time to breathe and process the story as the mystery is peeled away layer by layer.

When Blade Runner 2049 was released a few weeks ago, it underperformed in the US and polarized critics. Some were put off by the pace while others felt it was more a paean to the original rather than a movie that stood on its own. But 2049 gets into your head and keeps rolling around in there as you consider the implications of the story. This also may be a movie that grows in stature as we move farther into the future.

The Ultimate Haunted House Story

A classic subgenre of horror is the haunted house, where people are caught in a building with an evil force of some kind that means them harm. A classic novel of this genre would be Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s even more popular for horror movies, with a great example being Robert Wise’s adaptation of Jackson’s story, 1963’s The Haunting. (The remake in 1999 is an example of the worse of the genre.) Other good examples include two adaptations of Stephen King stories, The Shining and 1408, and 1973’s The Legend of Hell House, based on a Richard Matheson novel adapted by the author. In 1979, Ridley Scott blended the conventions of the haunted house with science fiction for the original Alien. Now there’s a new sci-fi/horror hybrid: Life.

In the near future, six astronauts on the International Space Station prepare to capture a probe returning from Mars with samples from the planet’s surface. The ISS astronauts are themselves an international group, with a Russian commanding officer, Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). British containment specialist Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) must ensure the station isn’t contaminated by the samples, while another Brit, botanist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), will examine what the soil contains. The weightlessness of space is especially good for Derry, who is a paraplegic. The crew is rounded out by Japanese systems specialist Sho Murikami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and two Yanks, pilot Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) and senior medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Adams manages to trap the probe, and the samples are transferred to a lab on the station and placed in an isolation box. Derry introduces other factors to the samples including atmosphere and water, and is rewarded by the growth of a tiny organism. Children at a school in the United States are given the honor of naming the first example of life outside our world, and they call it “Calvin.” Derry’s fascinated by Calvin, whose individual cells are capable of multiple functions. At first Calvin looks like a delicate flower, but as it grows it shows it will do anything to survive.

Director Daniel Espinosa had worked with Ryan Reynolds before, on the hit thriller Safe House in 2012. Espinosa’s follow-up, Child 44 (based on Tom Rob Smith’s acclaimed novel), died at the box office in spite of the presence of Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, and several other distinguished actors. It only managed a 25% score on Rotten Tomatoes. He’s recovered his mojo with Life, certified fresh on RT. The action moves smoothly from twist to twist as the suspense is ratcheted up with each scene.

Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have often blended comedy with thrills, having done 2009’s Zombieland and then last year’s mega-hit Deadpool. With Life they play it straight, and they also play it realistic. In a way they’ve taken their cue from The Martian. The space station has limited resources for the astronauts that can’t simply be replaced by the writer playing God. It’s not like the westerns where a gunfighter might shoot off twenty rounds without reloading his six-shooter.

Another point of realism is with the interaction of the cast. While Gyllenhaal, Reynolds, and Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) are established stars – and get their pictures on the poster – they blend into a unit with Dihovichnaya, Bakare, and Sanada.

Life definitely owes a debt to Alien, though the overall feel of the movies is different. One interesting connection is that Ridley Scott produced Espinosa’s Child 44. While they stand separate, Life does remind you of the power and effectiveness of Alien before it got diluted by Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and Prometheus. Perhaps Alien: Covenant later this year will recapture some of the original’s Life.

Prelude To Hope

In the original Star Wars – now Episode 4: A New Hope – there’s a tossed-off line when the rebels receive the Death Star plans from R2D2 to the effect that several people sacrificed themselves to get the information. Now, nearly 40 years after it was first mentioned, movie audiences get to see what happened in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It was worth the wait.

The story focuses on Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Instead of the usual introductory crawl, Rogue One begins with a sequence when Jyn was a child. Galen had left behind his job designing weapon systems for the Empire to hide away on a barren planet with his wife and Jyn. But the Empire isn’t done with Galen. When Imperial Senator Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives to force Galen back into the fold, Jyn manages to escape to a bolt hole where she’s later found by an ally of Galen, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

Years later the now-adult Jyn continues to hide under an assumed name, even as she’s a prisoner of the Imperial Forces for committing petty crimes to survive. While being transferred, rebel fighters break Jyn out. She instead tries to break away from the rebels, only to be stopped by the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2S0 (motion-capture performed and voiced by Alan Tudyk). The rebels need Jyn to get to Gerrera, who’s broken from the Rebel Alliance to carry out his own battles. Gerrera is in possession of a defecting transport pilot (Riz Ahmed) who’s escaped with a message from Galen. Jyn is dispatched with rebel fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to get the pilot and the message. Along the way they pick up blind monk Chirrut Imwe (Donny Yen) and his protector Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). But that mission morphs into a hero’s journey when they encounter the weapon Galen’s designed – the Death Star.

In visual style Rogue One varies from A New Hope, partially because the refinements in special effects have come so far in the past four decades. Director Gareth Edwards uses handheld cameras more than Lucas could, since computerized special effects can blend with the camera’s motion. Edwards began his career in SFX, then moved into directing, first with the low budget Monsters in 2010, then with the big budget remake of Godzilla in 2014. Rogue One’s budget was in the $200 million range, but Edwards puts it all up on the screen. The visuals are some of the best in the entire series.

But more than the images, Rogue One has an effective story that’s well-told by Edwards, and characters that you come to care about almost as deeply as Luke, Leia, and Han. The base story was developed by John Knoll (who has done special effects beginning with A New Hope and who was the visual effects supervisor on this film) along with Gary Whitta (who wrote The Book of Eli). The screenplay was then written by Chris Weitz (About a Boy, 2015’s Cinderella) along with Tony Gilroy (the Bourne series, Michael Clayton). Although the visual style’s different, the story blends seamlessly with A New Hope, so much so that the Machete order for viewing the first two trilogies should be augmented. That order is IV, V, II, III, VI and ignore Jar Jar Binks and Episode I completely, but now it has to start with Rogue One since it increases the impact of A New Hope.

Jones is perfect in the role of Jyn, blending the waif-like child searching for her father with the steel spine and dedication of a fighter. Part of the original Star Wars appeal was Carrie Fisher’s Leia, a princess who wouldn’t wait around for anyone to save her and could shoot a blaster with the best of them. For Leia, the change from princess to general in The Force Awakens was simply an acknowledgement of her power and Fisher’s embodiment of the role. The writing of Padme in Episodes I-III wasn’t as strong as Leia, but with Rey in A New Hope and now Jyn, the series has returned to the glory of fully realized, powerful women. The rest of the cast is pitch perfect as well. Luna gives strong support to Jones, while Yen and Jiang are indelible in their roles. For the movie to work, you also need a villain to match the heroes, and Mendelsohn provides a subtle but strong evil presence. You’ll also recognize several other characters that populate the story.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm, and with it the rights to Star Wars, there was concern about the Mouse-ification of the series. Were the new films going to be the equivalents of the Ewoks Adventures? The Force Awakens put that concern to bed, but Rogue One doused the bed with gas and burned it to a crisp. This is what Episodes I-III should have been.

With Carrie Fisher’s passing two days ago (as I write this), Rogue One has taken on an added poignancy. If you go to see it for the first time, remember to tuck a tissue in your pocket.

To Serve Mankind

The idea of first contact with an alien species has been a part of science fiction for as long as there has been science fiction. H.G. Wells raised the specter of invasion and conquest with “War of the Worlds” in 1898, and that strain has continued through books and movies since, especially with the sci-fi flicks of the 1950s and on up through Independence Day. On the other side, books and movies have had the aliens as an advance race come to help us, such as in the classic The Day The Earth Stood Still (not the awful remake) and through to Contact. The Twilight Zone had one of its best episodes when it blended the ideas in “To Serve Mankind.” If you somehow haven’t seen that episode, I won’t spoil it. This weekend marks the arrival of Arrival, a new entry in that genre, and one of the best ever.

The movie was directed by Denis Villenueve, who has fast become one of my favorite directors. He did two of the best thrillers in recent years, Prisoners and Sicario. Now he does for science fiction what he did for thrillers. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer is known mostly for horror movies such as Lights Out, Final Destination 5, and the 2010 reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Here, working from the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, he’s crafted a screenplay that thrills but also completely engages your intellect. Think of it as a more intelligent version of Contact.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a college professor whose specialty is linguistics. After a short introduction, the story begins on the day monolithic black spaceships appear in twelve locations around the world. Each country with a ship deals with them independently, though at first they share some data. After a few days, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) comes to her office. He’d worked with Banks to translate chatter from a Farsi terrorist cell, but now he wants her to figure out why the visitors have come to earth. She refuses to give him a quick answer and points out the pitfalls of language. Instead she says they must create a full lexicon for communication to avoid possibly catastrophic misunderstandings.

Weber leaves, but returns later and agrees to let Banks work her way. On the helicopter to the American site in Montana, she meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who’s in charge of the team making contact. The military has placed a wide perimeter around the ship which floats just above the ground. Nearby they’ve created a camp for investigating the aliens that’s more like a temporary military base. There’s a strong element that believes the ships in the sky are not there on a peace mission. As one character say, if they came in peace, “why did they bring twelve ships?”

Villenueve doesn’t rush the story. He gives it plenty of time to grow and breathe and sink into your mind until you’re completely involved. The portrayal of linguistics is fascinating and deep, as is the whole science of the film. Villenueve worked with scientists Stephen and Christopher Wolfram to ensure all the technical aspects of the story are correctly depicted.

Amy Adams is the lynchpin of the film. It’s through her eyes that we see what’s happening, and she gives one of her best performances ever. Both Renner and Whitaker are first-rate in their embodiments of their roles, as are several character actors such as Tzi Ma as Chinese General Shang and Michael Stuhlbarg as CIA Agent Halpern.

Normally it’s dangerous to use the word “classic” when referring to a movie that has only been released this weekend. But Arrival is not a normal movie. I saw it with my adult son, and after the credits finished I asked him for his reaction. His first two words: “Holy crap!” While you’ll each have your own words for expressing reactions, it’s safe to say they’ll be along those lines. See this movie.