While it is plenty fun to watch gigantic dinosaurs chase and eat people, or see alien spaceships invade Earth, I prefer a more muted, thought-provoking science fiction film. For instance, I can guarantee that I will end up enjoying Ex Machina more than Terminator: Genisys or Avengers: Age of Ultron, simply because of the originality and subtlety of Alex Garland’s film. Over the last few days, my attention has been drawn to a few more films that may embody this intellectual science fiction in lieu of large explosions, action set pieces, and CGI-fueled noise-factories. Two of these films look particularly interesting to me thanks to the immense talent being assembled around some great stories. These films are Denis Villeneuve’s Story of Your Life and Morten Tyldum’s Passengers.
I have been all over Denis Villeneuve of late, as I reacted to the Sicario trailer here and am prepping reviews for both Enemy and Prisoners as well, so the Villeneuve hype train will keep rolling through the pages of Plot and Theme for the foreseeable future. Anyway, Story of Your Life is an adaptation of the Ted Chiang short story of the same name, which won the 2000 Nebulla Award for Best Novella. The story centers around Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist tasked with establishing lines of communication with an alien species which lands on Earth. As it stands, Forest Whitaker and Jeremy Renner are also attached to the project, although we do not know what characters they will play.
The aliens, called heptapods, exhibit radial symmetry (like a seven-sided starfish) and have two forms of language: Heptapod A is spoken and features free-word order and center-embedden clauses, whereas Heptapod B is written and highly-structured to the point that altering or omitting a single letter changes the entire meaning of a sentence. The plot therefore centers on discussions of linguistics and determinism– asking questions about how languages develop and whether or not they directly determine the mode or quality of the speaker’s thoughts. This is of course all in service of generating a more-complete understanding of the heptapod’s motives while on Earth. Tackling philosophically complex concepts via some science fiction proxy has always been a strength of the genre, and Villeneuve has succeeded with similar attempts before, so this should be an incredibly interesting film, and definitely something that we haven’t seen before. Finally, this will be the final film before Villeneuve starts work on the Blade Runner sequel.
Passengers will be an entirely different story, but no less fascinating. Starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence (and possibly no one else), this film tells the story of a transport ship traveling to an off-Earth colony, with thousands of people in a cryogenic sleep. After a malfunction results in Jim Preston (Pratt) waking 90 years early, he decides to wake another person, Aurora (Lawrence) rather than to age and die alone. This film has the feel of a TV bottle episode, as the drama is derived from the isolation and loneliness of Preston, as well as the fear of dying before reaching the destination. When he eventually succumbs to this loneliness, it is important to realize that by waking Aurora, he is condemning her to the same guarantee of death.
I believe that such a decision will be the major thrust of the first act only (as you probably don’t want Jennifer Lawrence to sleep for 100+ minutes of the film), and that the subsequent acts get to deal with Aurora’s reaction to being awoken and her feelings towards Preston’s decision. I assume they will know each other prior to being put to sleep – but it is important to note that the film has an entirely different dynamic if they are strangers. Regardless, this film is slated for a release in 2016, and hasn’t even started filming yet, so there really isn’t any way to be sure of what we are going to get specifically. But, I think it should be clear that teaming Pratt and Lawrence under the guidance of the director of The Imitation Game has great promise.
So there you have it: a pair of science fiction films that probably contain zero murderous robots, no aliens slaughtering people, and plenty of emotional and philosophical ruminations. These kinds of stories usually aren’t celebrated by the majority of movie-goers, but I for one appreciate studios and filmmakers putting together such talent and star-power in service of something a little more engaging than Escape from Dinosaur Island and Time-Travelling Killer Androids. Hopefully, I am not alone.
(Note: The title for Story of you Life was changed to Arrival about four months before the release of the film. I have left the original title in this piece, but updated the title slightly).