In a time when Star Trek has been reduced to nonsensical action schlock, it's nice to see something that seems to have been made using real science fiction ideas to tell a proper story. Once struggling through opposing ideals and communication problems to solve a crisis would have been prime material for the series to cover, but today it's been left to a smaller scale, far smaller budget release like this to do something truly interesting. It's visually cold, it looks sterile and bleak. But under the grey and uninviting surface there are strong character moments, engaging emotional hooks, and one or two central concepts that have real weight to them. It also adds a new genre to the filmography of Denis Villeneuve, signalling a promising future for his upcoming sci-fi endeavours.
Despite the desaturated aesthetic which carries over from his previous directorial efforts, this is still another rather visually striking film to look at. The minimalist design work on the alien ships makes them appear vaguely organic, more like monolithic pebbles that spacecraft. It results in a very otherworldly style which continues internally as the central crew of scientists and soldiers enter to meet their uninvited guests. There are no obvious mechanisms and none of the propulsion systems you'd probably expect from a UFO, and this is what makes them so eerily effective. The build up to revealing their appearance is handled with a lot of restraint which amplifies this, as linguist Louise (Amy Adams) slowly finds her classroom empty as news reports flood in off camera. The atmosphere is never completely sinister, but it allows for a good amount of unease and intrigue.
Much of the story is handled in the same way, as she is taken in by Colonel Webber (Forest Whitaker) at the government camp where communication efforts have begun. There's of course a lot of discussion of how to even begin talking to aliens that don't seem to use spoken words which corresponds to their written language. The levels of distrust soon increase when messages with words like 'weapons' in them are left for the team to decipher. A type of technology or simply a tool could be easily confused without understanding their whole dictionary after all. It's a classic setup that offers plenty of slow burning tension as military egos and scientific ideals clash, while in other countries the same situation is unravelling and international co-operation begins to deteriorate.
While they deal with the bigger questions of what these ships want and whether the people of Earth should try and talk to take a more aggressive stance, there are a lot of smaller, more personal details that keep it held together. The internal issues being experience by Louise are slowly revealed as it becomes apparent that the language she is piecing together may have some unexpected effects. While the huge ships and the vistas they float above look stunning, things like memories and dreams are handled just as well. The heart of the story and the global results are kept evenly balanced; we glimpse the outside world through TV broadcasts and a few attempts to talk with other landing sites but the story is focused through one perspective.
There are a few creaky moments involving physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner) towards the end, and in general his role feels less developed. A couple of shots when Louise enters what seems to be a room full of alien fog are less convincing than the rest of the seamless visual effects. But these are small complaints. It's compelling and thought provoking, and though some of the bigger ideas push existing scientific knowledge to less realistic areas it remains a great piece of cinema. This is about as far from the embarrassing destruction spectacle of most stories where visitors come to us from outer space, and it's all the better for it.
DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)
The latest release from Marvel Studios continues with the trend of entertaining but mostly unspectacular adventure stories, complete with another origin for a new character. While it aims for something fresh by adding sorcery and multi-verse bending effects, there are far too many things which are very familiar here. Top surgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a self centred career minded medical man, until an accident leaves him with irreparable nerve damage in both hands. With the latest surgical efforts failing to help, he travels to Nepal to find a more mystical answer and becomes embroiled in a battle for the Earth between good and evil.
While it's nice to see something slightly different, none of the more original ideas are pushed far enough to make this stand out. The central hero is genuinely unpleasant early on, treating patients like ways of increasing his fame, and pushing people who care out of his life. He's arrogant but not in a loveable way. But since jukebox soundtracks and silly quips are a thing in this franchise they throw in a lot of elements that don't quite fit. I'd rather it be a serious take on an unlikeable character who doesn't have the charming presence of Tony Stark. At times it does work, but in others it feels like they threw in some comedy just because it was expected.
In terms of a simple origin tale there are a few elements that detract from the pacing you'd expect in such a well worn storyline. Training montages are surprisingly brief and lack real struggle, and character development often feels like it has been cut short. The new special are shown off in one of the first scenes of the film which drains the impact of travelling through alternate dimensions and using magical weapons later on. Supporting actors Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelsen are great casting choices but they don't get enough to do. Lofty ideals about the misuse of dark energy and beings from outside our universe are thrown about, but it skips over things that might have added depth.
It does offer plenty of entertainment, though a few lines of dialogue are a bit groan worthy considering how much practice they have at witty remarks by now. There are also plenty of action scenes and eye popping visuals, though this may be less impressive if you've ever looked at 3D fractals for your computer desktop. Ultimately this feels like a story with that has some nice new ideas, but which has been built from ingredients that are starting to feel pretty old at this stage. It doesn't have the kind of sequel baiting hollowness that the worst MCU releases have, but it just sits in the middle ground like a few of their other less well known hero introductions.