Arrival (2016, directed by Denis Villenueve) is the thinking person’s Independence Day.

Don’t get me wrong: while I wasn’t much of an ID fan, I did love the Aliens franchise, where the baddie ET’s were blown to bits in thrilling action sequences, and Sigourney Weaver’s bad-ass performance made me pump my fist in the air with a heartfelt “You go, girl!”

Amy Adams’ character, Louise Banks, is a heroine of a different nature. The quiet, unassuming linguistics professor is chosen to help communicate with the aliens who’ve parked their egg-shaped ships in twelve different locations across the globe. Louise is swept away to Montana, the location of the American alien ship, to work with the military, as well as with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Forest Whittaker is the no-nonsense Colonel Weber, who’s running the show. The directive from his superiors: find out what they want.

Louise and Ian are suited up and brought to the ship to meet the aliens, who look like a cross between squid and branch-like walking fingers. Their language sounds like whale song, and Louise knows that a written or visual language would be more appropriate to communicate with them. In a breakthrough, they witness the aliens secrete an inky substance from one of their tentacles which forms a lovely circular symbol that acts as writing. Building on this, they spend a few months accruing a vocabulary that lets them talk with the creatures on a basic level.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t patient enough to let this important work continue; global tensions are rising, people are getting nervous, and China and Russia are getting antagonistic toward their alien visitors, threatening to attack them. Weber urges Louise to ask them the vital question: what is your purpose on earth?

This is where the film takes a twisty, philosophical turn, even as the tension rises. There’s a wondrous, heartbreaking secret at the core of this movie, one which I won’t reveal here, of course. It’s all a bit mind-blowing and has to do with a personal experience of Louise’s that encompasses both joy and grief, and ties in with the aliens’ perception of time, which is circular (like their visual language) rather than our linear experience of it.

I know, I know–huh? But believe me, it works, and the final act unfolds in a beautiful sequence that is moving and impressive. This is a film about the nature of time and how we communicate; it’s also about choosing love in the face of grief, joy over fear. This is my kind of science fiction, encompassing the human heart as well as spanning the literal universe.



Blade Runner 2049


I was 11 years old in 1982 when Blade Runner came out, far too young to see it or to appreciate its cool aesthetic and philosophical musings. When I did finally catch up to it–mostly because this then-young Star Wars fan was looking for some more Harrison Ford–I got Rick Deckard instead of Han Solo (or even Indiana Jones), and I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that. I was probably in my mid-twenties before I realized how brilliant the film was, and I duly filed it away into the “Most awesome movies ever” file of my brain.

After some mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movies, I was a bit wary about sequels to long-beloved films–not Can it be done, but should it be done? After watching the trailer and knowing that Ford probably wouldn’t have signed on if he didn’t think it was worthy, I allowed myself to get a little bit excited.

And was rewarded with a rich, fully-realized film, not just as a sequel, but as a cinematic experience that stands on its own. Although it helps to have seen the first film, the story isn’t a simple re-hashing of the original plot, but builds on it, creating a core mystery concerning the original characters; but really the film belongs to Ryan Gosling, and his character, K/Joe.

K is a Blade Runner (someone who seeks out and destroys rogue Replicants, androids that can barely be distinguished from humans), but unlike Rick Deckard before him, he’s also a Replicant himself. He’s a new-model Replicant–programmed to obey–hunting old-model Replicants, who had the annoying habit of seeking their freedom from slavery.

The film opens with K finding an old model named Sapper (Dave Bautista), who disdains K for killing his own kind. Before K is forced to kill him, Sapper tells him, “You’ve never seen a miracle.” Afterward, K discovers a box buried beneath a dead tree, which turns out to contain the remains of a female Replicant who, impossibly but undeniably, had given birth to a child thirty years ago.

This fact has the potential to change everything. K’s superior, “Madam” (Robin Wright), calls it “a bomb going off.” If Replicants have the ability to procreate, then it calls into question mankind’s right to use them for their own purposes. It’s her job to maintain order; she orders K to find the offspring and destroy it.

Thus begins K’s journey, not only of the investigation, but of self-discovery. For along the way, evidence begins to suggest to him that perhaps he is the child. He grapples not only with this stunning possibility; but danger in the form of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the mastermind behind creating the new Replicants. He learns of the child’s existence and wants it as well, not to kill it but to study it and make it possible for all Replicants to procreate. Not for any sense of freedom for his creation, but simply to create more at a faster rate, to enslave more and thus send more offworld, to conquer the stars. He sends Luv (Sylvia Hoecks), his Replicant muscle, to follow K and find the child at whatever cost.

Some have complained that 2049 is overlong and confusing. Perhaps to the average movie-goer, this may be true; but a fan of the original film understands the importance of the tone, ambiance (that synthy soundtrack!), and the underlying themes that make Blade Runner so special. Themes as basic as, What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of memory? But also, What is real? What is love? K’s relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), a female artificial intelligence in the form of a hologram, brings these questions into focus.

joe and joi
Joi and K/Joe

Inevitably, Harrison Ford has to make an appearance as Deckard, as a link to the original, but also to tie up some plot points. He does admirably well here, but the movie is totally K/Joe’s. Gosling (who I’d been aware of, but admittedly had never seen any of his other films) is amazing bringing to life K’s arc from obedient, resigned Replicant to questioning, emotional seeker of identity and meaning.

The open-ended conclusion to the film leaves some questions, but overall, this is the kind of movie experience I pretty much live for.