Sci-fi cinema has seen all kinds of aliens visit our planet, from hostile invaders to benign envoys of peace. Yet relatively few movies have seriously explored what the philosophical impact of a visitation would be. What if their language was so different from ours that communication seems impossible?
This is, at least in part, the premise behind Story Of Your Life, due out next year. It’s to be the next film from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose extraordinarily intense 2015 drama-thriller Sicario recently left biting our nails in a darkened cinema. Story Of Your Life is a huge departure for the filmmaker, whose work, which also includes Incendies, Prisoners, and Enemy, commonly charts the darker continent of the human experience. This next movie will not only serve as Villeneuve’s first foray into sci-fi (his next being the long-mooted Blade Runner 2) but also into a very different tonal arena.
As film editor Joe Walker recently admitted to Deadline, Story Of Your Life seems to be “all hushed up,” the specifics of its plot kept largely under wraps save for the promise of “Amy Adams and aliens.” So what is this curious-sounding sci-fi movie, and why should we be excited about it?
Written by Ted Chiang and originally published in 1998, Story Of Your Life is a short work of genre fiction that deals with huge themes in its compact 39 pages. Alien craft appear in orbit around our planet, and a series of strange “artifacts” are discovered dotted around Earth’s continent – over a hundred in total, with nine of them found in the United States.
With the government keen to keep any details of the visitors out of public view, linguistics expert Dr Louise Banks is paired with a physicist, Dr Gary Donnelly, to try to find a means of communicating with the aliens. Dr Banks is ushered to a field containing one of the artifacts – now a maze of tents and military vehicles, surrounded by a concrete barricade designed to block prying eyes.
The artifacts, Dr Banks soon learns, are two-way communication devices. Oval and approximately 20 feet wide, they initially look like gigantic mirrors, but better resemble a pin-sharp video screen once encountered up close. It’s through one of these artifacts that Dr Banks makes her first contact with the visitors – bizarre, multi-limbed beings that are soon dubbed “heptapods”.
Initial attempts to interpret the aliens’ speech – which sounds to human ears like “a wet dog shaking the water out of its fur,” according to Dr Banks’ description – initially prove fruitless. Their written language, a psychedelic spiders’ web of symbols and lines, is even more complex. Dr Banks attempts to decipher the indecipherable, and, at the behest of a fractious military, discover whether the aliens have arrived as friends or would-be conquerors.
Chiang’s elegant prose sweeps the reader through the story, cutting from Dr Banks’ alien investigations and her life at home. Initially, these memories – which include the birth of her daughter, Hannah, and the highs and lows of the daughter’s childhood – seem like curious digressions. But like a Nicolas Roeg movie, they have a collage-like effect that builds meaning over time; in the final pages, the two plot strands interweave in a profoundly moving fashion.
Story Of Your Life is without doubt a remarkable piece of science fiction, and eminently worthy of the accolades it’s received. Yet it could also prove to be a tricky story to tell visually; it isn’t full of seismic events or the kind of action set-pieces that can be cut together to make a crowd-pleasing trailer. Its characters are ordinary and believable; its revelations – captivating though they may be – are found through investigation, theorizing, and deduction.
Nevertheless, there’s an undeniable energy, a kind of X-factor at play in Chiang’s writing. Its pace and sense of discovery recall that of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The scene where Dr Banks first walks up to an artifact hums with drama.
Story Of Your Life also shares that film’s biblical allusions. That the artifact is kept in a tent is akin to Moses communicating with God through the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. Chiang’s aliens are akin to the “wheels within wheels” described in the Book of Ezekiel – perhaps with a bit of HP Lovecraft’s Old Gods thrown in.
It’s this sense of mystery and discovery, if adapted successfully by Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, that could make Story Of Your Life a great movie. Recent years have proven that there’s a certain appetite for films that emphasise the science part of science fiction; just look at the box-office success of such hits as Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian.
Villeneuve’s previous movies have shown him to be a versatile master at generating suspense in even low-key scenes. Prisoners could have been a forgettable thriller, yet the director’s mastery of his craft – not to mention some magnificent performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman – gave it genuine impact. Enemy was a relationship drama with an indellibly surreal edge. Sicario turned the war on drug trafficking on the Mexican border into a honking nightmare.
For the adaptation, Villeneuve’s assembled a solid cast, which includes Amy Adams in the lead as Dr Banks, Jeremy Renner as Dr Donnelly (whose first name has, for some reason, changed from Gary to Ian for the film) and Forest Whitaker as a US colonel.
Villeneuve, a self-confessed sci-fi fan, admits that Story Of Your Life is “the most ambitious” movie he’s attempted so far. But it could also be one that brings his filmmaking talent to a different audience. With cinematography by Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) and music by Johann Johannson, who provided Sicario with its frightening sonic backwash, Story Of Your Life has all the ingredients of a realistic, intelligent genre film.
Chiang’s source tale has a mind-expanding quality that stays with you long after the final page; it imagines an alien species that not only look and communicate differently from us, but also have a way of perceiving the universe that forces those who encounter them to rethink their own philosophy. It’s an unforgettable story that deserves repeat readings; with Villeneuve at the helm, it’s possible that Story Of Your Life: the movie will follow suit.