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.



Wind River

wind river movie

Wind River (2017, directed by Taylor Sheridan) is an understated yet absorbing crime drama that takes place on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a Fisheries and Wildlife employee who finds the body of an 18-year old woman in the snowy mountains of the reservation. She is barefoot and seems to have died from exposure, but when the medical examiner reveals that she had been raped, the FBI is called in. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is the rookie agent sent to deal with the situation. In a harsh environment that is routinely neglected or ignored by the federal government, Jane enlists the help of Corey, as well as the local Sheriff (Graham Greene).

The victim turns out to be Natalie, a Native of the reservation, who happened to be friends with Corey’s daughter, who had died several years earlier in an unsolved crime. Corey carries the weight of this tragedy, which led to the dissolution of his marriage to Wilma (Julia Jones), a Native with whom he also shares a son. Corey considers himself a hunter, of wildlife up to this point, but is willing to use his tracking and hunting skills to find who is responsible for Natalie’s death. He promises Natalie’s father Martin (Gil Birmingham) to bring the perpetrator to justice.

corey and martin

Jane is dropped with some bewilderment into this rather desolate situation and realizes early on that some aspects of the investigation cannot be strictly by-the-book if she wants to solve the crime. Her passion and bravery, balanced by Corey’s grim determination and knowledge of the land, bring them closer to answering the riddle of what happened to Natalie.

This isn’t your usual shoot-em-up crime drama, although there is violence, of a rather sinister kind. The despair of reservation life is keenly felt here, from rampant drug problems to the lackadaisical response from the feds to the undeniable sadness at the devastation of a once proud culture. The harsh beauty of the landscape remains, and it’s in the mountains that the final justice is played out to satisfying effect.

Wind River is sad and disturbing, almost hopeless in its tone, but well worth your viewing time if you enjoy a grittier sort of crime drama.