THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE Could Be Paramount’s Best Film Of 2016

The new Villenueve features mysterious UFOs and smarts.

CinemaCon is an annual gathering of movie theater people in Las Vegas, an event where they look at the latest in concessions, in theater technology, in ticketing advancements and drink and mingle and maybe get a little wild. But the centerpiece of CinemaCon is a series of presentations by the major Hollywood studios with a specific goal in mind: convince these theater owners to give their movies as many screens as possible. The studios are there to wow the regional guys with starpower and with great clips of upcoming movies so that they’ll book that studio’s films on as many screens as they can and freeze out the competition.

Which is why the total absence of Star Trek Beyond at Paramount’s panel yesterday was bizarre. The whole panel was bad - it opened with some horrible, flat and flop-sweaty schtick between Megan Fox and Will Arnett for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and ended with clips from the Baywatch movie that were so devoid of jokes or charm that I felt embarrassed - but leaving out Star Trek was really, really weird. I don’t even understand it - they have a trailer! Simon Pegg, who co-wrote and stars in the movie - was on stage! They gave JJ Abrams, the producer, an award! And yet no Trek.

But amid all the dross on the Paramount panel was one shining diamond, a movie that wasn’t even on my radar previously - the next film from Denis Villeneuve, The Story of Your Life.

The reel opened with news reports of something momentous happening in the world. We see Amy Adams teaching a college course that’s mostly empty - all the students are gone to see history happening. And in the middle of the class it does happen, as every student’s phone blows up with news: aliens have arrived.

A huge, football shaped UFO hovers in a field somewhere, its origin and purpose mysterious. We cut to Adams watching footage in her office when Forrest Whitaker shows up; she’s the best translator in the world, and they need translation. He plays her a recording of the first contct between a human and an alien, and the alien language sounds kinda like whale song.

Adams gets swept up and is on a military helicopter headed to the site. Along for the ride is Jeremy Renner, a nuclear physicist. They approach the UFO, which is hovering pointy side down, and a hydraulic lift brings them into an opening - where gravity is totally different. They’re walking on what should be the walls as the approach a big chamber. On one end of the chamber is a milky window, and tentacled forms are visible just through the murk.

Amy Adams approaches the milky window and presses a hand against it - and a huge, weird and slimy appendage with what may be some sort of mouth in the middle slams up against the window on the other side.

Then we get a flash of events: other UFOs are landing around the world. Nobody can communicate. Their very presence is causing tensions between nations. Renner wonders if that’s the plan - to rile them up. Amy Adams says that the possibility for miscommunication between us and them is incredibly high - will they know that a tool isn’t a weapon? While all of this is happening we see images of what appear to be inkblots, which seem to be how the aliens are trying to communicate. There’s a quick shot of an explosion on the UFO, of a UFO maybe crashing in the Middle East and then, in response to an evacuation order, Amy Adams says “I’m staying here as long as they’re here.”

The footage was thrilling and intriguing. Villeneuve is a great director of mood and atmosphere, and here he’s got something both moody and smart on his hands. I loved every minute of the Story of Your Life presentation, and I’m incredibly excited to actually see the full film, which comes out in the fall.