“Arrival” may not achieve the profundity it seeks, but this alien-contact adventure contains spellbinding ideas and even lets them upstage its more conventional, romantic material.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, it’s risky, cerebral and a welcome, down-to-earth example of how rewarding cinema’s often shallow sci-fi genre can be.
Villeneuve (director of “Sicario,” Prisoners” and “Incendies”) creates splendid-looking, emotionally raw dramas.
Working from a screenplay by Eric Heisserer, adapted from a Ted Chiang short story, he is operating in the vein of “Contact,” “Signs,” “Interstellar,” and Steven Spielberg’s close-encounters films this time.
Introduced in a passage revealing her loss of a beloved daughter to cancer, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) ends her university class early when she learns that aliens have landed. Twelve black almond-shaped spaceships have descended at 12 places across the globe, including Montana.
A U.S. military colonel (Forest Whittaker) recruits Louise to translate the visitors’ whale-like language.
Joining Louise is Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist whose enthusiasm complements Louise’s subduedness. In the spacecraft, after a tensely eerie entryway sequence, they stand before a brightly lit pane and meet two tall black octopus-like creatures, each with seven spindly tentacles.
Louise focuses on the aliens’ written language, which features circular symbols formed in a black inky substance issued through star-shaped claws. Their sentences have neither beginnings nor endings.
Her goal is to learn why they have come. Meanwhile, their presence is making governments and individuals, including a powerful Chinese general, dangerously nervous.
At the same time, her sessions with the aliens are causing images of life with her doomed daughter to flash in her head. What are they telling her?
As the case often is with sci-fi, the story — which addresses the past, future, time, memory and palindromes — is ridiculous if considered with logic. And sentimental, emotional aspects of Louise’s personal story are dramatically weaker than the more cerebral material.
But Villeneuve and company nonetheless deliver mesmerizing moments as they use science fiction to depict something meaningful and beautiful about life, death, language and connection.
Daringly intellectual for a big-studio film, “Arrival” makes the unsexy subject of language fascinating. A discussion of the different ways the word “weapon” can be interpreted is particularly memorable.
Surprisingly low-fi visual and sonic effects give rise to some of the coolest-looking and sounding movie aliens ever. Scenes when they first materialize, in a white mist, and, later, as they share their written language, are haunting.
Communication scenes between Louise and the aliens unfold with such credibility and naturalness that a Shyamalan-like plot twist is dull by comparison.
Louise is a rare female protagonist characterized foremost by her intellect rather than by her romantic story (an element cleverly included in what may or may not be a back-story).
Adams is terrific, conveying awe, fear, courage, frustration, and, eventually, and immensely affectingly, realization.
Even when the plot has you shaking your head, expect to be moved.
Michael Stuhlbarg, playing a CIA annoyance, rounds out the primary supporting cast, but, like Renner and Whitaker, doesn’t have much to do.
Three and a half stars
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Written by Eric Heisserer
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Running time 1 hour, 56 minutes