“Arrival” is predicated on the eminently practical notion that if aliens ever land on Earth we should send in Amy Adams.
Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist, an academic, and (the film gently implies) the biggest brain in the room. Yet she’s a recognizably Adams character as well, meaning that Banks is intelligent, accomplished, and hesitant — very much part of the action while stepping uncertainly back from its edges. That’s why, and how, we relate to her. “Arrival” is as epic in conception as movies get, but at heart it’s a drama about one scientist gathering the nerve to follow her intuitions and gain mastery over an unexpectedly fractured life.
Twelve spaceships have appeared at points around the planet, immense black monoliths — the nod to “2001: A Space Odyssey” seems overt — that hover on end a few feet off the ground. Each major nation has its UFO to contend with, and there are fractious squabblings as their scientific communities vie with their generals over whether to share information with other countries or to keep mum and lock and load. The nod to 1951’s classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” seems overt, too, with its message that humans need to make peace and find common ground at the risk of becoming alien snack food.
Dr. Banks is brought in by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), the ranking officer in charge of the US UFO, because the aliens want to talk to us and no one knows what “talking” for them even means. She’s choppered out to Montana, where the spacecraft looms placidly in a field, a makeshift human Quonset-hut village built around it. So far, so very “Close Encounters,” and “Arrival” is even more clearly in tune with the recent wave of serious science fiction entertainments. Sleek, smart, and beautifully produced, it’s in the grown-up room with the heady pop philosophizing of “Inception” and “Interstellar,” with “Gravity” and its imperiled heroine, and with the global tensions and triumphs of “The Martian.”
So why, with all these feelers sent out to acknowledged influences, does “Arrival” stand on its own? Why is it the best work yet from director Denis Villeneuve? The film’s look has a lot to do with it, especially once the research team gets into the spacecraft and attempts communication with the inhabitants. How do you make a believably unbelievable alien these days? You’ll have to see for yourself — I’m not going to tell you — but the production team manages to convey an incomprehensible off-world intelligence with tantalizing hints of physical enormity and a language/writing/speech matrix that resembles nothing so much as improvised Zen calligraphy.
Those scenes in the darkened interior of the ship are the movie’s core, the scientists huddled first in hazmat suits, then daring to breathe free as the sense of threat diminishes, the aliens appearing and disappearing in the mist like glimpses of an elephant’s knuckle. Outside, the humans are getting ornery, and the most conventional scenes in “Arrival” dramatize a race against time. Will Banks and the others learn what the ETs are trying to tell us before our political leaders lose their heads and launch the missiles? Given what we’ve learned about human nature over the past year, the suspense feels genuine.
Villeneuve, who’s French Canadian, has made his name with portentous, skillfully made dramas that dye their genre roots. Last Year’s “Sicario” was a disreputable vigilante flick disguised as a moral thriller, while “Prisoners” (2013) turned a kidnap-and-revenge plot into a doomy Ethics 101 class. No one’s sure what “Enemy” (2013) was, aside from the director’s shot at a David Lynch-style mind-trip.
With “Arrival,” Villeneuve lightens up just enough to attend to the popcorn pleasures of science fiction and alien-arrival movies. At the same time he gives weight to the parts of the film that deserve it: The hushed encounters between Banks and the aliens, the drama of her thought processes and guesswork, the excitement of her collaboration with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, most excellent), which you know will probably get romantic someday but not now, for pity’s sake. Not when there’s work to be done.
As is usually the case with heroes, Banks has a tragedy in her past, or so we’re given to understand. The movie springs a series of surprises in the final act, and you may realize as one and then another rug is pulled out from under your feet that you’ve been cheated — that what the movie shows is not the same as what it tells. When such narrative chicanery works, and it does for the most part in “Arrival,” the audience’s delight in feeling the puzzle snap together knows few bounds. That said, there’s a piece to this jigsaw that Villeneuve has to hammer into place, and I’m sad to say it never really fits. A phone number is involved. You’ll know when you get there.
But this is still fine, full-bodied filmmaking, with a sense of the alien-ness out there in the universe that flatters our intelligence while making us feel tantalizingly small. The otherworldly spirit extends to Patrice Vermette’s production design, the sound and effects teams, and the spectral accomplishments of the score by Jóhan Jóhannsson , who is on his way to becoming the most original thinker in a hidebound soundtrack industry.
That said, “Arrival” would be nothing without Adams. By the film’s final scenes, we have come to understand that Dr. Banks has accrued the kind of knowledge that might break an oak tree but only bends a sorrowful reed, and that the most courageous traveler may be the one who can navigate the metaphysical byways of her own life. “Arrival” works because Adams, Villeneuve, and everyone involved understand that alien invasion movies are, in the end, about exploring inner space.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Eric Heisserer, based on a story by Ted Chiang. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, Forest Whitaker. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 116 minutes. PG-13 (brief strong language)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.