Arrival is an emotionally involving science-fiction drama, which in its mood of cosmic anxiety, is closer in spirit to Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake than to Robert Zemeckis’s New Age-y Contact, one of its obvious precursors. The presence in Denis Villeneuve’s film of Amy Adams, a pale, unflappable linguistics professor, grounds it in adultness. Fan boys need not apply.
Early on a War of the Worlds-like catastrophe looms. Louise Banks (Adams) is alerted by a distracted student that 12 extra-terrestrial crafts have arrived on Earth without warning.
Many Americans are already panicking. Louise, who has previously worked as a freelance interpreter for the government, returns to the modern lakeside home where she lives alone — and waits. That night, an Army colonel (Forest Whitaker at his gruffest) shows up. He urges her to come to Montana to communicate directly, if she can, with the aliens believed to be aboard the gigantic ovoid ship that’s hovering twenty feet above the Great Plains.
Also on Louise’s military flight is an unattached physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who’s so affable you wonder they they don’t start planning the honeymoon right away.
It’s assumed by most members of task force — bar a CIA hawk (Michael Stuhlbarg) — that the visitors are friendly and should be treated with respect. Arrival’s makers obviously assumed that Hillary Clinton would be elected President this week, for this is no time to release a film about welcoming aliens. If they were real, the duffers bivouacked in Montana would expect to lose their jobs when Donald Trump takes office.
Based on Story of Your Life, a clever sci-fi short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival asks big questions about the meaning of life without falling flat on its face. And though it’s a throwback to the era of High Spielbergianism, one that requires its heroine to accept the kind of tragedy no one gets over, it steers clear of mawkishness.
It’s almost a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind: hasn’t everyone wondered what happened to the Richard Dreyfuss character after he entered the alien ship? Sucked from a platform into the vertical gauntlet of the rindy black craft, Arrival’s Louise and Ian step through a portal and approach a CinemaScope-shaped screen, their expectations of the coming spectacle reflexively reinforcing ours.
Shadowy and skittish heptapods appear behind this screen — cousins of the aliens in Close Encounters. They cannot speak but squirt inky calligraphics into the air. Louise eventually determines through these Rorschach-ish vapors that the visitors experience time non-linearly.
Her patient conversations with them are disturbed by belligerence stirred up by the CIA man on the ground. China, ruled by a military dictator, leads a few other nations in threatening to destroy the alien ships — a show of geo-political strength as much as a safety expedient.
This external action — strikingly rendered, oddly beautiful, borderline absurd — serves as a conduit into Louise’s consciousness. Flashes in her mind reveal her tender experiences as a mother, which dictate her existential decisions more than does encountering extra-terrestrials.
To say more about these flashes here would be to topple the house of cards that comprises the film’s delicate structure and ruin the film’s satisfactions. Reining in the visual punchiness he demonstrated in the likes of Incendies and Sicario, Villeneuve has responded to the exquisite design of Eric Heisserer’s screenplay to make his most thoughtful and bittersweet film yet.