Aliens have landed — or, rather, simply appeared — at 12 spots across the globe. They aren't smashing cities or shooting ray guns, but they haven't yet clarified their intentions not to do so. As linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) stands in her classroom watching cable news go berserk, director Denis Villeneuve doesn't show us what she's seeing. Instead, he holds the camera on her face, letting us watch her process. To Louise, who moves through the world as if life has already battered her, the aliens' arrival is less a disaster than an opportunity.
That shot is indicative of the approach that the Québec-born director (Prisoners, Sicario) takes throughout this brainy science-fiction film. We don't get a good look at an alien craft until Louise arrives at one in Montana, having been enlisted by the U.S. government to attempt communication with the occupants. We see the craft's interior through her eyes, too, in a masterfully paced scene that mixes the wonder of Close Encounters of the Third Kind with the crushing dread and disorientation of a horror film. While computer effects are used more sparingly here than in most Hollywood SF, the aliens never feel less than, well, alien.
That's a problem for the world's governments, which must solve the enigma of this arrival as markets tumble and terrified Earthlings loot stores and hoard canned goods. If the aliens come in peace, why can't they just say so?
With the help of physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise soon learns that the aliens converse not in sounds but in starkly beautiful pictographs that reflect a view of the world radically different from our own. Deciphering those messages will change her on a fundamental level — and, in the process, change our view of her story.
Based on a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival sneakily revisits some of the motifs and tactics of Villeneuve's 2013 art-house flick Enemy. (That strange film featured surreal images of giant spiders looming over Toronto; in Arrival, the aliens are towering heptapods.) Arrival is a far more accessible watch than Enemy. But viewers who expect an action-driven blockbuster like Gravity or The Martian may be disappointed, even though it shares those movies' procedural approach to their genre.
While Louise does have to race against a ticking clock — the threat that world leaders will decide to attack the newcomers — the focus here is on communication, not survival. Instead of explosions, be prepared for lots of shots of Adams and Renner poring over screens and symbols. A better point of comparison might be Contact, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey — films that used alien encounters to invite us to bend our heads around the paradoxes of being human.
Villeneuve doesn't always integrate the more conventional action elements of Arrival successfully with its headier, weird ones, and some viewers may leave feeling let down by the lack of a traditional climax. For those who feel the emotional weight of Louise's story, however, Arrival pays off in a big way.
Adams makes us believe in her character's need to communicate with these unknown life forms, and the script fully justifies the film's tight focus on her personal journey. This is not just one more movie about a sad-sack protagonist finding redemption by using her expertise to save others. Rather, it's about how finding common ground with others can change our view of ourselves forever, in ways both wonderful and tragic.
Whether or not you find that message a tad optimistic for this point in history, Arrival rewards close viewing and open eyes. Suspend your disbelief at key moments, and it may just sweep you into its moody, elegiac thrall.