“Arrival” takes an age-old science fiction premise – Aliens have landed; what are their intentions? – and builds a taut mystery around it. Yet those expecting a whiz-bang film should be prepared for a more cerebral and emotional experience, admirable for its ambition and tone, if not wholly satisfying in its payoff.
Screen exploration of extraterrestrial visitors tends to go in one of two directions – the benevolent sort (see Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) or the bent-on-our-destruction variety (“War of the Worlds,” “Independence Day,” that “Twilight Zone” episode “To Serve Man”).
Based on a short story adapted by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”) and writer Eric Heisserer, “Arrival” owes a particular debt to that last title, as well as the 1997 film “Contact.” That’s because much of the tension stems from efforts to communicate with the aliens – who suddenly arrive in 12 giant vessels, scattered across the globe – and ascertain their purpose by translating the indecipherable sounds they issue.
Toward that end, the U.S. government enlists Louise (Amy Adams), a brilliant linguistics professor/translator, along with a theoretical physicist, Ian (Jeremy Renner). Their investigation unfolds against a backdrop of geopolitical chaos and mistrust, as panic mounts over the aliens’ motivations and other countries become jittery about the hovering ships in their backyards.
“Are they scientists, or tourists?” it’s asked early on, which doesn’t address the concern as more clues emerge that “invaders” might be a third option.
That real-world-rooted sense of unease (which frankly might play a bit differently with audiences in the wake of the U.S. election) prompts the military, embodied by some pretty stock characters portrayed by Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, to become increasingly antsy. China, in particular, threatens the initial call for a coordinated and harmonious international response.
The scientists, not surprisingly, strike a more curious and diplomatic posture, as they work against a deadline that labors a bit in the film’s later permutations. The cracks in the macro part of the story are largely offset by Louise’s personal one – and Adams’ wide-eyed, emotionally vulnerable performance – which challenges audience expectations in a surprisingly understated, thought-provoking way.
The aliens themselves, and the strange look and dynamics of their spacecraft, are marvelously otherworldly, in a way depictions of such intergalactic travelers often aren’t. Unlike many strange visitors from other planets, these clearly aren’t designed to produce a line of plush toys.
Commercially speaking, “Arrival” hovers in its own somewhat awkward airspace. It’s entertaining and reasonably suspenseful, but other than perhaps Adams, a long shot for awards consideration, while not exciting enough for those seeking blockbuster escapism.
Ultimately, Villeneuve has engaged in a bit of sleight of hand, using what can be sold as a science-fiction premise to probe questions regarding our priorities – and humanity. At a time when so many movies settle for visceral thrills, that alone makes “Arrival” feel like a rather bold adventure.
“Arrival” opens November 11 in the U.S. It’s rated PG-13.