For decades in science fiction movies, alien invaders have pummeled the planet. They’ve decimated cities, terrorized rural homesteads, toppled national monuments and scorched entire populations. We’ve also watched countless films in which the invaded fight back in slam-bang shoot-‘em-ups, sometimes even when the otherworldly beings meant us no harm. Despite the clichéd, misleading trailers for Arrival that prepare us for more of the same, the thrilling, ambitious new science-fiction movie, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), doesn’t work in those old ways.
In the smart screenplay by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out) based on Ted Chiang’s haunting and beautiful short-fiction piece “Story of Your Life,” a dozen mammoth wedge-shaped vehicles begin descending from the heavens in random locations around the globe. They just sort of float there, ominously defying gravity—or maybe poetically defying gravity. What are they? Why are they here? What is their business with us?
Blustery Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), in charge of investigating the invasion site somewhere in Montana, recruits respected linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams, sad, subdued, and pretty damn brilliant) to find out just what kind of creatures are inside the objects. While the worldwide unraveling of civilization gets documented on cable news everywhere, Banks is joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (very good, quirky, appealing work from Jeremy Renner). They strike up a collegial working relationship as they settle into the makeshift base camp, deal with the rigors of military rule and get lifted into the ship’s back entry chamber once daily, like clockwork.
With cinematographer Bradford Young’s hypnotic tracking shots, Patrice Vermette’s eerie and evocative production design, Jóhan Jóhannsson’s emotionally shredding score, every ascent they make is as fascinating as it is terrifying. Each entry reveals a bit more about why the alien beings are here and, through Adams and Renner’s performances, we share dread, wonder, frustration, panic and transcendence as they begin to interact with the “Heptapod” aliens that evoke memories of the work of H.G. Wells and John Wyndham. Louise tells her colleagues about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a theory of linguistics positing that thoughts and actions are influenced by the structure of language. With that, Arrival begins to pivot in a deeper and vastly more mysterious direction, with a twist that forces us to reevaluate everything we’ve of seen and heard so far. Some of it is related to Louise’s young daughter and her untimely loss, a major event presented in the movie’s beautiful opening montage.
The movie doesn’t shy away from life’s big questions about love, the power of language and the passage of time. But there’s good old-fashioned movie tension, too, as officials at the 11 other sites of invasion push for action, retaliation. With director Villeneuve here—at peak form—it’s all about faces, emotions, memories, the life-and-death importance of empathy, communication. And while the movie offers stunning visual concepts throughout, it’s not about special effects wallpapering-over flimsy characters and story points. It’s all there in the performance of Amy Adams—restrained, unfussy, intelligent and aching.
Villeneuve is currently directing Blade Runner 2. On the strength of the thought-provoking and profoundly moving Arrival, it ought to be something to behold. Meanwhile, Arrival, classic science fiction, can be savored over and over.