If the gatekeepers of classic screen sci-fi are at all anxious about the stamp that director Denis Villeneuve might put on his upcoming Blade Runner project — a sequel coming 35 years after the iconic original — then the class, intelligence and cool visual style of Arrival should provide reassurance. How refreshing to watch an alien contact movie in which no cities are destroyed or monuments toppled, and no adversarial squabbling distracts the human team from the challenges of their complex interspecies encounter. Anchored by an internalized performance from Amy Adams rich in emotional depth, this is a grownup sci-fi drama that sustains fear and tension while striking affecting chords on love and loss
Paramount’s Nov. 11 U.S. release is significant in its distance from the summer popcorn field, instead going in among the end-of-year prestige pictures. That means genre fanboys are less likely to be its target audience than discerning adults, who should be drawn in by the contemplative drama’s fascinating questions about our concepts of time and its order, memory, communication, and more indirectly, life and death.
Scripted by Eric Heisserer based on Story of Your Life, by short-fiction writer Ted Chiang, Arrival is more or less the anti-Independence Day. Instead, Villeneuve’s film asserts its place among far more nuanced interplanetary explorations such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact and the more ponderous (and far less humanistic) Interstellar, as well as in a venerable tradition of cerebral literary sci-fi. Its logic isn’t always quite 100 percent clear but it’s always interesting.
Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a divorced linguistics professor who lives alone since losing her 12-year-old daughter Hannah to a rare form of cancer. In an opening voiceover set, as is the beautiful concluding scene, to the somber strings of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” Louise talks to the departed Hannah. “There are days that define your story beyond your life,” she says. “Like the day they arrived.”
The “they” of that sentence is 12 alien spacecraft that land at 12 seemingly random points around the globe — 1,500 feet high, elongated egg shapes suspended just above the ground. Having translated sensitive Farsi documents for the military, Louise is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to travel to Montana where the nearest spaceship arrived and to attempt to make contact with its occupants. CIA Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) is the chief government liaison on the ground.
While the spacecraft appear to cause no gas, waste or emissions of any kind to be released into the atmosphere, they are viewed as a threat, causing widespread alarm — people start panic-buying, looting and violence break out, stocks plummet. An international state of emergency is declared to deal with what excitable news pundits are calling the “alien crisis,” and China and Russia get especially nervous.
To the credit of Heisserer’s thoughtful screenplay, those factors are relegated to steadily reverberating background noise as Louise, Ian and their military escorts make a series of exploratory forays inside the Montana spacecraft. Those initial scenes are both scary and poetic, as minimal gravity allows them to float up into an antechamber where a window opens and two aliens materialize out of the dense, cloud-like mist within. Dubbed heptapods, the massive creatures look like blobby crosses between an octopus and a spider, and Johann Johannsson’s unsettling music — an ominous drone punctuated by horn blasts that sound like otherworldly whale calls — underscores their strange majesty.
While Weber and Halpern want fast answers, Louise refuses to be rushed, explaining that no communication can be successful without the fundamental language tools in place. That takes her back in her head to the verbal development of Hannah (played at different ages by Abigail Pniowsky and Julia Scarlett Dan), and plants a captivating sense of the personal in her interactions with the heptapods. Remaining behind a transparent protective barrier, the aliens respond to Louise by fanning out a single tentacle into a splayed claw, which squirts an inky fluid that then forms into circular hieroglyphs.
With weeks of work, those symbols are decoded into a basic language, starting with names and working up to more challenging questions about the heptapods‘ purpose on Earth. Some of this involves nuggets of linguistic relativity, science and mathematical geek-speak. (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, anyone?) But the refusal of the director and screenwriter to talk down to their audience — or to be afraid of giving Arrival intellectual as well as dramatic life — is one of the movie’s chief strengths. Likewise, the absence of heavy-handedness in its sociopolitical message of progress through unity and open dialogue.
Another is Adams’ moving performance. Restraint is very much the defining note here, but within that generally muted emotional palette, Louise registers as a woman who has accepted her solitude and pain while never attempting to cover her deep wound. That makes her extraordinarily receptive to connecting with a mysterious species whose intent is automatically interpreted by much of the planet as hostile. Renner is given less to do, though the mutual respect and burgeoning friendship between Ian and Louise is drawn in gentle, affecting strokes by both actors. Their rapport builds to a touching final reveal that earns its emotional impact subtly, not with the usual flood of sentiment.
The film arguably could have used an occasional touch of humor, though Ian’s amusing discovery that Sheena Easton had hits in the ‘80s in all the nations hosting spacecraft is a cute aside.
Cinematographer Bradford Young shoots the drama in a graceful, composed style, adhering to a sober, calmly observational approach even when temperatures onscreen are at their highest and nerves at their most jangled. That measured handle on the material extends also to the alien depiction. Production designer Patrice Vermette and visual effects supervisor Louis Morin create a seamless unit between practical and digital toolboxes that evokes the sense of awe and wonder Steven Spielberg so unforgettably tapped into in the final scenes of Close Encounters.
Arrival boldly snubs the standard alien-invasion vernacular of contemporary movies to explore a mood and language of its own. It may be a touch too subdued for the mainstream, but the movie has brains and originality, qualities these days too seldom valued in the genre.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (competition); also in Telluride, Toronto festivals
Production companies: 21 Laps Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment, Lava Bear Films
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowsky, Julia Scarlett Dan
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer, based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
Producers: Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, David Linde
Executive producers: Stan Wlodkowski, Eric Heisserer, Dan Cohen, Karen Lunder, Tory Metzger, Milan Popelka
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Costume designer: Renee April
Music: Johann Johannsson
Editor: Joe Walker
Visual effects supervisor: Louis Morin
Casting: Francine Maisler, Lucie Robitaille
Not rated, 116 minutes