No sense in pretending Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” isn’t as loopy as it is lofty, as confounding as it is exhilarating, as confusing as it is enlightening.
I’m not gonna tell you I understood every little thing going on between Amy Adams and those extraterrestrial beings, or between Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, or between Amy Adams and Forest Whitaker, or between the whole lot of ’em and yours truly, the viewer.
Because I didn’t. And if you see this film and you comprehend every intricate nut and bolt of it: good for you.
But even most of the WTH (What the Heck!) moments were beautiful and challenging and cool in a thought-provoking, intergalactic kind of way.
“Arrival” is not the kind of alien invasion movie where all sense of mystery and wonder is quickly stripped away in favor of epic CGI battle sequences in which a band of hopelessly outgunned, wisecracking misfits figure out a way to destroy the Mother Ship or the Queen Bee or whatever. It’s SO much better than that, in a “Close Encounters,” “Contact,” “Interstellar,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still” kind of way.
To be sure, there are some eerie sci-fi goose-bump scares, and some well-choreographed action sequences, and familiar tropes such as establishing shots of a sprawling military base camp set up near the enormous spaceship, or whatever it is, ominously hovering on U.S. territory.
Mostly, though, “Arrival” plays like a high-end, handsomely appointed, feature-length version of a classic “Twilight Zone” episode. Most of the thrills and chills are of the intellectual and philosophical sort, and we’re asked to take a leap of faith when it comes to the time-space continuum, and why not, let’s do it.
Amy Adams, that wonderful chameleon of an actress, is certain to attract Oscar nomination talk with her fierce and wonderfully nuanced work as Louise Banks, an expert linguistics professor leading a quiet and somewhat lonely and isolated life. (SPOILER ALERT: An extended prologue about Louise and her daughter gives us some insight as to why Louise is such an internalized, emotionally numb soul. We think. As “Arrival” unspools, we begin to question everything we thought we knew at the outset.)
Louise is so out of touch with the outside world she seems to be the last person on campus to notice there’s a huge piece of breaking news blowing up on everyone’s laptops and personal communication devices:
Aliens have landed.
A dozen identical black ships, each looking a bit like a gigantic football sliced in half, have landed in locations around the globe. Because Louise is arguably the most skilled linguist in the world, she finds herself on a U.S. military transport, along with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to one such landing spot in Montana. They’ve been recruited by Forest Whitaker’s Col. Weber to see if they can establish some sort of communication with the mysterious creatures residing within those ominously quiet ships.
The ordeal of merely getting into position to come face to face with the aliens makes for an exhausting, crazy, tense, even darkly funny sequence during which you have to remember to breathe. Louise and Ian are equal parts terrified and beyond thrilled to be a part of this insane and historic breakthrough.
Little surprise: Even as Louise and Ian essentially invent a new language to communicate with the aliens, who come to be known as “heptapods,” communication problems among humans threaten the very existence of the planet. The Chinese are getting impatient; they want to blast the spaceship in THEIR backyard to oblivion. An uneasy alliance among nations quickly disintegrates into potential every-country-for-itself madness.
Director Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” the criminally under-seen “Sicario”) is an immensely talented stylist who knows it’s best not to show TOO much of the aliens. (It’s almost always best not to show too much of the aliens, or the shark, or anything inspiring great apprehension among the humans.) He is currently helming “Blade Runner 2049,” and everything we see in “Arrival” gives us cause for great hope. This is beautifully filmed work.
Eric Heisserer’s adaptation (and expansion) of Ted Chiang’s short story titled “Story of Your Life” weaves seamlessly between genres, from the poignant, heartbreaking story of Louise and her daughter, to the sci-fi adventure, to the Big Idea stuff. I’m not entirely convinced the ending is the perfect landing to everything that transpired before, but “Arrival” is not a linear adventure of the mind, and it is a film probably best seen twice.
Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language). Running time: 116 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.