In an early scene in Arrival, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor at a university, enters her lecture hall, which, curiously, is mostly devoid of students. Within seconds, her lesson is interrupted by the sprightly ringtones and groaning vibrations of smartphones from the remnants of her student body, a symphony of urgent earworms. “Can you turn the TV to a news channel?” asks a pupil. The distractions and absences, we soon learn, are justified.
For me and likely for anyone else matriculating at university in the early Aughts, the moment conjured 9/11. I gleaned news of the attacks much the same way, on a student union jumbo screen, following an anthropology class. Except Arrival isn’t about terrorism. It resurrects, and then revises, a more timeless fear: alien invasion, the cinema’s most durable metaphor of Cold War angst, touching down on an era no less fraught with nuclear panic and shoot-first paranoia.
Yet Arrival is by and large a lovely languor of a movie. Despite its broodingly dark visual palette and the elephantine musical cues of composer Johan Johansson, it’s the tonally softest film yet from the uncompromising French-Canadian brutalist Denis Villeneuve, he of the bleaker-than-an-apocalypse Prisoners and the spellbinding drug dirge Sicario. This time, there are notes, both graceful and cornball, of genuine uplift — spiritual, emotional and mental.
But back to the aliens. On this morning unlike any other, the world has been transfixed by the appearance of a dozen identical craft hovering over seemingly random points on the globe, from Siberia to Japan to its only United States destination, an empty field in Montana. Banks, a linguist with top secret government clearance thanks to some translation work a while back, is enlisted to attempt to communicate with the two inhabitants of the Montana vessel — a giant, black, convex almond that will remind everybody of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Assisted by Ian Donnelly (an affable Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, as well as a jaundiced U.S. military officer played by Forest Whitaker, Banks is lifted into the UFO’s cavernous abyss — its doors open to us humans every 18 hours — where she’ll attempt to glean from its inhabitants, a pair of seven-legged, squid-like creatures, their purpose on Earth.
Arrival is based on “Story of Your Life,” a heady award-winning novella from 2000 that is as much about linguistic theory as it is extraterrestrial invasion. Villeneuve’s visual translation is frequently mesmerizing, particularly Banks’ incremental progress with the so-called Heptapods. It’s not an easy task: The beings communicate with symbols, not words, which manifest in fibrous Rorshachian parabolas misted through a hazy glass divider. Subtle changes within these mirrored shapes indicate different words. If you were waiting for a major motion picture to deploy the term “nonlinear orthography,” you can stop holding your breath.
The puzzling setbacks and lurching progress of cross-species, cross-dimensional communication doesn’t sell tickets quite like demonic ETs extinguishing the White House. By this standard alone, the calming deliberation of Arrival feels like a radical answer to Hollywood’s shock-and-awe status quo, the most diplomatic and curious alien picture since Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sure, chaos abounds within the world of Arrival — on screens in the makeshift tent city in the Montana wilderness, newscasters report on looting, plunging stocks, self-immolating cults and a trigger-happy Chinese president — but Villeneuve stays above the fray. The more Arrival progresses, the more poetic, meditative and downright woo-woo it becomes, with some sequences seemingly lifted from an abandoned Terrence Malick project.
When the truth is finally revealed, it won’t satisfy everyone. It’s a nifty twist, but logically, it strains for coherence, prompting a reassessment of everything that came before it, not all of which jibes with the elegance of, say, Interstellar’s time-bending structure. It’s best to focus on the journey to get there, and to appreciate, like its fearless and empathetic heroine, the fascinating complexities of language, in all its serpentine ripples.
ARRIVAL. Director: Denis Villeneuve; Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg; Distributor: Paramount; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Today at most area theaters