- CLOSE ENCOUNTERS: Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tasked with translating communications from one of 12 alien "heptapods" hovering above the Earth.
The mysteries that linger throughout "Arrival," Denis Villeneuve's richly conceived alien-invasion picture, often remain just out of sight and just beyond grasp. "Independence Day" it isn't; rather than discs settling over cities and opening fire, humanity is confronting a dozen enormous, coffee-bean-shaped objects that hover benignly over different sites around the globe. The race is on not to defeat the aliens inside, but to communicate with them: The simple question of "what are you up to?" holds the key to defusing a growing worldwide tension over which government knows what and preventing intraspecies war. Getting at the truth requires patience, intellect and a willingness to trust. In short, it is contra-Trump.
To wit: When was the last time the hero of your potboiler alien communication movie was a lady scientist, anyway — "Contact"? Here we have Amy Adams as a brilliant linguist who's brought on as the point translator for the military's response to the giant bean floating over Montana. Beside her is Jeremy Renner as a physicist — sort of a Jeff Goldblum stuffed into a jarhead. Forest Whitaker wears a uniform and gives orders. To talk to the aliens, the scientists enter the bean with a lot of sensitive equipment and a whiteboard and proceed to work on some intergalactic pantomime on one side of a translucent wall. On the other side, the aliens (a hybrid of octopuses and enormous arthritic upright hands) cast circular symbols onto the wall — inky logograms (think Chinese characters) that reveal the language piece by piece.
Riveting, right? Actually, for a movie with such tension, the overall effect is oddly soothing. The dark, foggy room where the aliens live and the dim room where the scientists work give the movie a dreamy, hazy texture that serves the other storyline: the persistent dreams, or perhaps hallucinations, that Adams has about her daughter, who died young from what appeared to be a rare cancer. The linguist's consciousness flickers and flits as she realizes she's gleaning the alien language, and beginning to perceive time in new ways because of it.
This performance of Adams' is one that people will call "breakthrough," and rightly so. She anchors nearly every scene, bringing gravity to a part that requires gentle bewilderment, true wonder and a heartache that only compounds the deeper we go. The narrative, though, belongs to screenwriter Eric Heisserer, adapting a short story by Ted Chiang, and to the director, Villeneuve ("Sicario," "Prisoners"). Heisserer has described "linguistic relativity" as a basis for the story. In Villeneuve, he found a director capable of cranking up the stakes without gun battles or lasers. Together they build a structure and pace that let the movie arrive iteratively, almost in waves, until the imagined and the real swirl and merge like water. So restrained is the director that the film's most important line is delivered in Mandarin, sans subtitles. This is the movie M. Night Shyamalan would have given a kidney to make. Extraterrestrial invasion flicks never go out of style, and for good reason: There's never going to be a time when the wonder and fear of meeting beings from elsewhere isn't as exciting a thing as humans have conceived. "Arrival" triumphs by acknowledging the fear while giving over to the wonder. Would that we were all so brave.