FILM REVIEW – ARRIVAL. With Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma. Written by Eric Heisserer. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 116 minutes.
The alien first contact story has an honored place in science fiction. Sometimes they’re friendly aliens (“E.T.”). Sometimes they’re dangerous (“War of the Worlds”). And then there are the aliens whose motives are ambiguous for the story’s human characters. In “The Day the Earth Stood Still” the alien wants to help Earth avoid being destroyed, but is seen by some as a threat. In “To Serve Man,” an episode of the original “Twilight Zone,” the titular text of the benevolent aliens turns out to be a cookbook.
In ARRIVAL, we get the most ambiguous aliens yet. They arrive in what seem like gigantic boulders hovering over a dozen locations around the planet. And they communicate by what appears to be puffs of inky smoke emitted from their tendrils. Are they here on a mission of peace or are they stating the terms of our surrender?
Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) is in charge of the American site, and he’s enlisted the help of experts to try to solve the mystery. Chief among them is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist. Slowly they begin the seemingly impossible task of figuring out how to communicate with two of these totally alien creatures, whom Donnelly dubs “Abbott and Costello.”
To reveal much more of the complex plot would be to spoil the mystery. Suffice to say that communication involves not only learning the alien vocabulary and syntax, but an entirely alien way of thinking. For example, some Earth leaders wonder if the aliens speaking to China and Russia are working at cross-purposes with the ones speaking to us. The process begins with the various nations pooling their knowledge, but when Chinese leader General Shang (Tzi Ma) withdraws, it’s not clear if this is what the aliens were trying to stir up or if its going against their–and our–best interests.
This is cerebral science fiction (based on a short story by author Ted Chiang). There are special effects, to be sure, but those expecting “Independence Day” or “Star Wars” will be disappointed. It’s slow, but not dull, requiring that you be engaged by the mystery.
Adams and Renner are coolly convincing as the two academics facing the challenge of their lives. Part of the unfolding of the story is the characters learning something about themselves as they study the aliens. Whitaker is all business as the military head of the operation, riding herd on both the troops and civilians under his command.
For Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”), “Arrival” shows him finally getting control of unwieldy material after the disappointing – and over-praised – “Prisoners” and “Sicario.” There’s no wasted energy here. This is science fiction for grown-ups, ready to follow three-dimensional characters grappling with deep ideas.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.