Movies about the first connection between humans and extraterrestrials tend to follow one of several standard routes.
The “Alien,” “Predator” and “Independence Day” series were alien-blasting jamborees. The early Superman movies, “E.T.” and “The Iron Giant” built an optimistic tradition of friends from space and misunderstandings that could be overcome. Paranoid thrillers like “The Mist” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” showed earthlings helplessly outclassed by the new arrivals.
Denis Villeneuve’s breathtaking, thought-provoking “Arrival” follows a different path. The focus is serious human drama, gripping in a way that sci-fi seldom achieves. The film is intricately handsome and rarely showy, flawlessly made and earnest-minded.
Like the iconic 1951 thriller “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” it ratchets up exceptional tension between hopefulness and paranoia. Villeneuve, the director of “Sicario,” “Prisoners” and the upcoming “Blade Runner” sequel, shows humankind on a knife’s edge balance between finding peace or facing its destruction. His sci-fi drama is a document of weighty themes with timely importance, and it’s a landmark in the genre.
Rather than showing the appearance of giant alien craft as a massive phenomenon, the film keeps a fine focus on a single character with a strong personal narrative.
In a vibrant, completely committed performance, Amy Adams plays linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks. Her college lecture hall is deserted as the class follows news reports about a squadron of spaceships parking over random sections of the globe. Wandering dazed to the parking lot, she hears and sees the supersonic snap of jet fighters rocketing overhead. Stunningly photographed by Bradford Young and staged by Villeneuve, it is guaranteed to trigger panic attacks in the audience.
Louise is pulled into a communications team by an Army colonel (Forest Whitaker, downplaying as officers hewn from granite tend to do). Helicoptering to the alien base camp in rural Montana, her task is to translate and reply to the unknown race. And to decipher with care. As one character observes, “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” She visits the interior of the vessel to examine their cryptic languages, spoken like warbling Beluga whales and written like Rorschach tests.
Outside there is another communications struggle, with some governments attempting to reach out to the aliens, while others prepare for global war. The question crucial to understanding the visitors, “What is your purpose here on Earth?” is as relevant for every character in the story. As Louise begins to learn new vocabulary and rules of expression, the way she thinks evolves, as well.
Through unpredictable time shifts and tricky narrative perspectives, Villeneuve casts the same spell on viewers. The film opens with the slow-burn feel of a classic three-act structure, but we come to understand that it’s a Mobius strip. With its intricately constructed syntax of visual metaphors and unorthodox editing, it is designed to rewire our minds. What Christopher Nolan failed to convey in “Interstellar” here hits the bull’s-eye.
Adams communicates with the camera superbly. Her scholar is a textured, multifaceted character, methodical and cerebral yet wounded by personal tragedy. Her anxiety is enough to give viewers sweaty palms, and the wide-reaching implications of her personal story are as heartbreaking as the legendary opening of “Up.” She carries almost every scene right up to the emotionally cathartic climax, surpassing any performance she has made before. Her work here, like “Arrival” itself, will surely stand the test of time.