One dozen identical UFOs—jet-black as the monolith from 2001, shaped like footballs halved lengthwise—touch down in different locations across the planet, floating in silent and mysterious wait. What is the purpose of their vigil? To reveal the answer to that question, hovering over the earthlings as surely as the ships themselves do, would spoil the endgame. What is fair to say is that Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s spookily majestic sci-fi spectacle, is on a mission of multiple objectives. Focused on the nuts and bolts of interspecies communication, this is an unusually intelligent object from Hollywood, where science fiction is usually just a fancy word for an action movie set in space or the future. But there’s also a surprisingly affecting emotional core to Villeneuve’s enigma—a stealth poignancy woven into the fabric of its cerebral design. Arrival has come, like a visitor from the cosmos, to blow minds and break hearts.
One does not generally attend a film from the director of Sicario expecting four-hankie catharsis. But Villeneuve is a chameleon: Having expertly imitated the sleek moodiness of David Fincher with his missing-kids potboiler Prisoners, the French-Canadian director conjures some Malickian grandeur here during an elegiac prologue, underscoring a family tragedy with the symphonic ache of Max Richter’s “On The Nature Of Daylight.” Based on an award-winning short story by sci-fi writer Ted Chiang, Arrival possesses a setup not so different from Sicario, given that it puts another highly skilled professional woman under the jurisdiction of dismissive, trigger-happy male superiors. But a more personal dimension is immediately plain, as Villeneuve introduces the extraterrestrial fleet through a reaction shot of his heroine, linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), gaping in muted disbelief at a lecture-hall television we don’t see.
Recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to decipher the unintelligible blares of these beings from beyond, Louise has a helicopter meet-cute with her new copilot into the unknown, scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who champions math, not language, as the foundation of any society. (He’s a little bit country, she’s a little bit rock ’n’ roll, etc.) Together, the two travel to Montana to meet their elite team, manning computers in connected tents, a short distance from the spherical spacecraft they’ll soon enter. Villeneuve stages the early passage like a procedural, drawing out the big reveal by trailing the characters through every stage of protocol en route to first contact. He also understands how monumentally scary this whole unprecedented experience would be, and amplifies the sense of otherworldly menace, as Louise and Ian rise through what the bigwigs codename “The Shell,” a H.R. Gigerish tunnel of inverted gravity with a blinding, heavenly light at its end.
The aliens, as it turns out, are more wondrous than fearsome: They look like the symbolic hanging arachnids of Villeneuve’s Enemy, sound like whales, and write with gaseous clouds of ink, forming complex circular sentences. Arrival wisely keeps the two creatures, dubbed Abbott and Costello by their prospective interpreters, half-submerged in a cloud of ethereal fog. This is partially to maintain their mystique, partially to slightly obscure the effects work; at a relatively frugal $50 million, this isn’t a state-of-the-art tentpole. But Villeneuve doesn’t need eye-popping CGI to stoke our imagination. He’s got cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma) lending every hazmat-suit encounter a cosmic glow, and regular composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose swelling, atonal soundtrack modulates the mood, from unease straight to awe. They’re an elite team, too.
Arrival, which owes a debt of influence to everything from Contact to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to the heady blockbusters of Christopher Nolan, can’t quite be called hard sci-fi; like The Martian, it simplifies complicated processes for multiplex consumption, and the conflict involving the boneheaded military honchos impeding Louise and Ian’s process is practically prehistoric in its formula. But in an era of lizard-brain space opera, Arrival’s narrow, even intimate focus on the race to break the extraterrestrial language barrier gives it a distinctly adult fascination. In so far as it’s possible to treat such material realistically, Villeneuve does: This, one has to imagine, is close to how the world might really go about understanding and translating an alien language.
Arrival is never less than gripping as a vision of person-to-space-squid communion. What’s truly remarkable about the film, though, is the way it conceals a small-scale human weepie in the folds of a big-scale mystery, sneaking up on you with the force of its feeling. Some of that credit belongs to Adams, playing her cards close to the chest by making Louise a model of no-nonsense professionalism, the type who would naturally keep her heartache to herself. But it’s also there in the tricky game the film plays with viewer assumptions, just as Chiang’s original story played with tense. Arrival, at its core, is about how language controls the way we process reality. Villeneuve underscores that point by using the language of cinema against his audience, hiding a secret in plain sight. That the twisty plot machinations of the backstretch actually facilitate the drama, rather than nullifying it, is a testament to what the director has accomplished. Going sentimental without losing his chilly craftmanship, he’s concocted something of singular power: a soulful mindfuck.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit Arrival’s Spoiler Space.