The moment in “Arrival” when the contact lens-shaped spaceships touch down across the planet, the rest of the movie starts to write itself in your head.
Will there be a failed attack against the aliens by the military, discovery of a weakness, big speech by the president and a rousing victory? A vulnerable alien pursued by scientists, forging a bond with a child? A journey through earthbound red tape and space-bound wormholes, only to discover that the filmmakers cheaped out and made the alien look like Jodie Foster’s father?
Director Denis Villeneuve casts aside almost every “Independence Day,” “E.T.” and “Contact” cliche and makes a science fiction epic that breaks free of genre shoe-boxing.
“Arrival” works as mainstream entertainment but includes hallmarks of the “2001: A Space Odyssey”/“Silent Running” era of artist-driven science fiction. It has Hollywood stars but makes great effort to strip them of any false glamour. The film is tightly calibrated but leaves things open to interpretation, for discussion on the ride home from the theater and beyond.
The trailers appear to give away too much of the movie, but there are still many surprises. (None will be revealed or hinted at here.) The setup: Amy Adams portrays staid linguistics professor Louise Banks, who is recruited by the military to help establish a conversation with aliens. She teams with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an only marginally less sober mathematician.
“Arrival” is based on Ted Chiang’s short story, and the filmmakers were clearly interested in his ideas, not just the potential for box office-friendly spectacle. The linguistic challenge of communicating with beings whose language is an abstract mystery (well explained in Eric Heisserer’s script) is as well explored as the more sensational aspects of the story.
The unknown motivation of the visitors is a constant threat, and the tenuous relations between countries increases the pressure to shortcut the scientific problem-solving. A mostly subliminal but important theme in the movie: Is our short-attention-span, instant-gratification culture making it impossible to execute planet-saving long-term thinking?
Adams and Renner are both excellent, acting throughout without visible makeup. In the middle stages, as stakes raise, the actors appear to have abandoned their wardrobe options entirely, and possibly started skipping showers between days on the set. Forest Whitaker, who has made everything he’s in better since he was flown in for games at Ridgemont High in the 1980s, is a stressed-out colonel in charge of the military staging area.
But the revelation here is Villeneuve, who expands on the symphonic pacing showcased last year in the drug war drama “Sicario.” Even though the concept of “Arrival” is far-out fiction, Villeneuve treats it with no less detail or urgency.
The college campus scene where Banks learns about the alien landing — first with students getting a flurry of texts in her class, and later with F-18s flying overhead — is particularly masterful. That, and the equally effective scenes preceding the first meeting with the aliens, develop with a tension-mounting leisure that seems almost audacious when compared with other movies of this kind.
A secondary plot related to Banks’ personal life provides huge emotional payoffs, which compensate for the lack of humor in “Arrival.” (Villenueve appears to have a life-threatening allergy to banter in his films.) Icelandic composer Johann Johannnsson offers a spare and bleak musical score that sounds at times like someone playing a violin and oboe while being waterboarded. Those aspects, and some story points that remain open for discussion, will make the film tough to love for the wrap-it-all-up-with-a-tidy-Spielberg-ending cinema crowd.
But these are refreshing problems to have at a time when Hollywood seems to be handing out plotline checklists to directors, then giving orders to crack the door open for at least two sequels, a prequel and a few spinoffs. “Arrival” leaves no such wiggle room. It’s as if the filmmakers knew it was pretty close to perfect already.