What is it about space? The idea that there might be other life forms out there continues to captivate young and old and provides filmmakers with plot lines that excite and, at times, frighten us. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival invites comparison to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a seminal work about extraterrestrials. But Arrival’s time-shifting also recalls Memento, directed and written by Christopher Nolan. You will spend time afterwards fitting together all the pieces.
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor whose college class ends abruptly with news that 12 spaceships have landed in various locations around the world. Fueled by sensational TV coverage, citizens begin to panic, believing a war of the worlds is about to start. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up at Louise’s house – she worked with them previously on translations – asking for her help. They need to communicate with the aliens, who can be heard on a recording sounding like what they are – creatures from another world. Also recruited by the federal government is Dr. Ian Connelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist.
There’s no obvious connection between the landing sites, which include spots in Russia, China, Pakistan, Australia, the Sudan, and others. In the U.S., the spaceship, a tall, black oblong object with a flat back, hovers above the ground in a large, grassy field in Montana. A formidable military installation has sprung up a safe distance from the ship, a series of tents housing work areas, sleeping areas, and a medical facility. Computer monitors are linked to foreign governments so that the countries can share whatever information they gather, hoping that working together they will discover what the aliens want.
Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams
Shortly after Louise and Ian arrive in Montana, they are given physical exams and immunized against any viruses or bacteria they might be exposed to when they enter the ship. As additional precautions, they wear bright orange hazmat suits and carry oxygen. (When a caged bird they have brought on board shows no ill effects, Louise ditches the protective gear to better relate to the outsiders.)
What’s inside the spaceship? What do the visitors look like? Villeneuve skillfully builds the suspense. Louise and her team enter the ship through what looks like an empty elevator shaft. There’s no gravity, so they gradually rise to the top, finding themselves facing two aliens, who appear behind a glass partition. Rather than the vicious predator Sigourney Weaver encountered in Alien, these creatures appear more benign, resembling large, upright octopi.
Louise begins by writing simple words on a tablet. The aliens form “words” by extending a tentacle and shooting a black inky substance that forms any number of circular ink blots. Each is a word, and Louise begins to collect and translate them. In succeeding meetings, she uses this new vocabulary to talk with the creatures, dubbed Abbott and Costello by Ian.
But something gets lost in translation when the word “weapon” shows up in the conversation. Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) views the communication as a threat and, with China already poised to strike, he also wants to take military action. Louise must race against time to obtain more information.
Not only is Louise operating on little sleep, she’s also experiencing visions about her daughter, who died from a serious illness. Are these flashbacks or flash forwards? And how are they illusions related to what is happening with the aliens?
Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner
Arrival is not Independence Day or a War of the Worlds, where extraterrestrials land on earth and begin to blow up buildings and kill people. Anyone expecting an over-the-top action film will be disappointed. We do eventually learn more about the aliens, but rather than threatening, they appear earnest, eager to have Louise understand their purpose.
The supporting actors – Renner and Whitaker – are fine, but this is Adams’ film. Her performance as a brilliant and dedicated linguist may spark an interest in the scientific study of language. While we know we’re watching fiction, the steps she takes to establish a connection, then to decipher a totally new, and yes, alien language, are fascinating. She’s intense and is at her best when in these scenes, approaching the aliens not as monsters, but as a puzzle to be solved. But when the frightening dreams of her daughter descend upon her, she loses control, the panic registering on her face. It’s not until the credits begin to roll that we understand what has transpired and how that close encounter has wound up affecting her life forever.
Arrival opens nationwide November 10, 2016.
Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures