Denis Villeneuve's Arrival is science fiction at its most romantic, a closer encounter with human nature than extraterrestrials. It's one of a handful of movies that have legitimately fooled me; not with an abrupt twist but a dawning awareness of where it's going thematically, how deeply and how distanced from sci-fi as usual.
Arrival is based on Ted Chiang's novella Story of Your Life, the film's working title and certainly more appropriate. This is a tale of alien invasion without a single death ray shot fired or building crushed. We meet the enemy and they are us, which isn't a new sci-fi principle but seldom presented this emotionally.
Neither does Villeneuve resort to massive imagery and action. A dozen alien spacecraft suddenly appearing at random places worldwide simply hover, silently benign. Creatures aboard invite visitors, twice daily opening an antigravity portal for national security snoops expecting the worst.
These tentacled "heptapods" spew cryptic symbols like octopus ink. Their purpose on Earth is unknown and therefore terrifying to a world watching on television. Tension runs thickly throughout Arrival, in the macro sense of doomsday and the micro perspective of an everywoman's fate.
Dr. Louise Banks isn't cut from savior cloth. As portrayed by Amy Adams, she's a diligent professor of linguistics, just another earthling shaken by 9/11-style uncertainty after alien invasion. Thrust into the crisis, she's a cerebral warrior. Louise's actions throughout the film are tinged with sorrow, explained by Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer in the teariest opening 10 minutes since Up.
Louise is enlisted by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) to decode those inkblot symbols at the Montana landing site, assisted by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Arrival efficiently sets up an evolving mutual respect, with an academic snap in Louise and Ian's banter that Adams and Renner handle nicely. Villeneuve keeps the world's escalating panic at bay, confined to cable TV news broadcasts and control room monitors beaming from the other 11 locations.
While the aliens aren't showing signs of aggression, humans are, instigated by fear as Louise's attempts to find common linguistic ground drag on for weeks. Villeneuve doesn't underline the allegory in this election season, but it's there for the taking, subtle and intelligent. China and Russia are rattling nuclear swords, and nobody's speaking the same language, figuratively.
Any plot details of Arrival beyond that threaten to reveal too much. Better to focus on varied pleasures found in the margins of Villeneuve's puzzle: the subtle grandeur of Bradford Young's cinematography, Johann Johannsson's tonally succinct musical score, an editing job by Joe Walker that's remarkable in hindsight.
Villeneuve allows viewers a measure of discovery, same as its characters experience. This is different material than Villeneuve has filmed before, not as visceral as Sicario or morally twisted like Prisoners, his best-known U.S. releases. Yet this movie vibrates with similar intensity, rechanneled to fantasy. Even when the screenplay briefly wanders into a sabotage subplot, it's with a lasered grace.
Arrival joins a satisfying trend in sci-fi movies, away from pure spectacle toward introspective themes. Much of that thematic shift is due to strong female characters carrying emotional baggage — Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Jessica Chastain in Interstellar, now Adams — instead of stoic males; close encounters of a poignant kind.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.