From outer space, they come in “Arrival.”
They arrive in 12 black spaceships that suspend themselves silently over locations around the world, triggering fear, panic and awe. Aboard those ships, shrouded in mist and mystery, are the aliens. Indistinct forms, with tentacles and leathery-looking elephantlike skin, they loom large in haze, emitting strange sounds, their objective unknown.
There are two basic kinds of alien-invasion movies:
They’re here with bad intent. “Independence Day.” “War of the Worlds” Greetings, Earthlings. Zaaaap!
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They’re benevolent. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Though the latter’s message is “straighten up and fly right” and “we can all be pals.” Keep up your violent ways, though, and Zaaaap!
“Arrival’s” set-up is similar to “Independence Day”: Big black ships hover ominously over strategic points all over the world. (Montana is the locus where the main action takes place.) But there’s a sense the picture is more in the “Close Encounters” category. No zaps! Yet what they’re really up to is obscure. At its core, then, “Arrival” is a mystery story.
“What is your purpose on Earth?” is the central question around which the story revolves. And it’s the figuring out how to convey that question, and even more importantly, how to interpret and understand the response to it that preoccupies the central character, Louise, played by Amy Adams.
A world-class linguist press-ganged by the military (in the person of a colonel sternly played by Forest Whitaker) into the effort to suss out the aliens’ language, she’s also the grieving mother of a daughter lost to cancer. That latter detail turns out to be key to cracking the mystery.
Director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) puts the full weight of the picture on Adams’ shoulders, and she carries it with grace (in flashback scenes of her and her child) and with a sense of tenacious empathy in the sections where she tries to communicate with the aliens.
The script by Eric Heisserer (based on a short story by Ted Chiang) sets Louise in a conflict of sorts with the movie’s other main character, a scientist named Ian played by Jeremy Renner. Their individual approaches to the problem fall along stereotypical gender-based lines, with him thinking mechanistically that numbers and hard science will be key to cracking the alien code while she believes in trying to somehow empathize with them to figure out what they want.
Louise embodies the anxieties of the world outside the Montana hover site of the ship she’s dealing with, fighting fright, coping with exhaustion and plagued by uncertainty.
There’s symbolism aplenty in “Arrival,” not least in scenes set inside the spaceship where the humans travel down a long black tunnel at the end of which is a bright white light where the aliens, and, presumably, higher knowledge, will be found. Go toward the light, people.
For most of the way, though, the picture is painted in shades of grays: gray skies, gray water, gray the color of ambiguity.
One thing about which there can be no ambiguity however, “Arrival” is a first-rate, thought-provoking science fiction master work.
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg.
Director: Denis Villeneuve.
Running time: 1:56.
Rated: PG-13, for brief strong language.