The best science-fiction movies treat the genre’s core elements with equal fidelity and effort. They are both enjoyable as fiction and engaged in a serious attempt to consider the events at hand in an intellectual context.
A linguist could comment on the legitimacy of “Arrival,” the new picture from Denis Villeneuve in which a language expert (Amy Adams) and a physicist (Jeremy Renner), are asked to decipher the symbols and signs emitted by an alien race that has suddenly landed in Montana and in 11 other spots across the planet.
But whatever the truth of how a character like Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks might approach their work, the movie offers a great illusion of comprehensiveness in the studious depiction of her work at a temporary army installation set up near the extraterrestrial curved monolith.
The method takes a story we’ve seen before — aliens land, humans seek to determine their motives — and transforms it into a validation of smarts and patience over militaristic bluster.
Villeneuve seamlessly establishes a mood of lingering unease, crafting a series of immense images set to the orchestral dread of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score that powerfully suggest the mystery at hand without indulging in obvious instincts.
The central drama revolves around scenes of Louise and Renner’s Ian Donnelly ascending the ship to engage with the aliens, towering squid-like creatures that communicate by discharging a mist that takes specific and complex shape on a glass wall.
They are blessed with tension derived from Villeneuve’s commitment to meticulously showing the process of cracking this code and setting it against the intensifying impatience of a panicking global bureaucracy.
The approach presents these events within a plausible real-world milieu that evokes stronger and more deeply-felt considerations of their ramifications that could be achieved in a work of sheer escapism.
The movie begins not with the aliens, but with a montage depicting the birth, childhood and tragic death of Louise’s daughter. The screenplay, by Eric Heisserer from a short story by Ted Chiang, regularly plunges into the thick of her conscience.
It is always clear that the movie is about Louise and her story before anything else, and Adams presents her damaged self and fierce independence with equal conviction.
The depth and scope of “Arrival” is most apparent in these moments, as the enormity of the job begins to weigh on the main character, evoking her dark experience in an organic fashion.
As with the best and most resonant works of the genre’s past, the movie is most concerned with the ways an event like this arrival forces a reconsideration of the very question of what it means to be human.
That’s perhaps not as flashy as your garden variety space adventure, and the movie might have a tougher time finding a robust audience than some others, but it stays with you.