With its intriguing premise and handsome production values, “Arrival” continues an encouraging trend in science-fiction filmmaking, embodied by the likes of “Gravity” and “The Martian”: films that imbue the genre’s inherent flights of fancy with sophistication and meaningful subtext.
In this adaptation of a short story by Ted Chiang, director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”) announces from the outset what kind of journey he intends to take us on. Opening with a musical score of mournful strings, which are soon joined by a somber voice-over by Amy Adams, it’s clear that we’re in for a serious-minded reflection on memory, time and, as a few early scenes indicate, overwhelming grief.
In other words, you’ve been warned.
As with so many movies this season – from “Loving” and “Manchester By the Sea” to the supposedly cheerful musical “La La Land” – many viewers are probably in for a cry at “Arrival,” but it’s the good kind. Working from a thoughtful script by Eric Heisserer (“Lights Out”) and a superb, quietly interior performance by Adams, Villeneuve has crafted a movie akin to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Contact”: an imaginative, escapist what-if scenario overlaid with semi-profound questions about fate, loss and the meaning of love.
“Arrival” can’t be described as philosophically deep, exactly. But neither does it sacrifice worthy ideas on the altar of pure entertainment. Rather, Villeneuve understands that the best movies are those that allow the two to coexist in unforced, tolerant balance.
Because “Arrival” is so carefully constructed as a continually unfolding series of “reveals,” the less synopsis the better. Suffice it to say that Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist who is called in by the U.S. government when a mysterious ovoid object appears just above Montana, hovering ominously over the prairie like one half of an enormous almond. It turns out that 11 more spacecraft just like it have popped up at other locations around the globe. Louise, along with a rakishly handsome physicist played by Jeremy Renner, is tasked with establishing communication with the intergalactic visitors, and finding out what they want.
The premise of “Arrival” is elegantly simple – see UFO, approach UFO, stop UFO from destroying the world or vice versa – and Villeneuve wisely doesn’t mess with it. The power of the film lies in its intricate structure, which is a tricky series of fakes and feints that keep viewers unsure, exactly, of what they’re seeing, in terms of time frames and subjective reality.
The danger with a film this purposefully enigmatic and scrambled is that the viewer becomes hopelessly lost. This is where Villeneuve’s gifts as a craftsman come sharply into play, as he allows “Arrival” to be as enigmatic as possible until giving the audience a crucial, orienting piece of information – gratifyingly, with relatively little chitchat and dumbed-down action.
Rather than those usual superfluous distractions, “Arrival” hews to its sleek, unfussy storytelling, which is both suspenseful and almost poetically abstract, an effect heightened by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s unsettling score. Photographed with muted shadows and understated style by Bradford Young, and visualized with elegant simplicity by production designer Patrice Vermette, the movie is suffused with mystery, not only about the visitors’ designs on the planet, but about Louise’s sometimes confounding air of dazed bemusement at making first contact with alien life-forms.
Staged by Villeneuve to make the most of its potential for spectacle, “Arrival” is often awesome to look at, especially when Adams, Renner and their characters’ colleagues are dwarfed by the pendent obelisk they’re desperately trying to understand. Coming on the heels of a fractious election season, “Arrival” could reflexively be interpreted as an allegory about immigration, communication and belligerence. But the climactic encounter, when it finally occurs, is staged almost as an afterthought and, after all the scientific and linguistic jargon has been spouted, maybe not the point.
Nothing is precisely what it seems in “Arrival,” until it all becomes clear, like one of the film’s spindly, squidlike beings emerging out of the mist. Muted, measured and meditative, “Arrival” brings taste and restraint to a genre in the midst of a mini golden age: It comes in peace.
Three stars. Rated PG-13. Contains brief strong obscenity. 116 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.