“Science fiction” as a movie genre is either far too inclusive or desperately in need of subdivisions into more sensible categories. By this I mean the so-called science fiction promulgated by movies based on Marvel or DC Comics contains virtually no science. It’s all super beings and fantastical alternative realities.
The science fiction of films such as “Interstellar,” “Ex Machina” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” however, uses science as the basis of its fiction; it respects the rules of logic and the universe and even more crucially zeroes in on character. Humans, not superheroes, matter.
“Arrival,” from that always interesting and always, always intense filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, lands firmly in the latter category, true science fiction. And the film’s distributor, Paramount, has wisely chosen a fall release date that situates it about as far from the summer fanboy movies as possible.
A case in point: “Arrival” is an alien contact movie, which would normally mean multiple characters and international locations to capture the military, political and societal dimension of an interplanetary visitation.
Yet “Arrival,” for the most part, utilizes a single key location and only three main characters. Everything else is moved to the background via overheard television reports and the white noise of highly classified communications.
This is cerebral science fiction, scripted by Eric Heisserer from a short story, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Its finest moments and a final reveal take place within the inner lives of its characters rather than in slam-bam sci-fi action.
Indeed “Arrival’s” story is really the journey of a single character, Dr. Louise Banks, played with quiet desperation and beguiling fortitude by Amy Adams. A linguists professor, she is recruited by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), just after the arrival of 12 alien spacecraft in seemingly random areas around the globe, to assist the American team in its struggle to find a way to communicate with these extraterrestrials.
Their ships are oblong dark shapes that hover just above the ground, leaking no radiation, gas or other emissions. Nothing warlike is emitted either. Nevertheless, these ships are, understandably, viewed as a threat by all people and nations, causing international panic and plunging stock indices.
While the Chinese and Russians are the most nervous, hostilities are held in abeyance as governments in the “host” countries scramble to find scientists who might figure out a method of communication with these alien beings.
Louise joins theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to travel to Montana, the site of America’s arrived ship, to make contact. CIA agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) is really the only other named character in this movie and he’s mostly around to fume and fuss authoritatively when the scientists demand time to establish a basic grammar to translate any communication with these beings.
This means daily forays inside the spacecraft. Louise and Ian, encased in hazmat suits designed to ward off all possible otherworldly viruses, get hoisted aboard via a mechanical lift into a dark interior where minimal gravity allows them to float up to an antechamber. Here a glass wall separates them and their crew from two creatures that materialize out of a cloudy mist.
Dubbed “heptapods,” these massive creatures resemble an octopus walking upright. From a single tentacle spouts an inky fluid that forms itself into circular hieroglyphs. Through trial and error, the scientists start to decode the heptapods’ symbols into basic language.
The U.S. government — and presumably the governments in those other 11 countries — wants answers now, of course, but the scientists remain adamant that these things take time. There will be a lot of tech-talk gobbledygook here that certainly shot over my head, but it’s cool for a movie to not stop to explain everything when nearly all viewers will get the gist of what is transpiring.
I’m deliberately leaving out a major subplot that involves flashbacks and anything else that might undermine the thrill of discovery that “Arrival” represents. This is a deeply felt and highly intelligent science fiction that digs deep into the inner life of its main character.
(One might complain that Renner’s character deserves a similar treatment but I think it’s not only unnecessary but would be a distraction in this case.)
So much hinges on the lead’s performance. But Amy Adams has not risen to the ranks of our most accomplished screen actresses without having all the tools to pull off one of the year’s best performances, one that is highly internalized.
She comes into the story as a wounded woman, existing at the moment within a numb despair caused by a fairly recent tragedy in her life. Yet contact with these aliens can’t help exciting nervous tension and even fear in any person tasked with making sense of this strange visit.
If anything her personal trauma has made her more receptive to beings that, one senses, are genuinely if not desperately trying to make themselves understood. Yet the possibility of misunderstand is huge.
To make this clear Adam’s linguist makes a crucial point early in the film that the Sanskrit word for “war” literally means “I need more cows.” Thus when a key word emerges from interspecies decoding, it gets translated much differently by the Chinese than by Dr. Banks.
This is fascinating stuff and Villeneuve makes the most of the dramatic possibilities within Heisserer’s screenplay. This is one of the darkest movies you’ll see in a long while as Villeneuve has d.p. Bradford Young shoot everything at extreme low light levels as if the world were enshrouded in a permanent, cloudy gloom. You strain to catch actors’ expressions even as the scientists strain to decipher the aliens’ hieroglyphs.
Villeneuve make the scientists’ intensity palpable as each feels the weight of the world on his or her shoulders. They can’t get this wrong — yet the world requires immediate answers.
“Arrival” is always surprising and always completely involving. Where is this going? What can the outcome possibly be?
Most movies these days,whether from Hollywood or not, plod toward a preordained and predictable destiny. To varying degrees, you’re either ahead of the filmmakers or reasonably guessing at the next twists and turns.
“Arrival” embarrasses the current mode of contemporary cinema to explore ideas, moods and a vision that belongs uniquely to this film. It’s an arrival to be greeted by cineastes with great joy.
Opens: November 11, 2016 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: 21 Laps Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment, Lava Bear Films
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma, Abigail Pniowsky, Julia Scarlett Dan
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer
Based on the short story by: Ted Chiang
Producers: Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, David Linde
Executive producers: Stan Wlodkowski, Eric Heisserer, Dan Cohen, Karen Lunder, Tory Metzger, Milan Popelka
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Music: Johann Johannsson
Costume designer: Renee April
Visual effects supervisor: Louis Morin
Editor: Joe Walker
PG-13 rating, 116 minutes