PLOT When aliens land on Earth, a linguistics professor is brought in to glean their intentions.
CAST Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
RATED PG-13 (language, some intense scenes)
BOTTOM LINE A familiar story about a close encounter, though well crafted and unusually moody.
In the movies, whenever aliens visit our planet, we Earthlings tend to split into two camps: military hawks and friendly doves. Generally speaking, the movies tell us we’re right to be freaked out (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), though occasionally the peaceniks win the day (“E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial”).
“Arrival” falls squarely into the second camp, and it’s tempting to put a political spin on it in the wake of this week’s presidential election, one that hinged largely on how we regard newcomers to our shores. It’s certainly an unusually moody and sophisticated science-fiction drama, directed by the dependably somber Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”) from Eric Heisserer’s austere script (based on a short story by Ted Chiang). It features phenomenal special effects and many shivery-good moments, but “Arrival” is at bottom a resolutely old-fashioned movie, essentially an update of 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguistics professor whose daily routine is interrupted by the news that 12 massive spacecraft are hovering a few feet over Earth’s surface. (Her face, as she watches a broadcast, is a tingly reminder of 9/11.) Colonel Weber, played by Forest Whitaker, recruits Louise and other experts — including cocky scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) — to commune with the aliens. “Priority One,” says Weber. “Why are they here, and what do they want?”
The best part of “Arrival” is its second act, which draws us — with exquisite slowness — into the strange ships (they look like giant stone eggs) and introduces us to the squid-like aliens, dubbed Heptapods. Most interesting is their complex writing, splattery circles that resemble the imprints left by wineglasses. The sense of mystery and discovery during these scenes is palpable.
“Arrival,” however, eventually settles into a familiar routine: When other nations rashly take up arms (in what feels like a knock against the Chinese, they’re the first to panic), Louise must race against time to decipher the aliens’ language and prove their good intentions. The solution is highly complicated and sometimes inventive, but also slightly contrived. A late reliance on English subtitles to explain the action tends to break the spell.
For sheer craft, “Arrival” is tough to beat. As mesmerizing as it often is, however, it’s hard to shake the sense that we’ve seen this movie before.