“Every 18 hours, a door opens at the bottom and we go in,” says Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). “What happens then?” Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) asks. “They arrive,” says Weber, “and after an hour or two, we leave. When the door opens again, we go back in.” Twelve unidentified space cylinders, at random locations around the globe, each 1,500 feet high, hover just above ground level. Aliens, who are seen only indistinctly inside their spacecraft, attempt communication with humans, but what they are saying — if “saying” is the right word for the visual symbols they produce — is unknown. That’s the setup for this adult sci-fi film.
Can linguist Louise Banks decipher the alien symbols? Why have the aliens come to Earth? Are they scientists? Tourists? Or something more deadly? For answers, see this well-made and compelling sci-fi mystery/drama.
Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner play academics Louise Banks (linguistics) and Ian Donnelly (physics). Forest Whitaker is government representative, Colonel Weber, recruiting Banks and Donnelly to learn as much of the aliens’ language as possible without teaching them much English. Adams, Renner and Whitaker give good performances; Adams is Academy-Award worthy as complex 40-something Professor Banks, whose narrative, addressed to her daughter, is the frame for the story. “I used to think this was the beginning of your story, but I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings,” she says. “There are days that define our lives, like the day they arrived.” As good in their roles as Renner and Whitaker are, this is Adams’ movie.
Others in the cast include Michael Stuhlbarg as CIA agent Halpern. Playing Louise’s daughter at 4, 8 and 12 are Jadyn Malone, Abigail Pniowsky and Julia Scarlett Dan.
“Arrival” is that rare breed, a science-fiction, UFO, alien-invasion tale, told for adults. Think “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “2001” (1968) or, earlier, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951). Directed by Denis Villeneuve, from Eric Heisserer’s script and Ted Chiang’s award-winning short story, the film, like its narrative, plays with time and language in serious and, occasionally, contemplative ways. It plays with our brains too, as when Dr. Banks says, “Imagine writing a sentence with both hands, starting at each end.” Bradford Young’s slow and elegant cinematography adds to “Arrival’s” pleasures, as does Max Richter’s opening and closing music, “On the Nature of Daylight.” Discuss the film’s take-away on your ride home: “Language is the cornerstone of civilization. It’s what holds us together.”
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, “Arrival” runs 116 minutes. It’s worth seeing again. I intend to.
Sci-fi flick for grown-ups,
It’s what “Arrival’s” got —
And mesmerizing plot.