Arrival is a thinking human's alien-invasion movie. The mood is austere, the story oblique (at first), and the invading aliens are somewhat obscured by a home-world mist they've brought down to Earth with them. Serious humans will be happy to know there's no cheap sci-fi action.
All of this is a little problematic, though. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) is impressively committed to maintaining the picture's somber atmosphere, and he does as much as was probably possible to control the story's tricky structure. He also draws appropriately muted performances from his stars, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, who are allowed only flickers of humor as the knotty plot unloops. The result of all this restraint, unfortunately, is to lend the film an air of sterility that slightly diffuses our interest, especially in the middle sections.
The key to the story—although we can't know it yet—is conveyed by an opening voiceover, in which we hear Adams saying, "We are so bound by time…by its order." Her character, Dr. Louise Banks, is a professor of linguistics at an unnamed university. She lives alone in a semirural lake house. In a happier-days montage, we see her nuzzling a baby—her infant daughter, Hannah. We see Hannah growing into a little girl; then we see her in a hospital some years later, dying.
Banks's glum solitude is disrupted one night by the appearance of an army officer, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who needs her help in dealing with an international emergency. Towering alien space ships have suddenly appeared in a number of countries around the world. Their passengers don't appear to be hostile—yet, anyway—but since no one can speak their language, it's unclear what they want. One of the sites is in Montana, to which Weber and Banks soon chopper off, together with a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Renner).
Arriving at the Montana site, where one of the 1500-foot-tall vessels hovers about 20 feet off the ground, Banks and Donnelly are informed that there's an entryway into the ship that opens every 18 hours, for about 45 minutes. Floating up through the ship's very light gravity, the earthlings ultimately come to a transparent wall, behind which is a puffy cloud of mist, through which two tall, seven-legged shadows (quickly dubbed "heptapods") can be seen.
At this point, propelled by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's bracingly strange score (all distant sirens and Brontosaurus-size moans), the story really gets underway. At issue is an interesting question: how would one go about communicating with an alien species whose language consists, not of words, but—as Banks and Donnelly soon discover—of subtly inflected symbols? (The heptapods trace them in the air with a sort of inky smoke.) Equipped with a whiteboard, a marker, and total determination, Banks eventually cracks this language barrier—although in a series of steps so compressed that it seemed to me insufficiently clear. Still, it was clear enough to slowly foreshadow the big—the huge—plot twist at the end, which is very much worth the wait.
The movie is beautifully made, but not entirely gratifying, and a reading of its source material—an award-winning short story called "Story of Your Life," by the brilliant sci-fi author Ted Chiang—suggests why. Chiang, a computer-science tech writer with what amounts to a sideline in fiction, lays out the intricacies of the heptapods' strange language in transporting detail—it carries you away. It's hard to imagine how Villeneuve and his screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, could have packed all of it into one movie, especially since the director also felt compelled to inject a 1950s' style subplot about military hostility to the alien invaders (Russia and China are planning a force-of-arms response). This is too bad, but box-office reality can't be completely ignored.
Still, Arrival is a picture that gives you something deep to think about—something that seems both wildly unlikely and yet fascinatingly plausible. It's a really new riff on a venerable movie genre.