When 12 alien vessels appear out of nowhere, standing sentry at various points around the globe, humanity’s mood is electric with anticipation. Are they going to launch an all-out assault as in War of the Worlds or Independence Day? Are we going to have to prove ourselves worthy of living a la The Day the Earth Stood Still? Maybe they’re packed with the interstellar poor, the huddled masses from another galaxy yearning to breathe free just like in District 9?
Or maybe they’re here to fatten us up for slaughter, as in that famous Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man.”
Arrival, the new film from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners, Incendies), is at its best when pregnant with the suspense of the possible, when the unidentified stationary objects bear no trace of their intentions.
As televisions flicker with news of the ships’ presence, noted linguist and university professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is wondering why her class is largely empty. Then the phones of the few students in attendance start buzzing and beeping, the school’s alarms sound, and it’s low-level chaos as everyone tries to get home.
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And, oh, as if the world needed more unsettling news, the stock market just plunged 2,000 points.
But Banks can’t just hide out at home — even though it appears to be a beautiful home worthy of an Architectural Digest spread. As one of the world’s leading experts on language, she could be invaluable to American government officials who need someone to translate what they think might be attempts to communicate by someone/something on board the ship hanging motionless in the sky above rural Montana.
Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) takes her to the site. It’s here where the government has set up a facility staffed with scientists, including physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), whose job it is to figure out what these aliens want.
While there’s outward cooperation among countries, there’s fear that the Russians and Chinese, who have crafts in their air space as well, might go their own way. If Banks can decipher what’s being said, she would make history and possibly play an important role in geopolitics.
Villeneuve, working from a script by Eric Heisserer, sets up an appropriately anxious mood, but it’s clear he has more on his mind than simple sci-fi movie scares. Arrival is an intelligently written, beautifully shot and evocatively scored meditation on language and what it means to try to bridge a communication chasm. And Adams proves herself an adept, empathetic lead actress.
But the film becomes less intriguing as the story’s direction moves from teasingly opaque to crystal-clear. A subplot involving soldiers at the facility going rogue — there are some people, mirroring the anger and fear of a blowhard radio personality, who want to unceremoniously declare war on the visitors — goes nowhere.
Ultimately, Arrival proves to be a disappointment after such a promising build-up. Villeneuve made one of last year’s best movies in the crime drama Sicario and it’s obvious that this time he wanted to make a thoughtful science-fiction film — something akin to last year’s exquisite Ex Machina — and that’s an admirable goal.
It’s unfortunate that, this time around, his reach exceeded his grasp.
☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner
Rated: PG-13 (brief strong language)
Running time: 116 min.