You can stop watching the skies.
Movies that begin with confounding aliens on the loose have been around for awhile (at least since 1951’s “Man From Planet X” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still”) and they invariably share a family resemblance even if the space visitors themselves never look the same way twice.
Where do these beings come from, baffled scientists and frightened government officials inevitably want to know. Are they friendly or hostile, what do they want from us and what are they doing here in the first place?
One of the most satisfying things about Denis Villeneuve’s elegant, involving “Arrival” is that it is simultaneously old and new, revisiting many of these alien-invasion conventions but with unexpected intelligence, visual style and heart.
Working from a smart and effective script by Eric Heisserer adapted from a cerebral short story by science-fiction luminary Ted Chiang, the French-Canadian director and his team have found ways to make these way-out-of-the-ordinary events seem plausible and convincing.
This cannot have been easy because Chiang’s story, though containing a splendid central idea, is a cool, scientific, even philosophical exploration of the nature of language and does completely without many of the plot specifics that make “Arrival” involving.
Always an effective, if at times coolly manipulative director (“Sicario,” “Prisoners”), Villeneuve and his team have embraced the script and even found space for emotion. This is especially true in the film’s audacious conclusion, a moving, nervy reveal sure to spark lots of after-movie conversation.
In his success Villeneuve is helped considerably by the finely calibrated performance of star Amy Adams. Though the credits list her as one of a group of top actors including Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, “Arrival” is really Adams’ film, a showcase for her ability to quietly and effectively meld intelligence, empathy and reserve.
Before we know anything else about her, we see Adams’ Louise Banks as a parent, enjoying the happiness and the sadness that can come with raising a child, her daughter Hannah. Chiang’s short story is titled “Story of Your Life,” and “Arrival” is similarly structured as a kind of message from mother to child.
Almost immediately, however, we cut to the chase. Banks is a professor of linguistics, but when she shows up to teach, her classroom is almost empty. A timely look at the television tells all: an ominous extraterrestrial spacecraft has landed in Montana and the country is freaking out.
Looking like the universe’s largest skipping stone, or a surfboard big enough to daunt Duke Kahanamoku, that spacecraft is one of 12 that have shown up at apparently random locations around the globe, including Venezuela, Siberia and China.
Banks thinks all this has nothing to do with her, but she’s wrong. Because she’s an ace linguist who already has security clearance, the Army’s all-business Col. Weber (a letter-perfect Whitaker) shows up at her door in need of help figuring out both how the aliens speak and what they are saying.
Whisked off to deepest Montana, Banks is joined by another scientist, top Los Alamos theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner), and Agent Halpern (Stuhlbarg), the inevitable watchful guy from the CIA.
Every 18 hours the alien craft opens and Banks and Donnelly and a support crew go in and confront the pair of aliens, who they nickname Abbott and Costello (a big improvement over the short story’s Flapper and Raspberry).
Banks’ mandate is double-edged: to learn as much of these creatures’ language as she can, while for security reasons, not revealing any more English to them than she needs to.
This process turns out to be a more fraught procedure than the linguist imagines, and not only because in the rest of the world everyone is acting on pure fear alone.
But for Banks, whose sessions with the aliens are punctuated by frequent visions of herself and her daughter, learning that alien tongue, as short-story writer Chiang puts it, “changes the way she understands her life.”
While Chiang’s story provides “Arrival’s” essential core concept, almost everything else is brought to the table by Villeneuve and his accomplished team, led by gifted cinematographer Bradford Young (“A Most Violent Year,” “Pawn Sacrifice,” “Selma”).
Almost taking as a challenge the familiar nature of alien movies, Villeneuve, Young, production designer Patrice Vermette and visual effects supervisor Louis Morin have taken it as a challenge to show us things from unexpected angles, keeping us off balance visually and emotionally in a very accomplished way.
Adams’ contribution is essential to this plan, especially when you realize that the story is in large part about the nature of language learning and linguistics. Her ability to create empathy and emotional connection, with the audience as well as the aliens, reminds us that the best and most effective science fiction is invariably deeply human at its core.
MPAA rating. PG-13 for scenes of science fiction violence and terror and for brief language.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.
Critic’s Choice. “Arrival.” Amy Adams stars in this elegant, involving science fiction drama that is simultaneously old and new, revisiting many alien invasion conventions but with unexpected intelligence, visual style and heart. - Kenneth Turan