There was a time when those who made science fiction movies were more interested in existential dilemmas than action-packed alien invasions. Sci-fi classics from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner ponder time, space and the nature of human existence while realizing spectacular visions of unseen worlds.
Films of this caliber also manage to balance grand visions with human-scale drama, which may be the most striking aspect of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's mesmerizing Arrival. A throwback to pre-blockbuster Hollywood, the film depicts the arrival of alien beings on Earth but focuses entirely on the inherent challenges of communicating with creatures not remotely like us — in a world where unknown "others" are assumed to pose a mortal threat.
All you need to know to get a sense of Arrival's unique worldview is that its two heroes are a linguistics professor and theoretical physicist. There's an explosion at one point in the story and a bit of off-screen gunfire, but far more central to the movie are language-based puzzles for the academics to solve and a larger, more complex mystery confronted by the audience. It's a brooding but extremely thoughtful and original work that may earn a spot among science fiction film classics.
Arrival is based on an award-winning short story, Tim Chiang's "Story of Your Life," which provides Villeneuve's film with a central concept known as linguistic relativity. In its strongest real-world form, linguistic relativity suggests that language determines our thoughts and our perception of the world. Taken further in the context of speculative science fiction, it might mean that our understanding of reality could be altered — or transformed — by immersion in a language system completely different from our own. This is mind-blowing stuff, and it's employed to great effect in Arrival.
Most of the film takes place in a vast green meadow in Montana, one of 12 locations across the globe where giant alien spaceships silently hover just above ground. By the time linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) arrive, the U.S. military has built a base there, led by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker). In a series of meetings inside the spaceship, the U.S. communication team and the aliens seek a common language, while the film repeatedly flashes back to Banks' life with her young daughter for reasons that only emerge gradually.
For all the talent attached to Arrival, there's little doubt the film belongs to Adams. In movies like American Hustle and The Master, she has proved herself uniquely adept at occupying the emotional spaces of women living under extraordinary circumstances. Renner and Whitaker handle their roles well but are present mainly to support Adams' nerdy everywoman Louise. Arrival is Villeneuve's sixth feature in less than 20 years to spotlight a strong female protagonist, and he leaves room for Adams' work at the center of the film.
Known primarily in the U.S. for dark crime stories like Prisoners and Sicario, with Arrival Villeneuve proves himself a true master of tone. Arrival has a moody feel all its own, but one that suits the film's soulful take on some of life's deepest mysteries. The director's aliens rank among the most imaginative and fully realized creatures ever put on screen. All of which matters right now because Villeneuve currently is shooting Blade Runner 2049, a sequel fans have anticipated for decades with a mix of hope and dread. Bring it on.