‘Arrival’ revisits higher-order science fiction

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures Photo credit: Jan Thijs © 2016 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) analyze an alien language in science-fiction thriller “Arrival.” Photo courtesy Ian Thijs // Paramount Pictures.

Ostensibly, “Arrival” is another alien-invasion movie: 12 sinister, floating ships appear all around the world and threaten civilization as we know it. And yet at its heart, the craftful film adaptation of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” is a movie about humans – about how we experience language, time and the persistence of love.

“Arrival” marries the psychological trickery of “Inception” (2010) with the extraterrestrial curiosity of female-centered sci-fi films like “Interstellar” (2015) and “Contact” (1997). Concealment is the name of the game for director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”), and audiences should be prepared for plenty of red herrings and delayed answers as they delve into the otherworldly experiences of linguistics expert Louise Banks.

Louise is recruited as an alien translator amid the international state of emergency and confusion that ensues when the alien ships touch down all around the world. One of the ships docks in Montana, where Louise is abruptly escorted. Her assignment is to help government officials understand why the aliens, giant squid-like creatures called “heptapods,” are visiting earth.

There are still familiar elements that echo other sci-fi or action blockbusters. An academic expert is swept away to work on a secret project. Conflicts with trigger-happy government officials transpire. Meanwhile, the fate of world peace hangs in the balance as UFOs loom overhead.

And yet, “Arrival” is also refreshingly intimate and thoughtful. Once again, like “Contact,” in which we see Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) make first contact with aliens after a lifetime of searching, Louise’s story is charged with theory and the impulse of discovery.

Like many of its classic predecessors, “Arrival” relates alien experiences to questions that apply to human life – How do we communicate meaningfully? How does language, and time, shape our understanding of the world? What makes a life worth living?

As government pressure increases, Louise and colleague Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, “The Avengers,” “The Hurt Locker”) make quick headway with the two heptapods inhabiting the ship – nicknamed Abbott and Costello after the legendary comedic duo. Using everything from advanced digital software to whiteboards, Louise begins to decipher the alien language, communicated through circular logograms that resemble coffee-mug stains.

Each logogram can communicate an entire sentence or phrase. As Louise notes, the strange characters, written using what appears to be self-assembling black ink ejected from the heptapods’ tentacles, appear to be nonlinear, with no discrete starting or ending point.

The film includes brief glimpses of linguistic theory, in particular the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which might ring a bell for some psychology or anthropology majors. Also known as linguistic relativity, the hypothesis suggests that one’s language can affect their worldview. As she continues to decode the language, Louise finds herself coming to a new understanding of not only the aliens’ purpose on earth but also her own.

The movie has its own weaknesses, which are expected with such an ambitious project. While Adams settles comfortably into the role of the anxious, yet determined Louise Banks, the male talent in the cast is largely wasted. Forest Whitaker (“The Butler,” “The Last King of Scotland”), is reduced to uttering trite, clichéd lines as Colonel G.T. Weber, Louise’s temporary boss.

Renner’s character is also largely underdeveloped. A few equations and scientific terms aside, Ian Donnelly seems to neglect the reason he came to Montana in the first place – to examine the physics of the spacecraft. While Ian does serve a purpose greater than being a trusty sidekick for Louise and a source of cringe-worthy dialogue, for most of the movie, I’m left asking, “Why is this guy here again?”

The ending also seems to leave several loose ends and plot holes, but even so, the film succeeds in leaving the audience with an experience that they will want to relive over and over again. Part of this success is the beautiful cinematography in the film, done by Bradford Young (“Selma,” “A Most Violent Year”). The camera does justice to each scene, from the subtle, mysterious moments to the grand, sweeping landscapes. Combined with meticulous audio mixing, creative storytelling and reliable acting talent, “Arrival” will cement its place among the successes of not only science-fiction films, but also 21st century cinema.