By Bob Bloom
“Arrival” is a quiet and understated science-fiction drama about mankind’s first encounter with an alien race and the challenges of creating direct and precise lines of communication.
The film is an adult experience — no massive destruction of cities or people, nor any space opera-type of super weapons. Rather, it is a smart, thinking person’s close encounter.
Director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Lights Out”) have created a climate of apprehension — almost dread, aided by an attention-grabbing, atmospheric score by Jóhan Jóhannsson — that is channeled through the film’s protagonist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned linguist.
Banks is recruited by the government after 12 gigantic pods appear, hovering over various sites around the globe.
Banks is flown to Montana, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), in hopes of beginning a dialogue with the visitors.
It seems the pod opens every 18 hours to allow humans entry, but, so far, attempts at conversing have failed.
Banks’ reactions as she nears and then enters the gigantic vessel are fear and anxiety, coupled with an intellectual excitement of discovery.
Like the movie itself, Adams gives a performance that is steady and low key. She does not allow her character any histrionics, nor emotional peaks or valleys.
The bulk of “Arrival” centers on Banks and Donnelly working to establish a common thread so the two species can convey ideas clearly and concisely.
It seems the language of the visitors is visual, unlike mankind’s verbal methodology.
And while action junkies may begin to squirm, these sequences are the most fascinating and interesting, as Banks and two of the visiting emissaries — whom she and Donnelly have nicknamed Abbott and Costello — slowly begin to understand each other.
In other words, “Arrival” is a cerebral exercise in adult science fiction, akin to Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” and even, in its sense of wonder, to Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
“Arrival” also is a story about grief.
Tragedy had visited Banks. As the film opens, it seems she is mourning the death of her daughter, claimed by a genetic disease.
The influence of that loss on the proceedings creates an existential conflict that draws you even deeper into Banks’ intellectual and emotional DNA.
“Arrival” is filled with some breathtaking visuals, but, smartly, they do not overwhelm the story.
The movie is slow, but not in a dull sense. It is a brainy, step-by-step primer on learning how to reach out and begin an exchange of ideas between two vastly different life forms in a peaceful and constructive manner.
This feature stresses the importance of language, concepts and noncombative engagement.
It also is about time; not as we calculate it, but in the abstract, as an eternally flowing river with various tributaries, and how decisions and choices we make determine how we navigate our lives.
“Arrival” is an intellectual treat, one of the best movies of the year. It will impress you, and it definitely will hold you in awe.
Bob Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and Rottentomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom.
4 stars out of 4