4 stars (out of 4)
The aliens have landed on Earth.
Here’s the part where authorities wave their guns and people run down the streets, screaming for their lives, right?
Not so fast. This outstanding, original sci-fi drama not only subverts expectations in brilliant ways, it also explores deeply felt themes of life, loss and love. In other words, it's light-years away from Independence Day 3.
Amy Adams shines as Dr. Louise Banks, a divorced linguistics professor in mourning over the recent death of her 12-year-old daughter, Hannah. She walks around in a grief-ridden fog — until the day 12 egg-shaped vehicles drop down at random locations around the world with zero explanation. Louise is recruited by a colonel (Forest Whitaker) to travel to the prairie lands of Montana, site of the closest station, to try to correspond with two of the E.T.s. On her team: a theoretical physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner).
The aliens, by the way, aren’t scary Martians blowing up buildings with blue lasers. They kind of resemble massive, majestic octopuses. When the two “heptapods” emerge from the spacecraft, they raise their tentacles and emit black Rorschach-like splotches behind a protective glass barrier. The visual is striking yet purposely unsettling: By nature, we’re all preconditioned to be frightened of these creatures.
Louise is fascinated. In learning what these invaders want, she doesn’t want to be rushed, and in a clever scene, she breaks down exactly the lengths she must go to just to gain their trust. She can’t just ask them, “Why are you here?” in English and expect them to understand her, let alone answer. Open communication is the key issue here, she explains to authorities, and aliens require it just as much as humans. This is one of many thoughtful touches in the screenplay that refuses to condescend to the audience. Eventually, Louise and Ian develop rapport with the two aliens, who they dub Abbott and Costello. (Ian’s idea. In a rare instance of humor, he also has a pretty decent theory about how ’80s singer Sheena Easton figures into the heptapods’ M.O.)
While Louise cracks the code, she unlocks memories about herself and Hannah. They arrive in flashing fragments, and she can’t quite wrap her brain around some of them. (One example: Hannah asking her help for the term “net zero-sum game.”) Surely there must be a connection between the recollections and the aliens, but it’s the one thing Louise can’t quite decipher. Adams’ reflective performance helps sell the mystery. Alas, it’s probably too subdued to nab an Oscar nomination.
If the visions seem nonsensical, that’s the point: The answers aren’t supposed to fit together with ease. And when it all does come together, the result is rewarding. Hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck rewarding. In fact, a second (or third) viewing is probably necessary just to double-check your work — and admire how director Denis Villeneuve (currently at work on the Blade Runner reboot) masterfully crafted the intricate puzzle. Even if the twist doesn’t completely compute, it’s still a head-spinning wonder to behold. After all, the best kinds of films are the ones that lead to multiple debates and theories.
From The Martian to Interstellar to Prometheus, many sci-fi pics in recent years have attempted to add a personal flourish to an intergalactic, special effects–driven extravaganza. It’s not enough for a hero to complete a space mission; he (or she) must also run a gauntlet of emotional tumult. None of the projects have been able to pull it off with conviction — not even the amazing Gravity, which traveled into treacly sentimentality when Sandra Bullock’s character mourned her own deceased child. This movie is the only one to reach for the stars and succeed.
(Arrival opens in theaters on Friday, November 11.)
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