Jodie Foster’s native intelligence and intellectual curiosity made her seem like the ideal candidate to interact with aliens in “Contact.” Amy Adams’ innate ability to generate instant on-screen empathy makes her just as perfect for such a task in “Arrival,” a serene and cerebral science fiction film about the nuts and bolts of language and the fluidity of time.
Director Denis Villeneuve, of “Prisoners” and “Sicaro,” gives us a moody, challenging and somewhat optimistic tale about another “Day the Earth Stood Still.”
That’s what happens when the gigantic “shells” comes. They land in a dozen locations all over the Earth, creating anxiety, panic and something for the 24 hour news channels to obsess about between elections.
Adams plays a language specialist, a theorist and master translator and sought out by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) because, if such an event were to occur, we’d have a few questions. “Why are they here?” and “What do you want?” for starters.
And communication with a vastly more advanced civilization would be a problem. Dr. Louis Banks (Adams) might not have been their first choice. Others have failed because “Not everyone is able to process something like this.”
Banks is paired with a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) as part of a military heavy/CIA (Michael Stuhlbarg) overseen effort to talk to the visitors. But they’re not alone. Alien shells hover over China, Russia, Pakistan, Sudan and other less stable, more trigger-happy parts of the world. The effort to figure out the intentions of the squid-like “heptopods” is very much a race, and one with potentially lethal consequences should even one translator get it wrong. We all think we know what “To serve man” means. But do we?
Villenueve treats us to another version of “government protocols” for this sort of event, and “Arrival” hews closer to the “E.T.” model than the sunnier “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” “Gravity” plays a role — both in the aliens’ ability to control it within their dark, mist-shrouded spaceships and in Dr. Banks’ mind. Like Sandra Bullock’s character in the Alfonso Cuaron film of that title, Banks has lost a child. But flashbacks to that little girls’ short life are instructive when you’re trying to teach somebody to talk like you.
Renner’s physicist may have the trappings of “The Jeff Goldblum role,” a scientist who explains stuff to the audience with a humorous twist. But he’s very much in the background, his mathematics and knowledge of the physical universe subservient to Banks’ understanding of the many levels of “communication.” Adams gets to break down the enormous consequences and difficulties in sharing the simplest thought — “What do you want?” — to Whitaker’s Army man. Renner is limited to the odd amazed one-liner.
“Well, THAT just happened.”
Like every sci-fi blockbuster since “2012”, there’s a heavy dose of Chinese pandering, a regular ingredient of Hollywood fare in this global marketplace. Lest they get too smug about this, I’d suggest Chinese filmgoers rent “Contact.” Once upon a time, Hollywood pandered to the Japanese and expected their money, science and national will would always be a part of any global negotiation at First Contact.
This is science fiction where the effects are simple and generally subtle. The film’s quiet urgency is underscored by soft voices and gloomy lighting. “Arrival” demands our full attention even as it is threatening to invite a nap. The urgency here is subdued and subtextual , the story itself entrancing to the point of mesmerizing.
“Arrival” puts Villeneuve, who first came to attention with “Incendies,” firmly in the first rank of filmmakers, a director capable of not just entertaining, but challenging. And the wide-eyed Adams, near the top of the list of the best actresses never to win an Oscar, delivers another riveting, melancholy and life-affirming performance that threatens to change that, maybe as soon as next February’s Academy Awards.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for brief strong language
Cast: Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker, Jeremy Renner
Running time: 1:56