Review: ‘Arrival’ a stunning sci-fi thriller for adults

‘Sicario’ director Denis Villeneuve delivers an intelligent-minded gem; just don’t come expecting ‘Independence Day’

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

In “Arrival,” a fleet of alien spacecraft arrive on Earth and hover above 12 global destinations. Not horizontally, casting a large shadow over some urban metropolis, the way they do in most alien invasion movies. These ships are upright, like an egg standing on its end, and the image is oddly striking and unforgettable.

“Arrival,” too, is oddly striking and unforgettable. It stands out because it does virtually nothing that you’ve come to expect from an alien invasion movie. This is a meditative, methodically paced film about language, communication, time, grief and loss. If you show up looking for Will Smith to punch an alien in the face, you’ve got another thing coming.

“Arrival” is a smart film, made for adults, a genre that gets smaller every year. It’s challenging, but rewarding, its thrills cerebral rather than physical.

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose haunting “Sicario” was one of the best films of last year, is on a roll making big studio films that manage to balance high art with commercial necessities. His next film is the long-awaited “Blade Runner” sequel, to which he’ll hopefully bring quiet, contemplative moments alongside high-tech wonderment.

That’s exactly what he does in “Arrival.” It’s the story of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, simply wonderful in another nomination-worthy turn), a linguist and professor who is living with the devastation of losing a child to cancer. She is called upon by a military officer (Forest Whitaker) to help decipher the language of our alien visitors, having previously worked with the government on a translation job. She’s whisked away to the ship site in Montana alongside Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist who will help her engage the alien beings.

Villeneuve keeps the mood nebulous as Banks and Donnelly approach and enter the hovering spacecraft, resting still above an expansive green plain. When the beings — they’re called Heptapods — are finally revealed, the curtain is pulled back on them slowly, and they’re mostly kept inside a foggy white haze, separated from the humans by a long panel of glass.

Banks and Donnelly get down to the business of communicating with the Heptapods, who speak in circular symbols that they “write” in gaseous clouds on the glass panel. Banks and her team work to decipher the code like cryptographers, eventually learning how to speak with them to ascertain their purpose on Earth.

The clock is ticking on their work, however; other teams around the world are threatening to blow the ships out of the sky. Still, “Arrival” isn’t about the annihilation of cities or intergalactic warfare; as it unfurls, its approach recalls Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” in terms of its mood and themes.

Like “Sicario,” “Arrival” is driven by a stirring score from Jóhann Jóhannsson. It is powered by low bass rumbles that give way to exquisite strings, creating a mood of divine beauty around the proceedings.

A slot has been carved in the fall schedule in recent years for an intelligent, high-minded science fiction entry; in 2014 it was “Interstellar,” last year it was “The Martian.” Both of those films suffered from extraneous running times, but “Arrival” stays focused and delivers on a high level. It doesn’t pack the punch you’d expect from an alien invasion movie; it aims higher, and in the end, it cuts deeper.


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Rated PG-13: for brief strong language

Running time: 118 minutes