What It's About: An alien landing is the starting point for “Arrival,” an atmospheric sci-fi saga that focuses not just on the potential dangers, but also the wonder and the emotional aspects of close encounters.
Large black pods have descended in 12 locations across the globe. In the U.S., the space craft has arrived in Montana. The government organizes an expedition to figure out the who, what and why.
Do they mean harm? Why are they here? Who are they? Army colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) enlists the aid of linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).
The film doesn't really take off until they meet with these beings. The vessel door opens once every 18 hours.
The aliens are depicted fuzzily, shrouded in fog, with tentacles. On the other side of the glass, Louise takes bold steps to establish communication.
The two contacts are other-worldly, more creature-like than human, but they show signs of communicating like us — with a specific language.
Ian and Louise try to decipher it, while the world waits, all shook up. Obviously, political leaders are nervous, and the Army honchos are antsy.
As anxiety escalates, resorting to force seems like inevitable and chaos is certain to issue.
Can Louise crack the code to further peace, love and understanding, or is it the end of days?
Performances: Five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams ("Nocturnal Animals") has the ability to develop fully realized women, and we're with her every step of the way as a brilliant linguist grieving a tragic loss.
Just when you think she's too fragile, Adams displays a remarkable strength, as is often the case in her versatile body of work.
She works well with Renner ("The Avengers"), who demonstrates that he can handle more cerebral roles as a man who views things through science. They tangle when Louise believes language is the cornerstone of civilization, and he believes in science first and foremost.
As they experience this alien visit together, a bond develops. They both project the awe inherent in such a task, and the intellect to use their skills to help mankind. Their potent partnership anchors the film.
Forest Whitaker ("Last King of Scotland") and Michael Stuhlbarg ("Doctor Strange") are stock military characters that must stir the conflicts.
What Works: Director Denis Villeneuve ("Sicario") concentrates more on the intelligence issues than the firepower. In this day and age of blockbuster apocalyptic epics, this is a refreshing departure.
Villeneuve has interestingly constructed screenwriter Eric Heisserer's smart, deep and dense script, which is adapted from "The Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, a 50-page short story.
He has also assembled expert technicians who enhance the cinematic elements — gorgeous cinematography by Bradford Young ("Selma") and his go-to composer Johann Johannson ("Sicario" and "Prisoners"). The sound design is particularly striking, and the visual effects are not overwhelming.
What Doesn't Work: While some of the mysteries come together in the third act, and the inclusion of “flashback” scenes are made clear, the film's philosophical nature raises more questions than it answers.
The tension is palpable, but the military's impatience seems to be handled like a generic plot point.
The conclusion is rather mind-blowing, and you'll be playing back the entire movie in your head.
Stars: 3 out of 4
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Rated: PG-13 for strong language