More than aliens

The theater where I watched Arrival showed several “coming attractions” before the film. Most were either sci-fi or adventure films with lots of fighting and technological violence. I thought, “Has the person who decided what coming attractions to show seen the featured attraction?”

Eventually, we learn that the film has a much larger purpose. . . . It’s interested in the meaning of time itself.

While Arrival can be labeled sci fi—it does involve alien spacecraft landing on earth—it is far from the usual genre films of heroes fighting aliens. Instead, it is an arresting, thoughtful drama that explores both human emotion and philosophical speculation.

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist who is tapped by the CIA to try to translate communication from the alien beings inside a spacecraft that has touched down in Montana. There she meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Rinner), a theoretical physicist also commissioned to help figure out what the intentions of these beings might be.

That’s the skeleton of the plot. However, director Denis Villenueve intersperses scenes of Louise with her daughter Hannah. In the film’s opening segment, we witness the span of Hannah’s life, from a baby, through her childhood, to her death as a teenager in a hospital. This seems to be background for Louise, something that occurred before the aliens arrive.

Eventually, we learn that the film has a much larger purpose than simply depicting the suspense of Louise’s courageous and creative actions in learning why these aliens arrived. It’s interested in the meaning of time itself.

Villenueve, a Canadian who also directed Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), and Sicario (2015), all excellent films, here uses a muted palette of grays and browns. He shows cloud cover and the smoke or whatever surrounds the aliens to enhance the mystery and obscurity of the situation. Twelve spacecraft have touched down around the globe, and in each location, scientists are trying to determine the aliens’ intention. Have they come to destroy, or are they friendly?

We get a glimpse of geopolitics, as the Chinese and Russians soon stop sharing any information they have. Soon the United States wants to use force against the aliens. What will happen?

One surprising element of the film is its emotional power. While it delivers suspense, it also unveils the emotions of an intellectual woman who has bottled up her emotional life for the sake of her work.

It’s also refreshing to see a woman in a lead role as an academic who shows courage and vulnerability. Adams is outstanding in the role and has the uncanny ability to communicate emotion with her eyes.

In order for a film about aliens to work, the audience must buy into the idea, must suspend disbelief. For the most part, this works in Arrival. There is a point near the climax when the implausibility is too much. But that doesn’t ruin what is an amazing film.

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.