Arrival Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.
Hard sci-fi—which is to say, science fiction that’s genuinely as interested in science as it is in fiction—rarely makes it to the big screen. It’s a simple matter of economics, really: Abstruse material draws a fairly limited audience, and special effects are extremely expensive. So it’s not clear how director Denis Villenueve (Sicario) managed to talk Paramount Pictures into bankrolling Arrival, a reasonably faithful adaptation of Ted Chiang’s Nebula-winning novella Story of Your Life.
While the movie isn’t nearly as brainy as its source, neither has it been dumbed way down for the masses; here, for the first time in ages, is proof that “thrilling” and “analytical” aren’t mutually exclusive. Working from an intelligent, not too expository screenplay by Eric Heisserer, Villeneuve finds compelling ways to convey Chiang’s basic ideas via eye-popping imagery rather than through a torrent of words.
That’s quite a tricky proposition, since Arrival concerns the very nature of language itself. The film kicks off much like Independence Day, with humanity being startled by the sudden appearance of extraterrestrial spacecrafts at various locations around the globe. These aliens apparently don’t mean us any harm, but communicating with them proves a challenge, to say the least. The U.S. military drafts linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to decipher the aliens’ language, which consists of inky circles projected into the air. (The aliens themselves are equally bizarre—Arrival is the rare sci-fi movie that makes a genuine effort to imagine an intelligent species that resembles nothing on Earth.) Gradually, Banks determines that these creatures perceive time differently than we do, and finds that learning their language begins to alter her own understanding of past, present and future.
Chiang used a largely discredited linguistic hypothesis (look up “Sapir-Whorf” if you’re interested) to powerfully connect sci-fi elements with a tragedy in Banks’ personal life. Unlike the story, the film version withholds key details until the final minutes; it’s superb misdirection, guaranteed to blindside viewers who have internalized certain sappy dramatic conventions (and especially people who saw Gravity), but sacrifices emotional catharsis for a clever twist. Still, Arrival’s depiction of two radically different life forms struggling to understand each other inspires a degree of awe and humility that puts the average alien-contact movie to shame. This is the most plausible close encounter of the third kind yet visualized, and if the characters (including a hard-ass colonel played by Forest Whitaker) are a tad one-dimensional, well, that’s the tradeoff a narrative of ideas often demands. Hollywood almost never shows so much respect for the audience’s intelligence. Hopefully, audiences weary of empty F/X showcases will reward this risky effort. It might be hard sci-fi, but it’s easy to enjoy.