The release of a new big-budget science-film always raises the hopes of a large section of the moviegoing public. But not all sci-fi pleases every fan of the genre. Know before buying your ticket that "Arrival," although undeniably science-fiction, featuring aliens from another world setting their spacecraft down on Earth, is not an action film. Not in the least. This is meditative, philosophical, cerebral sci-fi, which would sit comfortably in a triple feature including "Gattaca" and "Solaris."
Yet while the pace is a little too slow, and the script is a little too wordy, the film, leaning mostly on strong acting and an odd venture into socio-political territory, succeeds at introducing and then building upon a feeling of urgency.
A prologue that goes without explanation till the film's closing moments, has renowned linguist and college professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) reliving a family tragedy in her mind, then getting wrapped up in the events that followed "the day they arrived."
"They," as explained on a TV news broadcast, are the objects that have touched down in Montana and 11 other locations around the world, without making any contact. They're 1,500 feet tall, they resemble blimps turned on end, and they haven't exactly touched down. The Montana one, for instance, is hovering a few feet above the ground.
What are the people of Earth to do? Well, the military gets right on the scene, a state of emergency is declared (for no apparent reason), and questions of the "why are you here" sort are transmitted to the object, but are answered only with signals taken to be noise. And so the military, under the command of by-the-book Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) enlists the aid of Dr. Banks, who once helped them with a Farsi problem, and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to figure out how to communicate with the uninvited visitors.
This being a film filled with questions, a major one asks whether the cornerstone of civilization is language or science. Banks and Donnelly disagree on the answer, and for a while, that's the extent of the film's drama. But things do pick up. The Adams and Renner characters -- she's calm, unflappable, and curious; he's got a welcome sense of humor -- make up the core of the story, at least until they and a small team don Hazmat suits and climb their way into the craft to initiate communication procedures.
Director Denis Villeneuve ("Prisoners," "Sicario," and currently directing the "Blade Runner" sequel) raises the interest level with scenes of people moving through zero-gravity atmosphere; glimpses of large, seven-legged, octopus-like creatures; and Dr. Banks making slow but sure progress toward a breakthrough in "visual communication over language." Different tangents are explored when a photo of one of the creatures is leaked and a worried world population is egged on by a fear-mongering Limbaugh type, and when a general in China drops hints that he's going to launch an attack on the craft hovering in his country.
But the film never makes it to the level of becoming gripping. There are pieces of haunting flashbacks, and additional questions concerning the purpose of the aliens' visit, and that long-gestating breakthrough does finally happen. But the final minutes need more explanation if the objective is to attain viewer satisfaction. Everything is wrapped up, to a degree. But as it stands now, there won't be a sequel called "Departure."
-- Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Eric Heisserer and Ted Chiang; directed by Denis Villeneuve
With Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker