Like Pixar’s “Up,” “Arrival” packs an early familial punch — idyllic scenes of a mother and child proceed to an unexpected end — a daughter’s premature death and a woman left behind, lost. That woman is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a brilliant linguist, who continues her work but watches the world through sad eyes. Her daughter’s scientist father is long gone and every day she wakes up and looks out her floor-to-ceiling windows at a fog that seems to never lift.
Two things fill this void — first, a group of extraterrestrial spacecraft that suddenly appear above Earth and second, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), a somber US military officer who needs Louise to talk with these intergalactic tourists. She accepts the challenge and helicopters to the American alien landing site in Montana.
She is joined by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), an Army-employed theoretical physicist who possesses a more charming hangdog smile than most theoretical physicists. Louise and Ian must work quickly to establish nuanced communication with the ships to deny the military’s first impulse to hit ‘em with nukes.
It’s a great pleasure to watch their first approach to the lovely and foreboding alien crafts, which resemble the shapes in Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” sculptures if they were crafted from the same material as the mammoth metal works of Richard Serra. Entering a hatch on the underside of the ship, the gravity changes and they float on into uncanniness, bringing an actual canary into the coal-colored spacecraft.
Director Denis Villanueve tantalizes us by revealing the shapes of the aliens slowly — their forms are obscured by the mist on their side of the clear wall that separates them from the humans. They turn out to be seven-limbed squid-shaped creatures with elephantine skins — Ian dubs them Abbott and Costello based on their relative height and girth.
As she begins work with the pair, Louise realizes that she’ll never be able to mimic the wordless speech of the visitors, so she focuses on written language instead. The heptapods are great calligraphists and paint black logograms on the screen that look like circular discs of timelessness. The beautiful explanation the film offers is that they draw the rounds with two hands toward the middle — they have an entire thought in mind before they begin to write. And all is well until they depict a shape that might mean “offer weapon.” Louise believes that word would be better translated as “gift,” but try explaining that to fidgety army men.
And the ship in Montana is but one of 12 pods spread over Earth, many in places under the sway of despots who would like nothing more than a supernatural armament to use against their enemies. The film somewhat humorously depicts the United States as one of the less bellicose governments (at least compared to the Sudan, Russia and China). But the thought experiment is this: What if everything depended on communication and information sharing between 12 national armies? Would it end well? Not likely.
As the missiles are aligned at the alien ships, it seems Louise is the only person capable of stopping annihilation. And, on top of that responsibility, she is increasingly wracked by hyper-vivid waking dreams of her daughter, full of aching déjà vu. Usually backstory is larded into a film to engender sympathy for the character, but the flashbacks mean a good deal more in “Arrival.” Here it builds to a plot twist that is actually worth the wait, unlike the telegraphed clunkers in recent films “The Girl on the Train” and “The Accountant.”