As much as I love it, science fiction can have a tendency to drift toward the gratuitous when aliens and Earth intermingle. Not to say there's anything wrong with death rays and little green men, but when the fear of the unknown floats down to Earth from the far reaches of the cosmos, it's invariably met by a drawn gun and men in camo pants.
The 12 slate-black and egglike obelisks that appear hovering around the globe in director Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival" are met with a similar armed response, with battleships and infantry at the ready and heated exchanges made through military-grade smartphones with fancy dongles attached. (For special encryption or super-secret app store access? The people have a right to know!) World powers tentatively align in the face of a potential invasion, seeking an understanding of the new visitors and their reason for visiting (but mostly only so far as to determine the appropriate DEFCON level to set).
Soon after the ships appear and the balance of the world is shaken, linguistics professor and translator Louise Banks (Amy Adams at her most soulful) is contacted by a U.S. general (Forest Whitaker) seeking to communicate with the aliens and is whisked to Montana, where one of the objects has appeared. After emergency meetings and suitable levels of urgency and fear are established, Louise and physicist partner Ian (Jeremy Renner) scissor lift themselves into the craft.
Scenes inside the ship are transfixing and transporting. The interior of the egg is eerily sparse, a cavelike chamber with a lit wall of glass at one end dividing the space where humans and aliens meet and setting a literal stage for interactions. "Arrival" doesn't hide the aliens from the audience's view; after the initial unknown terror of the first encounter, their towering forms become oddly familiar as Louise and Ian attempt to establish a means of communication and understand the alien language.
There are a few blips of action scattered throughout, but the quest for comprehension is where the movie both spends most of its time and drums up most of its excitement. Armed with a dry erase board, Louise goes about deciphering the visitors' message (including a montage of knowledge exchange and mutual understanding that the Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson crowd is bound to eat up).
It's also where most of the tension arises when the time comes to ask why they're here (giving a two-word answer uncomfortably open to interpretation).
"Arrival" is quiet sci-fi driven by a quiet performance by Adams. Screens scattered throughout the military base where Louise works blare with the talking heads and homegrown fears of a population encountering the unknown, but the story is more focused inward, on her and her work to prevent catastrophe brought about by something as simple but serious as a mistranslation. There are a few "whoa, dude" moments that come off as a little bit lofty and maybe a twinge sentimental, but it mostly satisfies an itch for introspective and hopeful sci-fi.
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