Arrival conjures strange beauty and big questions

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      Starring Amy Adams. Rated PG

      It's impossible not to read Denis Villeneuve's Arrival in terms of the unsettling political events that unfolded last week. His haunting, brainy new sci-fi thriller highlights how words can be tools of peace and war, how we shouldn't jump to judge outsiders, and how aggressive military tactics can backfire.

      That the accomplished Canadian director can do this amid an outlandish story about alien encounters speaks to his unusual gifts—an ability to build dark atmosphere that also lifted his Sicario and Prisoners so far above genre formula.

      Just soak in the strange, creepy beauty of the extended scene where linguistics prof Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has her first close encounter. Alien ships that look like gigantic watermelon seeds hover ominously above Earth. Linguistics expert Banks and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited by the military to try to unlock the visitors' weird language of rumbles and clicks, to find out why they're here.

      Banks and Donnelly's surreal approach to the site has the visual impact of Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey: the military helicopter floats slowly across a dusklit landscape to the towering orb, and then the crew, in orange hazard suits, ascends an eerie steep tunnel—upside down due to gravity shifts. Add Johann Johannsson's score, a chirping bird the team has brought to monitor the air, and the fluttering intonations of the aliens, and you have a scene that's quietly more nerve-wracking than Ellen Ripley's doomed arrival on LV-246.

      And yet Villeneuve strives for much, much more than tension-filled alien encounters here. On one level, he's not afraid to go intellectual on the linguistics front, fetishizing every curl on the aliens' bizarre, ink-blot language and having Banks throw around terms like logograms. The complex idea is that our language can reflect and even determine the way we view our world.

      On another level, he's also posing hard questions about the planet's leaders ever being able to pull together in the face of a crisis. But the most moving level is the one that examines mortality, time, and our meaning on earth, in a more subtle way than Interstellar or The Tree of Life did. Banks is haunted by an unthinkable loss, and the film cleverly circles back on it with a philosophical question that puts a more personal and human spin on the word arrival than you might ever expect from the title.

      It's Adams, in fact, that helps Villeneuve pull all this off, giving Banks an understated, ethereal kind of knowing, but also a deep sadness that makes her a very different kind of sci-fi heroine—one with the patience, acuity, and empathy to translate the aliens' painterly script.

      Adams creates such subtle magic, in fact, that you can overlook the parts of the plot that clunk—the cliched military grunts who nag her to hurry with her translation, or the more mind-bending explanations near the end.

      Character development, big philosophical questions, and political relevance: not what you expect heading out to a creature feature, especially one with alien heptapods that look this threatening. But welcome all the same.