What a phenomenally mind-bending science-fiction masterpiece this is.
“Arrival” is one of the year’s finest movies, a wonder to behold with top-notch performances in a brilliant screenplay.
Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a professor of linguistics. It is an ordinary day in her classroom when her students' phones begin to emit alarms. One of them asks her to turn the big-screen television to a news channel, and that’s when they learn that alien ships have arrived in 12 different locations throughout the world.
The ships look like stylized whales — in fact, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (“Sicario”) gives the score, with lush vocals and piano loops, a haunting reminder of a whale song when we first see the ship that’s floating over the United States.
Scientists in the countries involved try to determine why the ships are here, and what they contain. At regular intervals, a kind of hatch to each craft opens, and people are allowed to see, through a kind of mist, the huge creatures that look kind of like a cross between an elephant and a giant squid.
Known as the “heptapods,” because they have seven appendages, the creatures emit undecipherable sounds. And that’s where Banks comes in.
Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) needs a linguist for his team, which also includes physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Weber makes it clear that no time is to be wasted: It’s urgent that Banks find out why the creatures have come.
The depiction of the teams’ first ascent with Banks on board is astonishing. You can almost feel the fear of the characters as they face something that could kill them — something, in fact, that could wipe out the entire planet.
Banks has a terrific idea — to tell you more than that would be cheating you out of the surprise — that leads to a breakthrough with the creatures. Even then, communication is slow and uncertain.
The screenplay by Eric Heisserer is based on the Nebula Award-winning “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. Director Denis Villeneuve, who helmed the equally challenging “Prisoners,” another favorite of mine, keeps the audience guessing as to what is really going on until he allows us to have a dawning of realization.
The Oscar-nominated Adams is superb. Her character is just as complex as the situation in which she finds herself.
This is smart and sophisticated, and put me in the mind of its other modern science-fiction fare such as “Contact” and “Interstellar.” Even though its focus is aliens, “Arrival” truly is a story about the human condition — how we react to what we don’t understand, and how we measure our lives.