It takes nothing away from “Arrival” — as powerful as it is, as thoughtful as it is, as well-crafted as it is — to note that director Denis Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer were working with extraordinary raw material.
“Arrival” is based on “Story of Your Life” by the amazing Ted Chiang; it is perhaps the single best sci-fi novella of the past 25 years. Chiang, it should be noted, releases no wine before its time — of his 15 short stories, novelettes and novellas, seven have won a total of 14 awards; dude’s batting average is insane.
“Story of Your Life” is a deeply internal work, and it is a tiny miracle that Villeneuve, who is currently directing the sequel to “Blade Runner (no pressure, dude) and Heisserer figured out a way to translate this tale to film in the first place, let alone make it so touching and smart.
“Arrival” is about the day the world metaphorically shifts on its axis, but it is mostly the story of one woman. Like the very best science fiction, “Arrival” is hopeful and a bit implausible and slightly corny and mind-bending and a little bit sad. It fills a where-do-we-go-from-here shaped hole in the heart and manages to also be a canny look at the nature of grief and time.
We first see Lousie Banks (Amy Adams, as good as she gets without having a scene-chewy part) mourning the loss of her daughter, whom we see, in a montage, from her joyful birth to too-early death. Then, the aliens arrive — 12 smooth, black ovals, hovering over various points on the globe. We don’t know who they are; we don’t know what they want.
Banks, a brilliant linguist, is brought in by the military (represented by a typically gruff Forest Whitaker) and the CIA (Michael Stuhlbarg) to attempt to communicate with the aliens — massive, seven-legged creatures that humans come to call “heptapods.” Their speech is impenetrable, but, working with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, who seems no more a physicist than I do), Banks starts communicating with the heptapods, whose written language may or may not be the key to their presence on Earth.
While Banks holds off the U.S. military, the rest of the world (by which I mean the Chinese and Russians, mostly) is starting to freak out. Paranoia soon takes over, and suddenly nobody is sharing information with anyone else.
The question hangs in the air like one of the alien ships: Do the heptapods mean to do us harm, or are they here for another reason?
Ever since “Star Wars” rewrote the proverbial rule book, there has been so little room in cinemas for calm, brainy science fiction that anything that isn’t space opera seems like a feast — “Arrival” is pretty easy to overrate. But even with the obvious homages to proggy sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the film has an emotional weight and kick. Adams gives a tight, measured performance that’s emotionally expansive when it needs to be. Villeneuve, cinematographer Bradford Young, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and editor Joe Walker dole out information and color it in knowing ways, building to third act revelations that make for profoundly moving film-making, the sort that demands that you watch it again from the beginning.
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Flix Brewhouse, Hill Country, Moviehouse & Eatery, Round Rock, Southpark, Stone Hill, Tinseltown, Violet Crown, Westgate