When it comes to sci-fi films I will admit that I'm generally turned off by plots that involve peace-loving aliens who come to earth to help us lead better lives. I'd much rather have some insidious creatures with ray guns who are seemingly invulnerable as they try to pulverize mankind. Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T." were certainly landmark films with much to admire about them, but I'm generally more in the mood to watch his terrific remake of "War of the Worlds" in which we learned that if demonic aliens are to take on humanity, they apparently are going to start the attack in Bayonne, New Jersey. Director Denis Villeneuve's acclaimed Oscar-nominated film "Arrival" manages to convey enough ambiguity about the motives of visiting aliens to build genuine suspense. The film is the latest in a long line that refreshingly presents a female as the lead in a role that sixty years ago would have been played by Leslie Nielsen or Gene Barry. Adams plays Louise Banks, a single woman who teaches linguistics at a college in Montana. She came to the government's attention some years before when she assisted in interpreting during interrogations of suspected terrorists. Adams is living a benign lifestyle but as the film opens, we see that mankind is about to experience an incredible phenomenon: the arrival of twelve alien spaceships around the globe. As the world goes into a full-scale panic, Louise is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) of U.S. Army Intelligence, who persuades her to join a quickly-assembled team of scientists and other intellectuals who have been brought to a remote field in rural Montana where an egg-shaped ship sits silently suspended in the air, just yards above the turf. Louise is told a shocking development that the public is unaware of: contact has been made with the inhabitants of the ship and the government is working with intelligence networks from around the world to find a way of communicating with them. Louise works closely with fellow linguist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a small team as they nervously make their way into the inner sanctum of the alien craft. They have a peaceful but puzzling encounter with the beings from another world. (James Bond fans will be delighted to know that they appear to resemble giant versions of the Spectre organization's symbolic octopus.) Over the course of several days, Louise and the team frantically try to find a way for common communication with the aliens, who do not speak or make any noticeable sounds. Instead, they communicate via visual elements that resemble smoke rings, each one with a distinct meaning. Although the initial encounters appear to be non-threatening, Chinese intelligence discovers what they believe to be an inherent threat to mankind and before long, the world gears up for all-out war against the strange visitors. I won't say any more because "Arrival" is so filled with surprising and satisfying plot twists that any in-depth examination of the plot would reveal spoilers. Suffice it to say that the excellent screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on Ted Chiang's novella "The Story of Your Life", is remarkably intelligent and never less than fascinating. I'm generally not a fan of films that don't proceed in a linear fashion and at times "Arrival" throws out scenes of Amy Adams with a young daughter that are initially impossible to interpret, as the story bounces around through time periods...or perhaps these scenes are dreams or fantasies. When it all comes together in the emotionally wrenching finale, "Arrival" has taken its place as one of the most innovative and satisfying science fiction movies ever made. It's also one of the greatest expressions of parental love I have ever seen depicted in any movie.
Adams is superb and should have been Oscar-nominated for her role. She gets able support from Renner and Whitaker, both of whom are excellent. Most of the credit goes to director Villeneuve, for whom this was a dream project. He avoids every sci-fi cliche imaginable, from the look of the aliens and their spaceship to the nature of the implicit threat they may well pose. The production design by Patrice Vermette is outstanding, as is the innovate musical score by Johan Johannsson. Paramount has released "Arrival" in a package containing a Blu-ray, DVD and digital download. There are the expected bonus extras which are far more interesting than most because they go beyond the usual mutual backslapping by actors and crew members. Instead, there is heavy-duty analysis of linguistics and scientific theories, thus appealing to anyone who has an inner nerd. Doubtless there will someday be an "Ultimate Special Edition" but now this will suffice. "Arrival" is a great movie. It may not appeal to viewers who want action over philosophy, but for those who aren't afraid to delve into the mysteries of life, this movie about interplanetary visitors is literally out of this world.