Journey, not destination

'Arrival' is serious science-fiction with a beating heart

By the time you read this, the presidential election that seemed like it would never end will presumably have ended. And yet, its scariest implications about human nature will not have been resolved. Which makes election week a very fine time for Paramount Pictures to drop "Arrival," a science-fiction masterpiece that's largely about our perceptions of time and our struggles to communicate.

The film offers a deceptively simple premise: 12 alien vessels arrive, prompting governments to mobilize their first-contact responses. In the U.S., one Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) enlists linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to take point in posing to the aliens the all-important question: "What is your purpose on Earth?"

We've been programmed by so much of science-fiction cinema to expect a big, dumb thriller out of "Arrival." But in the hands of director Denis Villeneuve ("Sicario"), this adaptation of Ted Chiang's celebrated science-fiction short story "Story of Your Life" honors its source material by offering thoughtful provocations about how and why we live. In a marketplace in which "Star Trek" has come to sending space motorcycles flying through the air, "Arrival" is a gift not to be taken lightly.

Villeneuve sticks to his sober and shadowy aesthetic while stepping up his approach to be more deliberate and methodical than ever. Credit Eric Heisserer ("Lights Out," the 2011 "The Thing") for the smart screenplay, which helps "Arrival" play out like a more cerebral "The Abyss" or a more accessible "Interstellar." While the story has considerable ticking-clock suspense -- credibly turning first contact into a Bay of Pigs-esque brink-of-war scenario -- it also proves unexpectedly romantic and profound in its deeper concerns, by exploring the happy-sad nature of existence itself, of being born to die.

For as wonderfully wonky as "Arrival" can be about language (including the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) and putting the science back in science fiction, the story also locates the universal in the specific perspective of Banks, who has to deal with powerful personal emotions as part and parcel of talking to the aliens (similar to the professional-personal dynamic facing Clarice Starling in "The Silence of the Lambs"). Adams' gifts fit the role like a glove: she's like the beautiful reflective surface of a lake rippled by wind, her studied placidity disturbed by powers out of her control (with love perhaps the worst offender).

"Arrival" serves as a philosophical reminder of how hard humans try to order the universe and control circumstance, and as a challenge to our single-minded ways of seeing life itself. In simplest terms, this plays out in the international cooperation and lack thereof, so tenuous at a moment of potential crisis when it needs to be unshakeable. But "Arrival" runs deeper than that. In part, the film's medium is the message: Villeneuve's non-linear film language mirrors the language Banks has been sent to crack.

The film's most obvious visual symbol is the proverbial canary in the coal mine, the caged bird the U.S. contingent carries when visiting the aliens. In some ways, "Arrival" wants to be that canary: a first-responder yellow light to proceed with caution, but to proceed. Like its aliens, the film strives to teach us in this moment to think differently, to communicate more clearly, to understand ourselves better. Our planet may be at stake -- certainly our stories, and the stories of our lives.

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