Do they come in peace? That’s the question at the center of every story that invites us to imagine we might not be the only sentient beings in the reach of 200 billion-or-so known galaxies. And it’s one French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) answers not quickly but with sublime style in Arrival, an alien-invasion fantasy that operates within the genre at the same time as it subverts it — large-scale movie-star sci-fi filtered through the tricky, esoteric lens of art-house cinema.
Amy Adams is Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics expert whose quietly desolate home life seems to consist mostly of long pauses and large glasses of pinot. She was happy once, we learn in early flashbacks — the mother of a daughter whose brief arc from birth to death is captured in a series of dreamy, impressionistic images, like a time-lapsed flower. Now Louise teaches without much passion at an anonymous university, though there’s another reason her students look distracted: Their phones and laptops begin to ping across the lecture hall one morning with breaking news of unidentified floating objects — they look like giant obsidian eggs, or very expensive paperweights — suddenly scattered around the globe. Nothing about the spacecrafts’ presence or purpose is clear, and she’s left like every other civilian to stand by in a sort of helpless limbo, waiting for Armageddon. But not for long; a midnight knock on the door brings Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), and a request from the U.S. Army: Can she use her advanced language skills to find out what these visitors want? The egg hovering serenely over rural Montana is their entry point; every 18 hours, it opens to allow a brief audience with its inhabitants, spidery heptapods whose feelers periodically shoot out inky, Rorschach-like rings. Without a key or an obvious point of reference, the team — which includes a brash cowboy physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner) — is forced to find more creative means of code breaking.
It would ruin the singular vision of Villeneuve’s storytelling to say much more, though he unfurls it all with a subtlety we don’t usually see in movies whose interstellar canvases almost beg for overreach. (Even if he can’t resist a few ersatz Terrence Malick moments early on.) Arrival’s endgame can seem obtuse and its emotions submerged, suggesting a film as chilly as its palette of Pantone blues and grays. But it’s all in the service of building to its final revelation — and also of conveying Louise’s enormous loss. She’s her own kind of lonely astronaut, set adrift from everything that once defined her: parent, partner, teacher. With these creatures at least she’s needed; in fact, the fate of the world may rest on it. That’s the movie’s greatest feint, though: Ultimately, it’s far less interested in galactic destiny than the infinite, uncharted landscape of the human heart. A–