Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner
4 (out of 5) Globes
They arrive à la the no-goodnik E.T.s in “Independence Day.” One day there they all are: a fleet of ships from another world that look like floating contact lenses, hanging over a dozen-or-so key locations across our planet. Maybe their inhabitants are only playing nice before annihilating us, like the cheeky destructos of “Mars Attacks!” But the film’s tone assures us that’s unlikely. Brainy yet expensive, “Arrival” flaunts its hope to be more like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”: slow, measured and filled with moments where the audience is supposed to collectively hush, open their jaws in unison and go awe.
It’s not, however, as gee-whiz as “Close Encounters” — but then, this is 2016. Turns out our alien visitors have come to talk. Thing is, neither side knows how to do that. Because it’s been released into the Age of Trump, our hero, of course, is a linguist. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, awoken in the middle of the night and plucked from her boring job of teaching classes and writing books to play global savior. Teamed with a scientist (Jeremy Renner), the two are tasked with figuring what the hell our new guests, who look like hands with tentacles for fingers, are trying to say. That involves decoding not their speech, which sounds like an army of didgeridoos, but their written language: circular splotches that resemble a marriage of Rorschach tests with Spirograph doodles.
Yes, “Arrival” is the kind of $50 million sci-fi movie where our heroes debate the Sapir-Whorf theory of language. It’s also the kind of movie that doesn’t mention that by name. To the makers of “Arrival,” the portion of the audience that hates intelligence and experts and especially journalists might as well be the alien race: a group with whom they must divine an avenue of communication. It doesn’t dumb things down so much as find a way to make grammar arguments thrilling. A discussion of whether our potential alien overlords said “weapon” but actually might have meant “tool” is a lot more goosebumpy when humanity’s fate is in the balance. After all, the globe’s already tetchy, reliably short-sighted military powers are itching to pick a fight with an “enemy” who could probably flatten humanity like Godzilla would Bambi. (Insert another deflated Trump joke here.)