Get set for an invasion of aliens. They land this weekend in the new science fiction film “Arrival,” showing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center and Edgartown Cinemas. Fortunately, Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is on hand, and ready to use her skills as a linguistics scholar.
She is called on by a serious-minded Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to decipher what these creatures from some unknown place in outer space are doing in Montana. Similar egg-shaped pods have landed at 11 other sites around the world, and no one is sure how to communicate with them or find out what they’re up to. Are they peaceful envoys from another civilization, or are they getting ready to attack?
Director Denis Villeneuve begins his suspense film with Dr. Banks, at home remembering the daughter she lost to illness and working at the university where she teaches and does research. The memories she has of her daughter will play an important role in the story and its development of a circular time frame.
Word spreads quickly about the aliens, whose space pod has taken up residence in a field that fills up with military vehicles and equipment. In addition to enlisting Dr. Banks with her knowledge of obscure languages, Col. Weber taps physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Truthfully speaking, it’s a little hard to see what Donnelly’s contribution is except to repeatedly ask Dr. Banks if she’s OK. Of course she’s scared stiff, but she bravely soldiers on.
Dressed in almost comically clunky orange hazmat suits, the team enters the space vehicle and tries to communicate with the space creatures. They have skin like elephants, but I won’t spoil the surprise by giving away any other information about them (except that Banks and Donnelly dub two of them Abbott and Costello). Meanwhile, riots break out, right-wing talk show hosts call for military action, and governments in other parts of the world threaten war.
Dr. Banks’ creds are summed up in the preface of one of her books: “Language is the cornerstone of civilization.” Where is Noam Chomsky when you need him? Instead, Jessica Coon, an associate professor of syntax and indigenous language at McGill University, helped screenwriter Eric Heisserer validate the linguistics concepts used to flesh out Dr. Banks’ investigation.
Banks and Donnelly struggle slowly to figure out how they can reach the aliens. That ramps up the suspense with Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), a putative C.I.A. operative, pressuring Col. Weber to go on the attack as the media increases tensions worldwide.
It is always hard to take alien invasions too seriously, but “Arrival” does a credible job of getting beyond the clichés of the genre and addressing a complex of heavy issues like time, memory, politics, and human choice. Despite its bland title, “Arrival” aims to be in the sci-fi category of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Amy Adams carries the film with her subtle characterization of the woman on whose shoulders the fate of the earth seems to rest. It’s good to see a woman so capably in charge.