In “Arrival,” 12 giant spaceships touch down at various spots around the world, including Montana. The crafts hover just a few feet above the ground. They’re tall and oblong and lack any features discernible to the human eye, no doors or windows or lights or — whew! — weapon turrets.
But the extraterrestrial visitors don’t come out of their vehicles to say hi or even take a look around. The ships are like the monolith in “2001” — tall, imposing, silent, baffling. Why are they here and where are they from? Most importantly, what do they want?
The first half of “Arrival,” which was directed by Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario,” “Prisoners”) from a screenplay by Eric Heisserer (“Lights Out”), is gripping, imaginative sci-fi set on a global scale but told from an intimate perspective: Louise (Amy Adams), a linguistics college professor still mourning the death of her teenage daughter, is asked by a U.S. Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) to try to communicate with the aliens and find out if they’re dangerous. He’s not interested in understanding them. He just needs to decide whether we should be bracing for an attack.
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But Louise is more curious than fearful. The world she thought she knew has changed overnight. but instead of being afraid, she can’t wait to go exploring. “Arrival” is based on the novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, who used a tale about aliens making first contact with Earth as a vehicle for exploring heady subject matter such as the principle of least time and determinism. The movie preserves most of that stuff — this is, in essence, a film that forces you to think about spoken and written language — but it’s been remolded into an accessible, multiplex-friendly entertainment, complete with explosions and a beat-the-clock finale.
The need to play to the back row hurts the movie: You can pinpoint the exact moment in the film where Villeneuve surrenders to the needs of plot and pacing and starts skipping narrative corners for the sake of convenience. The first couple of face-to-face encounters between the aliens and Louise (who is teamed up with a physicist, played by Jeremy Renner) are eerie and weird in all the best ways.
Villeneuve, perhaps knowing he would never be able to top what Steven Spielberg accomplished in the last 30 minutes of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” takes a minimalist visual approach. The movie isn’t dazzling in the manner of traditional pop sci-fi pictures. But the clean images allow you to concentrate on the story’s complicated ideas, such as the concept of time being circular instead of linear (pay attention to the prologue that opens the movie).
Too bad, then, that “Arrival” winds up as just another Hollywood study of beautifully photographed grief and loneliness, only decked out in quantum physics. Adams is perfectly cast as the emotionally detached professor — she has bright, inquisitive eyes that radiate great intelligence and sadness — but she deserves better material than a puzzle-box movie capped off by a huge, telegraphed twist. As her egghead partner in scientific exploration, Renner has so little to do you wonder why he even was cast, until his character reveals his true purpose: Plot device.
Even the aliens’ true intent comes off as anti-climactic, a weak-tea MacGuffin. The best science fiction leaves you with questions and ideas to ponder. “Arrival” is the sort of superficially profound movie that initially seems deep and weighty but stops making sense the moment you put down the bong.
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nathaly Thibault, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien.
Director: Denis Villeneuve.
Screenwriter: Eric Heisserer. Based on the novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 116 minutes. Brief vulgar language. Playing at area theaters.