Amy Adams is a miracle worker of an actress – she makes us believe in whoever and whatever she's playing. In Arrival, a mesmerizing mindbender directed with searching mind and heart by the Quebec-born Denis Villeneuve, Adams plays a woman who talks to aliens. Or at least she wants to, desperately. She's not crazy; she's Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics prof who gets called in by the U.S. military, in the person of Forest Whitaker's army colonel, to make contact with the creatures whose oval spaceships hover overhead in rural Montana. They are also vessels in 11 others places in different parts of the world, including a not-so-peace-loving China. But Louise sticks to Big Sky country.
Early reviews cite the film's deep-dish philosophical underpinnings, possibly because these E.T.s are less like the nasty invaders in Spielberg's War of the Worlds and more like the kindly, curious bunch in the master's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If you know Villeneuve's work in Sicario, and Prisoners, you know how he draws viewers in slowly and inexorably. It's the same here. Based on Ted Chiang's 1998 novella Story of Your Life, the script by Eric Heisserer finds Louise and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (smartly underplayed by Jeremy Renner) enlisted to find out the intentions of these "heptapods," so named for their seven long tentacles.
It's hard not to be spellbound, along with our heroes when they enter the gravity-free spacecraft and attempt to interact with these visitors from behind a glass wall. The aliens make sounds like the keening of whales, but when Louise holds up an English word they respond with circular ink splotches, which don't seem to suggest the need for world domination or anal probes. Whew! Louise and Ian nickname the two heptapods Abbott and Costello. The humor is a nice touch, but Arrival is hunting bigger game about how we humans deal with anything alien, anything we fear. Kudos to cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, A Most Violent Year) for making the unknown a believably living presence. And when the alien ink blots seem to spell out the word for "weapon," the war-machine goes into high gear.
Interspersed with the threats of global invasion is the story of a daughter Louise loved and lost, much like what Sandra Bullock's character experienced in Gravity. In lesser hands, the personal tale could have seemed extraneous or even silly. But Adams and Villeneuve make it work beautifully. This suggestion of a shared heartbeat between species is reflected in the haunting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Though action fanboys might get antsy about the film's contemplative pace, patience pays off in a curve-throwing ending that fills you with a sense a wonder, not to mention shock and awe. Adams, her face a reflection of conflicting emotions, is simply stellar in an Oscar-buzzed performance of amazing grit and grace. Without her, Arrival might be too cerebral to warm up to. With her, the film gets inside your head and emerges as something intimate and epic, a linguistics odyssey through space and time. It's the stuff that dreams are made of.