The giant alien spaceships have landed. They hover just a little above the ground, and are shaped like loaves of French bread.
Sounds like “Arrival” will be another alien-invasion picture. But hold on, because this movie’s got a lot of ideas in its head — it’s spacey, but not in the sci-fi sense.
In a prologue that looks like outtakes from Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” we meet a linguist, Louise (Amy Adams), who recalls the loss of her young daughter. At some later date, Louise is drawn into the effort to communicate with whatever is inside those spaceships.
Goaded by an Army overseer (Forest Whitaker) and aided by a sardonic physicist (Jeremy Renner), Louise takes gravity-defying trips into a spaceship perched above a Montana valley.
Her job is daunting: Establish, through painstaking trial-and-error, some kind of common language with creatures who don’t communicate the way we do. It’s kind of like “The Miracle Worker,” except humanity is Helen Keller.
Although Eric Heisserer’s script (based on “Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang) builds a parallel plot to this effort — a few world leaders want to start war with the enigmatic aliens — the film is amazingly content to stage slow, dreamy scenes of language being invented.
The aliens look splendid, with their spindly, squid-like bodies. And it’s tantalizing to think about decoding a language that resembles abstract painting.
Director Denis Villeneuve is strong on atmosphere, as his films “Prisoners,” “Enemy,” and “Sicario” attest. Here, he goes all in with the metaphysical aspects of the situation. So don’t go expecting much genre fun.
I confess I found myself nodding off during the generally repetitious scenes. You could almost argue that Villeneuve’s slow, woozy style invites the audience to enter some kind of alpha-wave state, as though we’ll be receptive to whatever line these aliens are putting down.
That’s fair, but I still got pretty sleepy. And when it comes to a payoff for all the gauzy head-scratching, “Arrival” reverts to a few basic sci-fi conventions for its finish.
The film garnered some reverential reactions on the festival circuit, and it’s undeniably enhanced by a committed, meat-and-potatoes performance by Amy Adams (this is not a movie people will criticize for glamming up a female academic).
If others see something profound here, great. Maybe I shouldn’t have skimped on the caffeine beforehand.
“Arrival” (2 stars)
Alien spaceships visit Earth, and a linguist (Amy Adams) must figure out a shared language with the spindly creatures. Director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”) is big on atmosphere, and that’s mostly what this dreamy movie has going for it. Some have seen profundity here, some of us experience drowsiness. With Jeremy Renner.
Rating: PG-13, for subject matter
Showing: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Sundance Cinemas, Thornton Place Stadium, Cascade Mall.