'Arrival' starring Amy Adams is an alien movie with philosophical heft

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) must find a way to communicate with the aliens.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) must find a way to communicate with the aliens. Jan Thijs, Paramount Pictures

The truth is out there, but it’s also down here.

Arrival, an aliens-come-to-Earth drama from Denis Villeneuve, is the heady, philosophical counterpart to the likes of Independence Day and District 9: an exploration not of outer space but of one earthling’s inner life. It looks forward and backward, up and down, and finds a kind of cosmic truth that’s achingly beautiful in how personal it is.

The question in Arrival isn’t whether or not aliens exist; it’s why they’re here. The otherworldly beings have landed at 12 ostensibly random spots across the globe in monolithic spacecraft, opening their doors to their respective emissaries once every 18 hours.

That their outposts are in such far-flung locations as Russia, China, the Sudan, and America almost reads as a challenge: cooperate among yourselves, they seem to be telling us, or risk never knowing what we’re doing here — and whether we come in peace.

Enter Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an esteemed linguist who’s tasked with trekking to Montana and translating the extraterrestrials’ language. She’s joined in that effort by scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), whose view on life and work makes for a clear contrast to her own. After briefly setting their philosophies in opposition to one another, Villeneuve puts them to work.

What follows is almost daring in how unsexy and process-heavy it is. Louise puts in the long hours and hard work required to establish communication with these creatures. When saying simple words aloud yields no obvious results, she writes the word “human” on a whiteboard and points at herself. Big things start small.

Villeneuve was working in French Canada for more than a decade when his Incendies landed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film and caught the attention of Hollywood; since then, he’s become as sought after as he is prolific: 2013’s Prisoners, his English-language debut, has been followed in short order by Enemy, Sicario, and now this. He’ll next helm the long-awaited Blade Runner sequel, and hopefully bring to it the same verve and nuance that make Arrival so compelling.

To reach the room where the dialogues take place, Louise and her team — which includes a bird in a cage, their canary in the coal mine — pass through a kind of antigravity chamber. Arrival chooses its visual spots carefully, grounding the fantastical in the scientific so as to make each small, physics-defying moment stand out all the more.

Of course, there’s meddling from the governmental and military higher-ups (led by Forest Whitaker, authoritative in his sullenness), as intel from the makeshift league of nations suggests that maybe these visitors aren’t simply on a fact-minding mission, that our worst fears could soon be realized.

Like most movie heroes, Louise brings emotional baggage to this endeavor: Impressionistic glimpses of her life show a young daughter who succumbs to an unspecified terminal illness as Louise looks on helplessly. And so, after a while, that central question expands into something more like “Why are any of us here?” Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, without making it overt or grandiose, tap into a fear that, as they envision it, is quite literally universal.

For all that, most everyone outside of Louise’s immediate orbit isn’t as fully drawn as she is; Louise is a flesh-and-blood being among two-dimensional characters who sometimes serve as little more than talking plot devices. Neither Renner nor Whitaker is called upon to shoulder as much of the burden as they’re clearly capable of doing, though both perform admirably in their limited roles — Whitaker especially has a presence that’s unique to him, at once imposing and deeply sympathetic.

Villeneuve and Heisserer also make brilliant use of a structural conceit that can’t be mentioned in depth without revealing a key plot detail, so know this: Arrival moves through space-time with a nimbleness so rare it feels like a visit from another place, the kind you’ll want to have your whiteboard ready for.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Opens Friday, area theaters