by Glenn Lovell
At the risk of oversimplifying things, movie extraterrestrials usually belong to one of two fraternities — those who “come in peace” and then blast anything that moves, and those who come in peace and actually mean it. The aliens in Denis Villeneuve’s uplifting but unaccountably murky sci-fi’er are of the latter persuasion; they’re off-putting in appearance, sort of a cross between undulating octopi and gigantic sock puppets, but, hey, they have Earth’s best interest at heart.
Because they have seven tentacles and communicate via inky discharges, our new guests are referred to by the first-contact team as heptapods. Because there are two of them, at least at the Montana landing site, they’re nicknamed Abbott and Costello.
But like Klaatu/Carpenter in the original “Day the Earth Stood Still” and Spielberg’s child-like visitors in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which feels like Villeneuve’s model, these intergalactic what’s-its have happened by to serve man, not to serve him (as in fatten him up and then charbroil him). (Apologies to a classic “Twilight Zone” episode for that wordplay.)
The ever-inquisitive Amy Adams, now also appearing in “Nocturnal Animals,” plays Louise Banks, a celebrated professor of linguistics who moonlights as code breaker-interpreter for military intelligence. Given her success with intercepted terrorist messages, she’s the go-to girl when 12 orb-shaped spacecraft park in the skies above Pakistan, China, Russia, the U.S. and other (randomly chosen?) countries. The all-business Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker affecting a bad Boston accent) wants her to crack the metallic, whale-like chatter. More specifically the military would like her to ask, “Where did you come from? Why are you here?”
“Arrival,” which costars Jeremy Renner as the leader of the hazmat-outfitted team, is probably best described as humanist sci-fi. Like “CE3K” with Richard Dreyfuss and “Contact” with Jodie Foster — and the Soviet “Solaris,” for that matter — it pretends to be looking upward to the heavens, but its real target is the human heart. In short, while Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”), working from a story by Ted Chiang, manages to conjure a fair amount of tensiin by deploying Chanook helicopters and hardass soldiers — Whitaker’s gloomy, hangdog colonel being the hardest ass of them all — he really wants us to peer inward and debate how we would react when such odd-looking visitors come bearing gifts.
No, our track record dating to H.G. Wells’s “War of the World” hasn’t been what you’d call stellar.
If you’ve made it this far, you realize that this review imparts very little plot detail. That’s by design. Suffice to say the central mystery revolves around the name Hannah. Clue: It’s a palindrome that reads the same backwards and forward.
ARRIVAL ✮✮✮ With Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker. Directed by Denis Villeneuve; scripted by Eric Heisserer from a Ted Chiang story. 116 min. PG-13 (some profanity and intense moments, but positive message makes it OK for preteens)