The sci-fi drama Arrival sends out a message of peaceful understanding led by Amy Adams

Aliens land on earth. What now?

Arrival (PG13: brief coarse language)

Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner Directed by Denis Villeneuve

A dozen spaceships land around the world.

What is their intention?

Arrival, based on Ted Chiang's 1998 novella Story of Your Life, is not our typical alien-invasion movie.

Amy Adams is the linguist professor Dr Louise Banks conscripted by the US Army (in the person of colonel Forest Whitaker) along with Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist, Ian Donnelly, to communicate with the giant obelisk hovering on a field in rural Montana. The superpowers including China and Russia are urging military aggression amid rising global tension, and how we respond, indeed, the fate of humanity, rests on Banks and Donnelly racing against the clock to decode the inky splotches the spidery "heptapods" squirt from their tentacles.

With patience and control, the French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve unpeels his sci-fi into a pensive, transfixing exploration of language and time.

Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997) and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) are as much Villeneuve’s influence as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines cognition.

Villeneuve owes a good deal to Terence Malick, too, especially in the impressionistic prelude tracing the brief life and premature death of Banks’ daughter.

Banks’ bereavement is mysteriously reawakened the closer she gets to the aliens in scenes of both wonder and dread shot through lyrical art-house lens: these wailing, faceless creatures are like nothing we have seen, in keeping with the conceptual daring.

Villeneuve has a gift for transforming the mundane whether the Pennsylvania suburb of the missing-girl whodunit Prisoners (2011) or the Tex-Mex border of the cartel thriller Sicario (2015) into unsettling worlds. But this outer space saga, even while immersing us in otherworldly strangeness, turns inwards to become Banks’ intimate emotional journey, and Adams’ beautiful performance is one of melancholy, vulnerability, curiosity and quiet intelligence.

Banks’ empathy is what finally enables her to reach out to the visitors.

Which makes this an essential parable for our times. 4/5

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