'Arrival' Is A Utopian Sci-Fi Mystery For Our Dark Times

Arrival, a new science fiction film from Québec-turned-Hollywood filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, plunges into the unknown with neither magical awe nor vengeful destruction, but instead restrained curiosity. The film's main visual centerpiece is a darkened chamber in the middle of a circular and blackened alien vessel (perhaps modeled off James Turrell's Breathing Light) where humans stare into a milky white gas toward what feels like an infinite abyss. But this abyss stares back in the form of two extraterrestrial bodies (a physical description is best left for discovery), and thus the mystery beckons—what do they exactly want? Arrival answers this with a more intriguing question: how can we ask them without even knowing how to communicate?

Set against grayed skies and misty mountains in remote Montana, Arrival operates in a low-key, pointed style recalling David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh. With subtle camera push-ins in a muted color scheme, Villeneuve rarely strays from its downcast tone. This adds a thrilling pulse to the puzzle-box mystery at the center of Eric Heisserer's script. When twelve alien vessels arrive across the globe, the government tasks a linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) with developing a system of communication. She's the lone woman in a world of men (the brief moments of sexism subtly acknowledged), explaining her theories of language to a skeptical scientist (Jeremy Renner) a straight-shooting general (Forrest Whitaker), and a panicked government official (Michael Stuhlbarg). But learning to communicate is a slow process, and Banks has little time before the other countries consider shutting down scientific progress in favor of an attack.

Arrival's best gambit is in its slow reveal, playing the mystery out as a constant yarn. Some might describe it as a "thinking person's movie" simply because it keeps you invested in the exact nature of the mystery (with occasional expositional bits to explain theories of linguistics). But more importantly, the film simply keep its scope small, employing a minimalist score and quiet visual design under the guiding hand of Selma cinematographer, Bradford Young. The camera moves with economy, if to an annoyingly textbook style (for example, moments of distress are signified with shaky cam), but there's a conviction to not turning this mystery into a grandiose spectacle. Arrival doesn't so much think as it quietly pulsates, making the viewer lean in due to its understated, inquisitive nature.

But the weakness of the film's muted approach jeopardizes its eventual appeal toward our heartstrings. Before the aliens factors into the plot, Arrival begins with a montage of Adams and her daughter in joyous situations before losing her to a rare disease. That story returns in recurring bits of flashback montage, eventually tying into the mystery in an appeal to turn the intellectual puzzle into a dramatic sentiment. It feels like a nice touch, but it feels disconnected in many ways from the core of the story. Instead, the subplot seems all designed to shove one of the more ham-fisted lines in the script as some great philosophical inquiry. Villeneuve has such a control over his elements that these impulse—certainly present in films like Incendies and Sicario—almost poison the well of all of his otherwise genuine strengths as a filmmaker.

But watching Arrival, especially as a distraction from the events outside the darkened theater, I couldn't help like envisioning its worldview as an alternative utopian vision. Here was a moment of crisis in which the answer to looking at someone literally alien was not met with fear but understanding, not with hatred but an invitation to communication. Harkening to the classic science fiction film The Day The Earth Stood Still, the script pushes nations to come together and simply talk instead of retreat into fearful self-interest. It strives for basic decency at a moment when that is no longer a widely held value. I'm not sure what value is left in hope, but if art can provide a modicum of it, maybe that's a start.

Arrival is in theaters Friday.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.