It helps that Villeneuve and his creative team have made their extrasolar visitors as truly alien as possible, and thereby ensure this first contact narrative is inventively, fiendishly and realistically problematic. The alien craft, or 'shells', are immense, lens shaped, black rock obelisks which levitate noiselessly several metres above the Earth's surface, never actually touching terra firma. Every 18 hours a hatch opens in the shell's lower tip, admitting a delegation of humans into the gravity bending interior. The human visitors, carrying an achingly symbolic canary in a cage, arrive at a rectangular audience chamber in which they are separated from a sea of ominous white mist by a transparent wall. And from the swirling fog they emerge – eerie, graceful heptapods, resembling a hybrid of squid, spider, whale and mangrove. The tips of their gnarled, finger-like limbs, it transpires, peel open into starfish-like appendages which ejaculate ink that flows into lazily floating symbolic rings. This is the aliens' language. It is way beyond Klingon or even Close Encounters' five-note salutation.
They have something to say, and the race to figure exactly what gives the film both its tight structure and pulsing momentum. Without a single planetary leader to be taken to on our divided world, the heptapods have suspended themselves over a dozen points around its surface. But why 12, exactly? And why those specific locations? The mysteries layer up, though despite all the heavy portent, Eric Heisserer's (Lights Out) script isn't without levity – at one point theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) correlates that all the arrival sites are in places where Sheena Easton had a hit in 1980.
While the Chinese and Russians get somewhat twitchy, the Americans put linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) on the case. Like all good movie intellects, she is both intelligent and able to distill her science down into digestible soundbites for the sceptical military, represented by Forest Whitaker's (The Last King Of Scotland) weary Colonel and Michael Stuhlbarg's (A Serious Man) shady CIA operative. She also comes with some outsize emotional baggage, following the heartbreaking death of her daughter.
But before you roll your eyes over the cliché of the grieving hero, be reassured this particular emotional thread is ingeniously connected with the macro-trauma playing out around her. Also, in finding an actress to sell it convincingly, Villeneuve could have done no better than Adams, who negotiates and balances Louise's frustrations with the army wonks, her bewilderment and awe at meeting the extraterrestrial visitors, and her personal tribulations with subtlety and absorbing naturalism.
On the exterior, Louise is the calm, albeit shaky, eye of this interplanetary storm. On the interior rages a silent storm of her own, a fugue of memory fragments that comes to twist and bend like a psychic cyclone as she begins to decode the visitors' inky vernacular. Adams is the film's quiet, luminous heart, and Villeneuve spends more time focusing on her face than he does the aliens or their mysterious vessels – we are not even allowed to see the first shell properly until Louise herself witnesses it, and quite rightly so.
Banks summing up the difficulty in getting the aliens to understand one simple sentence is a delight. How do you clarify the distinction between a weapon and a tool with a species that talks in shapes?
Director of Photography Bradford Young (stepping in for Villeneuve regular cinematographer Roger Deakins) elegantly captures the scale of the visiting craft and the claustrophobic corridors of the military basecamp at which Banks and Donnelly are stationed. Sparely used flashbacks have a haunting quality, and are given further heft by Jóhann Jóhannsson's painfully poignant score.
Arrival is a beautifully polished puzzle box of a story whose emotional and cerebral heft should enable it to withstand critical scrutiny. And like all the best science fiction, it has something pertinent to say about today's society – particularly about the importance of communication, and how we need to transcend cultural divides and misconceptions if we are to survive as a species. An ideal that shouldn't need any translation.
The Earth may be standing still again, but Arrival is a fresh take on the extraterrestrial encounter movie that grips you with the strength of its ideas and the quality of its execution, then burrows deep thanks to its resonant themes and emotional richness.