There’s a famous episode of the '60s series The Twilight Zone about an alien race that lands on Earth. They are nine feet tall. They are telepathic. They are called Kanamits. The world is freaked out, but the ETs go to great lengths to convince a wary populace that they have come in peace.
A team of government cryptologists labors furiously over a Kanamit book to crack the Kanamit language, and one of them has a breakthrough. She has the book’s title: To Serve Man. Maybe you’ve seen this episode.
No one asks Dr. Louise Banks, the brilliant linguist played by Amy Adams in the trippy sci-fi spectacle Arrival if she’s familiar with the Twilight Zone classic. And anyway, she’d be too busy to watch it -- what with being helicoptered out of her lakefront home in the middle of the night and taken to a vast field in Montana, where a giant oval object hovers just above the ground.
Smooth and featureless, like a curvy version of the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (only way bigger), it is one of 12 floating, foreboding UFOs that have positioned themselves around the globe. And, yes, inside there are aliens -- tall, gangly aliens that Dr. Banks has been asked to try to communicate with. What is their purpose, their mission? We need to know, before the Russians or the Chinese or the Pentagon nuke the monoliths out of the sky.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the filmmaker behind Incendies and Prisoners and Sicario, and adapted from a Ted Chiang short story, Arrival is also kind of a dream-state take on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Instead of Richard Dreyfuss' going nuts with a pile of mashed potatoes, Adams’ Dr. Banks gets a little wacky as she engages in a series of increasingly urgent tête-à-têtes with the mysterious aliens.
She waddles into the ship in her orange hazmat suit and approaches a big window. On the other side: the creatures, with suction-cup extremities, emerging from the mist to spray inky symbols and signs all over the place. It is her job to decipher, decode them. There may be some telepathy involved.
Arrival has a mystical element to it, and also a misery element: Dr. Banks, steeped in grief over the loss of a child, slips into reveries where she can be seen frolicking with her daughter, or huddling with her in a hospital bed. The aliens’ painterly Rorschach images begin to insinuate themselves into her consciousness (or subconscious). And then there is Jeremy Renner, as a mathematician, and Forest Whitaker, as a colonel in Military Intelligence -- they insinuate themselves here and there, too. Now and then, the three actors are required to face the camera and strike expressions of awe, wonderment, and dread in the presence of what they have come to call the heptapods.
Are the heptapods like Rod Serling’s Kanamits? Are they here to serve man? Do the Arrival aliens know the difference between the word tool and the word weapon? It’s an important distinction, to say the least.
With its icy symphonic score (courtesy of Iceland’s Johan Johansson) and a palette of rainy-day colors, Arrival is at once majestic and melancholy. It’s a grand endeavor, and Adams, at the center of it all, brings pluck and smarts and a deep-seated sorrow to her role. This is her movie, no doubt.
Arrival isn’t a dark, elaborate joke like that old To Serve Man episode -- the movie aspires to be more cosmic, and it presents hefty theories about cognition and language and relativity. But you can’t help feel like you’re getting your leg pulled a little bit, too.