How do you create a movie about space aliens and still make it seem new? This is the conundrum posed, and not all that ably resolved, by “Arrival,” which stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is tasked by the US military with figuring out how to communicate with the squiggly, squidlike extraterrestrials whose spaceships, landed on Earth, resemble an immense ultrasleek cough drop.
It begins promisingly, with scattershot TV reports of the alien landings inciting increasing dread. A reluctant Louise is recruited by an Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) to decode the squealing language of the aliens, whose spaceships are ominously parked at 12 locations around the world.
We have already been given a quick rundown on Louise’s fraught life leading up to this moment: the unexplained loss of her husband and the death of her only child, a daughter, to cancer. Her mournfulness is all of a piece with the film’s pallid, grayish ambience. Earth may well be worth saving, but “Arrival” doesn’t exactly make the best case for it.
The mounting, low-key anxiety serves the film well for a while because Denis Villeneuve, directing from a script by Eric Heisserer, makes you believe that, yes, this is the way it might really happen if aliens landed. It’s also believable that the arrivals might touch off a global game of chicken, with Russia and China pushing the brinkmanship.
Fairly soon, alas, it becomes clear that Villeneuve (“Sicario,” “Prisoners”) is a director lacking not only humor but also a sense of the transcendent. The humorlessness is partially forgivable, although I must say I have been spoiled ever since “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which managed to be both loads of fun and mind-boggling. (This is what “The Martian” also aimed for, and missed.)
But it’s difficult to get worked into a state of awe with this film because so much of it is so sodden. I half wished the aliens would blow something real big up just to break the monotony, but it turns out they are friendly – sort of. They eject squid ink-like messages that, once decoded, mean something like “We come in peace.” Turns out they want to literally change the way earthlings think by rewiring our brain circuits with their language, which, once learned, can alter our space-time continuum. Or at least Louise’s. Or something like that.
I guess it doesn’t matter exactly what this film is about. Except it does. When we’ve come this far, I rightly expect that all this circle-of-time hoo-ha will amount to something more than a great big “Huh?”
A halfhearted attempt is made by the filmmakers to give Louise a love interest: a theoretical physicist, played by Jeremy Renner, whose quota of “Aha!” moments is thankfully kept to a minimum. Unfortunately, just about everything about this guy is kept to a minimum. He’s a plot device, except, of course, there isn’t much of a plot.
I realize I’m not supposed to be so cavalier about a movie that clearly is aiming for Importance – not to mention Oscars – but it would take a hardier soul than I am to suppress a snicker when Louise enters the spaceship’s dismal, honeycombed interior, bravely sheds her orange hazmat suit, and holds up a sign saying “Human.” Unless there’s something truly momentous going on, I prefer my sci-fi to be a lot more weightless than weighty. Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.)