It turns out that when space aliens do eventually arrive on Earth — and, wouldn't you know it, they traveled all that way without bothering to learn any of our languages beforehand? — we won't need any fancy high-tech gizmos with LED screens to communicate. All we'll need is a simple whiteboard and a black marker to break the intergalactic ice and say "hi."
That's among some of the hard-to-swallow premises of "Arrival ," a sluggish, naturalistic meditation on loss and time that also happens to have lumbering spidery, squid-like aliens who arrive in a spacecraft that resemble massive watermelon seeds.
The film tries to straddle the line between serious sci-fi that examines Big Ideas (like "Solaris") and the kind of popcorn-munching, go-get-those-slimy-critters summer blockbusters (hello, "Independence Day"). It doesn't always succeed and ends on such a muddled philosophical note that you may need the whiteboard back for a quick explanation to be mapped out.
Amy Adams stars as linguist Dr. Louise Banks — "the top of everyone's list when it comes to translations" — who is enlisted by the military to help communicate with one of 12 alien ships that suddenly appear on Earth, silent and eerie. (Wait, they're shy?)
She's aided by an admirable Jeremy Renner, a theoretical physicist, who nicely doesn't end up being smarmy and condescending. Forest Whitaker plays a grim military leader trying to protect the pair's work despite pressure from upstairs to bomb the aliens into calamari.
Adams, whose character is reeling from personal turmoil, delivers a heart-wrenchingly beautiful performance using her ability to communicate a half-dozen emotions just standing still. Wonder, sorrow and anguish are written all over her face.
But director Denis Villeneuve ("Sicario") sometimes gets lost in repetition and blind alleys, causing the inherent tautness of the story to go slack. Why do we spend so much time in a shaft inside the alien's ship? How many times must we watch Adams trudge off to be decontaminated?
The plot is based on Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" and adapted by Eric Heisserer. The leap to the screen has been benefited by the slow reveal of the aliens, a gorgeous sequence in which we follow a helicopter to a landing site and the nifty way the filmmakers show the aliens' visual language, which resembles stains on a coffee table made by a perspiring beer pint. (It brings new meaning to Banks' statement, "Language is messy.")
Once communication has been made — actually, that whiteboard seems less impressive when we learn the aliens had telepathic powers all along — the real bad guys end up being that old faceless movie punching bag: The military.
The film virtually goes off the rails at this point as tanks and guns pointed from by-the-book soldiers threaten to undo the good will. Whether the aliens are peaceful or malevolent — are they offering a tool or a weapon? — turns this tale into another run-of-the-mill alien invasion yarn.
The ghostly music by Johann Johannsson — with an assist by Max Richter — is truly a thoughtful soundscape, and the film's inherent stillness is nicely broken by the military's engines of war, which threaten communication in more ways than one.
But perhaps the biggest problem with "Arrival" is that first contact has already clearly been made — to Steven Spielberg and his masterful "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Whether subconsciously or as an overt nod to the master, Villeneuve echoes Spielberg's use of edgy soldiers and his heroes sleeplessly obsessing about alien communication, right down to using clay models and kids' drawings. Both films even share the image of backlit aliens speaking to humans while in a cloud of fog.
So, with all due respect to "Arrival," rent that 1977 film instead.
"Arrival," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "brief strong language." MPAA definition of PG-13: Parental guidance suggested, with some material may not be suitable for children. Running time: 116 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits