It has been almost 40 years since Steven Spielberg made “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” That’s not a Spielberg film that people tend to revisit the way they do “Jaws” or “Raiders” or “E.T.” In its time, though, “Close Encounters” cast a spell of majestic awe that still reverberates through pop culture. There have, of course, been any number of alien-visitation films since, but whenever one comes along — “Contact,” “Signs,” “District 9,” “Interstellar,” Spielberg’s own “The War of the Worlds” — it always feels, at the time, like a major event, and then in hindsight it ends up seeming like a rerun. “Close Encounters,” with its obsessiveness and mystery, its spaceship of light that seemed as big as a city, is still the film that set the template — that made the prospect of an extraterrestrial visit look as wondrous and eccentric and ominous and spectacular as we imagined it might be.
So you have to say this for “Arrival,” a solemnly fantastic tale of a highly enigmatic alien visit that premiered today at the 73rd International Venice Film Festival: The film has been made, by the intensely gifted director Denis Villeneuve, with an awareness that we’ve already been through this more than enough times, and that the definition of an alien movie — or, at least, one that’s trying to be a serious piece of sci-fi, and not just a popcorn lark like “Independence Day” — is that it’s going to hypnotize us with something that appears extraordinary because it’s altogether unprecedented.
For a while, “Arrival” succeeds in doing that. Villeneuve, the director or “Sicario” and “Prisoners,” has made a grounded, deep-dish authenticity his calling card, and in the early scenes of “Arrival” he hooks us by playing the news of spaceships hovering over earth in the most low-key, randomly unsensational way possible. There are TV anchors blaring news reports in the background, a dulling sense of chaos and fear, but mostly we’re taking it all in through the eyes of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor who has to cut her class short and then wanders through the parking lot in a daze. Then an Army colonel shows up in her office to recruit her help, but instead of the usual blustery movie military officer, he’s played by Forest Whitaker tossing out lines in a croaky semi-whisper (which turns out to be a lot more intriguing). He then plays a recording of the attempt that has been made so far to communicate with the aliens, who respond with what sound like the voices of whales. It’s all very spooky and captivating.
The aliens have parked spaceships in 12 locations around the world (including America, Russia, China, and Pakistan), and Louise is taken to the one in the United States: a vast green meadow in Montana, surrounded by hills and rolling clouds, where the ship hovers like a silent, mile-high version of a smooth obsidian egg that’s been cut in two. The images are stately and vast, with an almost super-earthly clarity. It’s Louise’s job to draw on her language skills to find a way to communicate with the aliens, and to that end she’s teamed with Dr. Ian Connelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist with a cut-and-dried view of things. Renner’s role is rather modest, and he looks almost sheepish about it, but Adams draws on her gift for making each and every moment quiver with discovery. The actress is alive to what’s around her, even when it’s just ordinary, and when it’s extraordinary the inner fervor she communicates is quietly transporting.
Villeneuve builds our anticipation with great flair, as the two world experts stand beneath the ship, waiting for it to open. They are then ushered into what looks like an abandoned elevator shaft with walls made of carbon, where gravity disappears (they walk straight up and sideways). At last they come to a rectangle of light, which turns out to be a clear pane behind which the aliens appear, shrouded in billows of smoky white.
Do I even have to say “spoiler alert”? Discovering what the aliens in “Arrival” look like, sound like, and how they communicate is the dramatic heart and soul of the picture — a drama of elegantly hushed and heightened anticipation that Villeneuve stages with maximum cunning. No, the aliens aren’t anthropomorphic creatures who speak in subtitles. They are tall black squid-like figures with seven spindly legs — at least, that’s what they look like from the bottom; for a long time, we don’t see their top halves — and those legs, up close, look like giant bony hands with their fingers pointed down and planted on a table. They’re dubbed heptapods, and to “talk” (this is the movie’s single coolest invention), one of their digits will point up, opening into a squishy seven-pointed star that emits what looks like black smoke, or squid ink, into the air. The smoke then forms into a circular ink blot: a word! It’s Louise’s job to decipher that language, so that she can ask them the all-important question, “Why on earth have you come here?”
All this time, there’s a relatively conventional brink-of-war drama transpiring in the background, ratcheted up by Internet paranoia and a Rush Limbaugh-like figure barking away on YouTube. Given that the whole global-military thing has been at the forefront of virtually every alien-invasion thriller, you’re grateful that it is in the background. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay there; Villeneuve has just figured out a way to hold off the conventionality by downplaying it for a while. As intriguing as the alien language is (a cross between hieroglyphs and smoke signals), the way that Louise actually starts to comprehend it is murky and abstract. She acquires a primitive vocabulary of circular signs, at which point the aliens seem willing to communicate their big message, which is something to the effect of “Offer weapon.” It’s not at all clear what that means, but one is fairly certain they’re not trying to sell advanced military hardware to Lockheed Martin. In the tradition of “Close Encounters,” these seem like peacenik aliens. (Otherwise, why wouldn’t they just…attack?)
True to its title, “Arrival” makes an absorbing spectacle of the initial alien set-up, alternately stoking and sating our curiosity. The aliens don’t quite have personalities, but there’s still something tender and touching about them. There are also, frankly, elements of familiarity. The sounds they — low blasting moans louder than a pipe organ — echo the sounds made by the ship in “Close Encounters.” When we first see the aliens’ squid-like legs, they look a lot like the alien tentacles in “The War of the Worlds,” and the more closely we look at them, the more they look like gigantic versions of E.T.’s fingers. The point being that even though Villeneuve is a bold filmmaker, when it comes to this subject, Spielberg’s vision is hard to get away from; it still somehow infuses everything.
As the audience gets used to the aliens, the film enters a zone where it needs to do something more with them — something charged and fascinating. Instead, it does two things that are less than that. First, it begins to fall back on the military-showdown clichés, as China, acting alone, makes a decision to draw a line in the stratospheric sand, announcing that it will now greet the aliens with force. Can the world work together? One hopes, in this sort of event, that it could, but that situation has been played out in movies before. The second wayward idea is that the alien language — all of those circle words — turns out to be their great gift to earth. The movie plays off the notion that if you learn a new language, it can rewire the way you think. The alien language offers such a kick of rewiring that it actually alters the nature of time.
The audience’s reaction to this is likely to fall somehow on the spectrum between “Whoa!” and “Huh?” In “Arrival,” it’s a muddled idea, intriguing but not really developed. Yet the film ties it in with a backstory that frames the action, about Louise and the daughter who (in an extended prologue) she watched grow into adulthood and die. There’s a surprise circularity to the structure of “Arrival” that some may find pleasing, but there’s also a circular logic to it: The aliens have come to offer a weapon, which isn’t really a weapon, it’s a new way to order time, but the only one it seems to apply to is Louise, which makes the whole purpose of their visit seem an awfully far-fetched conceit. At its best, “Arrival” has an eerie grandeur, but if the film starts off as neo-Spielberg, it winds up as neo-Christopher Nolan meets neo-Terrence Malick — it turns into an ersatz mind-bender. You feel you’ve had a close encounter with what might have been an amazing movie, but not actual contact.