The “Arrival” in the 2016 movie by that name — which EPIX Hits shows Saturday, June 18 — is that of aliens, who hover in their spaceships above several parts of the world, including Montana.
That’s the one that most immediately concerns Amy Adams, playing a professor of linguistics enlisted by the Army (and, more specifically, Forest Whitaker as its chief embodiment) to make contact with the travelers and decipher their messages.
She does that along with a physics expert portrayed by Jeremy Renner, and even if their meeting with the aliens is quite tranquil — naturally, think Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” — at the slightest suggestion that the creatures might be thinking of launching an attack on Earth, others predictably go into panic and retaliation mode.
Of course, there’s a whole tradition of that sort of screen tale. On the more traditional side of sci-fi, it also encompasses “The War of the Worlds,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and certainly “Independence Day.” The “aliens can be our friends” stories aren’t as frequent, and especially when handled with great intelligence, they’re well worth noting.
As familiar as its plot may seem, “Arrival” benefits hugely from the presence of the ever-luminous Adams, who conveys her character’s willingness to believe in the unknown to moviegoers. Working with director Denis Villeneuve (“Dune,” “Sicario”), she generates just the right sort of protagonist for this tale … grounding the film even when it’s literally up in the air.
She’s not just a stick-figure functionary of the plot, either. The character has lost a child, making her that much more vulnerable emotionally as she undertakes the mission whose outcome is anything but predictable. Plus, the assignment taps right into where she lives, the world of language; any new discovery she makes there only can be a source of wonder and marvel, and these aliens supply it.
Villeneuve is an interesting choice of filmmaker for this sort of venture. His work largely brings big subjects down to the level of specific individuals who are affected by them, clearly the approach needed here, and the result is steady and engrossing.
Ultimately, though, Adams really is why “Arrival” works as well as it does. It may seem to be about aliens on the surface, but thanks principally to her efforts, it’s really a very human story.