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Heady 'Arrival' focuses on the brainy side of alien contact
Jeremy Renner is Ian Donnelly in Arrival. - photo by Josh Terry
ARRIVAL 3 stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma; PG-13 (brief strong language); in general release

In the realm of big screen science fiction, "Arrival" feels like a mix of "2001: A Space Odyssey" with a generous dose of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Compared to more recent fare, it's a heady entry in a preholiday release slot that has seen the likes of "Gravity," "Interstellar" and "The Martian" over the last three years.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is going about her business as a linguistics professor when a dozen 1,500-foot spacecrafts show up at random spots across the globe. While the rest of the world watches in panic, the military comes knocking at Banks' door in the form of Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker), and soon she is whisked away to Montana, where one of the spacecraft awaits.

Banks and a mathematician named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) have been brought onboard to facilitate communication with the aliens. Every 18 hours, a door into the ship opens, and a small team of humans is allowed to enter and engage with the alien visitors.

Once Banks and company enter the alien ships and adjust to their artificial gravity, the scientists hike to the end of a long dark tunnel, where they encounter an alien race dubbed "heptopods" for their seven limbs that look like squids in an aquarium.

"Arrival" is the latest in a long line of alien visitor movies, most of which turn into action-packed invasion films. But unlike your typical "Independence Day" fare, "Arrival" is more focused on the suspense and nuance of an actual alien encounter. The bulk of the film follows the doctor's efforts to interpret the alien language against the ticking clock of world leaders like China's General Shang (Tzi Ma), who believes humanity needs to meet the alien threat with a display of force.

In pursuing this path, "Arrival" considers an idea most invasion films take for granted: that the Earth does not have a single representative leader. Most of the time, the U.S. takes the lead, and everyone else happily joins in once the Americans come up with a winning strategy. Here, a dozen different nations with competing interests and attitudes are slow to share breakthroughs with each other, and where scientists like Banks have no reason to consider the aliens a threat, other countries aren't so sure.

In a way, both with the aliens and between the humans, "Arrival" feels like the sci-fi equivalent to that famous line from "Cool Hand Luke": "What we have here is failure to communicate."

One of the film's most distinctive elements is its atmospheric soundtrack, which feels more like a collection of sounds than composed music. Hearing its booming, droning pulses while watching the alien monoliths hovering above ground feels reminiscent of the interstellar whalesong used in "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home."

"Arrival" also features a deliberately human focus in spite of all the alien atmosphere. Throughout her efforts, Banks frequently encounters memories of her daughter that seem to tie into her work, and though these flashbacks seem easy to dismiss, they play a key role in the conclusion of the film.

For all its unique angles, fans expecting the 2016 edition of "The Martian" or even "Interstellar" may come away disappointed. While there is periodic action, and plenty of impressive visuals, "Arrival" is much more of a cerebral suspense film, and it builds to a third act that will take a little work to wrap your mind around.

But for sci-fi fans who enjoy a little mind-bending atmosphere, "Arrival" will make for a compelling trip.

Arrival is rated PG-13 for brief strong language; running time: 116 minutes.
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