'Sicario' director Denis Villeneuve's colour-drained, mournful sci-fi drama 'Arrival' plays like a more mainstream filmmaker got his hands on Jonathan Glazer's experimental alien masterpiece 'Under the Skin' and added moments of international intrigue, hints of romance, memories of past grief and shots of soldiers stomping about just in case the heady avant-garde stuff all got too much. There are plenty of smart ideas and bravura visuals in this maudlin, ponderous and slightly ridiculous tale of aliens coming to Earth, adapted from a Ted Chiang short story. But to enjoy the film's arresting musings on language, time and how much we can ever understand others, you'll have to close your eyes and ears to the wealth of schlocky hokum surrounding them.
An ambiguous, moody prologue layered with Jóhann Jóhannsson's Michael Nyman-esque score begs us to take 'Arrival' seriously long before there's any talk of heptapods. Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams, strong and sombre) is alone in a lakeside house with only images of her past life for company: she once raised and lost a daughter. Then the sci-fi kicks in: alien pods are hovering above several sites around the globe, and the US government hauls in Louise, who is a top linguist, and a theoretical scientist (Jeremy Renner, a bit of a spare part) to help them to understand what's going on. Their mission is to enter these creatures' giant egg-shaped craft and to discover what the pair of seven-legged uglies inside want and what they're doing in a field in Montana.
You might roll your eyes when Forest Whitaker's army colonel explains to Louise that it's her past experience translating Farsi that made her perfect for this project. Do aliens and Iranians share a linguistic heritage? That aside, the scenes of Louise and co entering the alien pod and meeting the inhabitants are strong on spooky tension and the production design is especially stellar, all of which bodes well for Villeneuve's upcoming 'Blade Runner' sequel.
When the film lingers on Louise's attempts to 'translate' the language of her new extraterrestrial friends (there are nods to 'ET'), it's strange, gripping stuff that does what great sci-fi should: offers new perspectives on our own world. Villeneuve also has a show-stopping reveal up his sleeve that revives our interest in the film late on. But much of 'Arrival' focuses on baser stuff – ticking bombs, rolling TV news commentary, social breakdown as window-dressing – and in those moments it feels caught between a brainless big-budget movie and a smaller, much more thoughtful one.