The more challenging end of the science fiction spectrum should offer as much reward for the mind as for the senses.
In the past few years, some of the most creative work in the business has been in examples such as Prometheus (2012), Interstellar (2014) and, most recently, The Martian (2015).
The first and the third of these have both come from Ridley Scott, while Christopher Nolan’s Prometheus followed his trendsetting Inception (2010), which also set new heights for futuristic drama.
Arrival (Roadshow) comes with less pedigree than these but with far more ambition than, say, the action oriented Independence Day blockbusters.
You have to go back to The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) to find films that treat alien invasions with some degree of intellectual integrity.
These films raise issues such as how you would communicate with different life forms and and how should the united nations of Earth respond when they appear.
The aliens in French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s version first arrive in a dozen large cylindrical pods that hover above the surface in places such as the United States, China, Russia, Australia and Sudan.
The plot begins when a linguistics expert (Amy Adams) is summoned to help United States military authorities, who have surrounded one of the pods in a remote part of Montana.
She is mourning the premature death of her daughter from cancer, but embraces her communications challenge with gusto, helped by a physics specialist (Jeremy Renner).
Together, they begin to reach out to the extra-terrestrial beings in scenes that are imaginative and cerebral rather than confrontational, but are nonetheless fascinating.
The tension is in the gradual understanding between two completely different forms of semantics. Theirs, for example, are not so much verbal as symbolic and need patient decoding.
This is sophisticated by most movie standards, but is undermined by time pressures from the gung-ho elements in the military that want to wipe out the aliens before finding out their true intentions.
The counter to this is the more sympathetic character played by Forest Whitaker as the commander in charge.
His task is complicated by some realistic international tensions as countries such as Russia and China pull back on complete co-operation to protect their own intelligence gathered from dealing with the pods’ beings.
To reveal more is to spoil a plot that provides political intrigue as well as the evolving emotional relationship between the linguist and the physicist. The nature of time and a knowledge of mind games adds further complexity.
Villeneuve is a director who isn’t afraid of pushing his material, such as in the Middle East-set Incendies, which also has a circular narrative style.
The visceral nature of Sicario, a Mexican drug drama, is also to the fore as well as Villeneuve again using a female character as the central attraction.
So much so, perhaps, that the main male character is too subsidiary in a cast where most of the rest are playing stereotypical roles. Rating: Mature audiences. 116 minutes