Lawrence Toppman

‘Arrival’ may be the best film of 2016. You won’t want me to say why.

A physicist and a linguist (Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams) realize they can communicate with creatures from another world in “Arrival.”
A physicist and a linguist (Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams) realize they can communicate with creatures from another world in “Arrival.” AP

It would be remiss of me not to tell you people came out of the advance screening of “Arrival” in states of awe, boredom, emotional turmoil, confusion and respect. For my part – and this is a reaction of the moment, though it’s starting to settle in – I have seen no movie to which I felt more deeply connected this year. But I won’t tell you exactly why.

To discuss most particulars of this movie is to defeat its purpose: It’s a puzzle, and the pleasure of seeing it comes in putting all the pieces together, not just some of them. (If you go on the strength of this review and come out asking what you saw, e-mail me at ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com. I’ll shoot you an explanation.)

Suffice to say that the questions it asks about relationships, both romantic and social, are profound and eternal. On the surface, it’s the story of aliens who come to Earth with indistinct purposes. What it’s really about is not their arrival but our response. It’s the movie “Interstellar” wanted to be, without the special effects but with a more coherent narrative – though that’s not to say the effects aren’t convincing. They’re unshowy, mystical and subtly impressive.

Here are a few facts: Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an internationally known linguist, gets a midnight visit from an Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) she once assisted on a Farsi translation that exposed terrorists. He whisks her to a remote site in Montana, where she meets physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). They’ve been summoned to communicate with aliens who open a spaceship portal for 15 minutes every 18 hours. Twelve ships have landed around the world, and each “host” country – China, Russia and Pakistan among them – deals with them in a different way.

The aliens, dubbed heptapods, resemble immense eyeless octopi with seven tentacled arms. They communicate by squirting ink into pictograms, which Banks and Donnelly eventually learn to interpret. As the two seek answers, much of the world erupts in panic. Humanity dislikes mysteries and assumes the worst, and certain countries prepare to attack the strangers.

We do eventually learn why the aliens have come. But like the greatest science fiction tales, “Arrival” isn’t about them: It’s about us. How do we learn to understand “the other” without being afraid and resorting to violence? (This year’s presidential election made that question especially pertinent.) Can we try patiently to solve problems without demanding instant gratification? The aliens think in millennia, the Earthlings in days.

But director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”) and writer Eric Heisserer (who adapted Ted Chang’s short “Story of Your Life”) balance the psychological component with an emotional one. Adams gives her best performance as a lonely woman who has to make a decision that will haunt her – though perhaps in a good way – for the rest of her life.

Small details add up beautifully throughout the film. A fender-bender in a parking lot while a college is hurriedly evacuated presages chaos to come. We see a soldier facing a precipitous decision slowly make up his mind, under the influence of his terrified wife and a fear-mongering right wing radio host.

The first word Banks chooses to communicate with the aliens tells us why she’s best qualified to deal with this crisis: She identifies herself not as “Louise” or “American” or even “scientist” but as “human.” The movie asks all of us to do the same.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Arrival

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker.

Director: Denis Villeneuve.

Length: 116 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (brief strong language).

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