In what’s probably the first science-fiction film — Georges Méliès’s 1902 marvel “A Trip to the Moon” — a group of astronomers lands in the Man in the Moon’s eye. They’re soon taken prisoner by moon men, but a quick-witted astronomer clobbers the king and they escape, with one earthling vanquishing moon men with an umbrella. Humans have been zapping extraterrestrials ever since. It’s so easy to battle against the unknown, at least as films prove us.
Arrival is a science-fiction parable in a distinctly more idealistic hopeful key than most movies in this genre, one in which the best solutions don’t necessarily materialize in a gun sight. It features a little bit of action, a touch of violence and clenched-jawed fidgety men.
Mostly, it has ideas and hope, as well as eerie extraterrestrials who face off with a soulful linguist-heroine, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), the story’s voice of reason and its translator. She’s kind, acute, comfortable with her own silence and fears. She’d get along just fine with Sandra Bullock’s role in “Gravity,” which like Arrival film relies on feeling and thinking, and keeps reminding you that there’s more to this genre rather than just heavy explosions.
The film commences with an elliptical prelude that leads you in, yet is neglected as soon as the aliens swoop in just minutes later. The director Denis Villeneuve teases his way through these preliminaries, with shots of newscasts and panicked crowds, revealing just enough to work up some excitement. In a wit preview to things and giant creatures to come, Louise consistently looks up — at a blasting television, at screeching military planes — turning Ms. Adams’s pale face into a screen for the film that’s just beginning to come into view. She’s soon rushed to the show run by the military (Forest Whitaker as the good cop, and Michael Stuhlbarg as the bad one), having been recruited to interpret the alien language.
Mr. Villeneuve likes big stories with big stakes, and he’s very skilled at working your nerves. In some of his films, he doses the stories with plainly violent shocks — a paralyzed survivor seated before a burning truck in “Incendies,” corpses hidden inside a drug-house wall in “Sicario” — that transfers terror into a grasper moment. These visuals can be real showstoppers (the narratives briefly shift into idle); they’re at once off-putting and unsettlingly seductive, and even if you want to look away, it can be hard to. Some of his limitations as a filmmaker are best expressed in the perfect crackling of those flames and the pictorial balance of that shot of walled-up torture victims.
Arrival doesn’t need self-regarding jolts. It’s relied on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” one of those presumably smart sci-fi riddles that mix absorbing storytelling with meditations on the universe, meaning, time and space. Part of what makes it so enjoyable is that Mr. Chiang not only raises questions about the nature of reality and what it is to be human, but he also embeds them in his writing through different verb tenses and times. In one section, he rummages around in the past; in another, he jumps onto a separate timeline. Arrival film — scripted by Eric Heisserer — does something alike to cutaways to Louise’s life, shard-like glimpses that fill in what is missing.
Having been spirited away, Louise is moved into a makeshift military base in Montana, one of 12 locations across the globe where the aliens have dropped anchor.
There, next to one of their gigantic ships — a vessel that swipes over the ground and appears like an extended black egg with one side cleanly sliced off — she’s briefed and prepped in the middle of frowning, data munching and intimations of the apocalypse. Once she settles in, Arrival movie gets its groove on. The visitors have created usual visiting hours for the humankinds, opening a portal through which a small crew in hazardous material suits can go through. As their machines whir, Louise and the rest gape across the cosmic divide and into the unknown.