Amy Adams in Arrival
Amy Adams in Arrival

ARRIVAL

When they touch ground on Earth – or rather don't, as they actually hover roughly 10 feet above its surface – the alien spacecrafts that show up in the science-fiction drama Arrival suggest downturned eggs dyed charcoal black and split in half. When the aliens themselves appear, these enormous creatures could be what you'd get if a squid mated with a human hand, and H.R. Giger was there to take the baby pictures. At different times, director Denis Villeneuve's latest is reminiscent not only of Ridley Scott's Alien, but also 2001, Close Encounters, Independence Day, Contact, Interstellar, and the collective oeuvre of Terrence Malick. And yet for all of its resemblances and echoes, Arrival still feels like a complete original – a paranoid thriller that's also an intellectual puzzle that's also, somehow, a deeply emotional experience of optimism and wonder.

Eric Heisserer's script, in truth, may be the one wholly unoriginal thing about the film, given that the screenplay is based on Ted Chiang's award-winning 1999 novella The Story of Your Life. Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a college professor and noted linguist whose skill set proves invaluable after a dozen spaceships take residence over cities, rural areas, and oceans around the globe. No one knows from where they've come or why they've come, but as Forest Whitaker's Army colonel explains, there may be a path to finding out: Every 18 hours, the bottoms of the ships' hulls open, allowing humans to enter the crafts and share a brief audience with the extraterrestrials within. The problem, however, is that we don't speak their language and they don't speak ours, and so Banks and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are rushed to the Montana visitation site in an attempt to communicate – to make sense of the unfathomable arrival before China, Russia, and other nations, ours included, literally bring out the big guns.

Before Banks and Donnelly get to the tricky business of translation, Villeneuve establishes an unsettling mood of stillness and dread. Scenes of Banks walking through her quietly panicked campus and starting her lecture for the few students who attend – one of whom asks Banks to please turn on the TV – almost helplessly recall our immediate collective reaction to 9/11, as does the sight of our exhausted heroine, late at night, unable to stop watching cable news. Yet even prior to this, Villeneuve has begun the proceedings on a melancholy, mournful note in a montage on the birth, youth, illness, and passing of Banks' teen daughter, the grief from which will haunt the linguist for the remainder of the film. (In the back of my head, I heard the irritated sighs of everyone who would've enjoyed Gravity a lot more without the dead-child subplot. Fear not: The tragic backstory here is far more narratively essential than it was in Cuarón's movie.) As evidenced by Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario, Villeneuve will probably never be accused of being a million laughs, and during its opening stretch, it may seem unlikely that Arrival will offer much in the way of levity, either. Yet it does, at least in regard to the overall tone, and the initiation of its levity lies in levitation.

Forest Whitaker, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner in Arrival

Not long after Banks and Donnelly enter the Montana-based behemoth, they discover it's operating under its own gravitational field, allowing them to float toward the top for a spell before walking the remainder of the distance on the spacecraft walls. And beginning with this realization, and for much of the 45 minutes that follow, Banks and Donnelly react to each new bit of astounding human/alien interaction the way you'd hope our best and brightest would: They grin, and occasionally chuckle, and stare with delighted amazement and appreciation at the miracles they're experiencing. I completely related. It's a cliché, and a lie, to use the expression “I didn't blink” regarding a movie that enraptures you. (On occasion, in conversation and print, I've been that clichéd liar myself.) But while I'm sure I blinked during its nearly two-hour length, what I know for certain is that I watched Arrival with wide-eyed alertness and something akin to joy – astonishment at the strange, haunting beauty of the imagery, and a happy eagerness to solve, or at least watch others solve, the intricate mysteries being presented.

Given that they “speak” in guttural moans and the sorts of electronic basso profundo belches recognizable from Spielberg's Mother Ship, the aliens' native tongue, as Banks quickly surmises, might be impossible to penetrate. But they also communicate through a series of ephemeral, inky symbols sprayed from their seven tentacles – hence the creatures' christening as “heptapods” – and these, it turns out, can be deciphered, if not altogether easily. Consequently, most of Arrival involves Banks' decoding of the heptapod language with the unseen aid of those working at the planet's 11 other landing sites, and Villeneuve's staging and Heisserer's writing of these sequences is fantastically satisfying. (Procedurals ranging from All the President's Men to Zodiac have demonstrated the considerable, built-in pleasure in witnessing smart people saying and doing smart things.) Yet as soon as one of the alien words is translated as “weapon,” events, unfortunately, take a more formulaic turn.

Villeneuve does deliver one ceaseless thrill in his ambitious sci-fi undertaking, and it's Amy Adams. Watching this radiantly expressive, emotionally transparent performer work out the linguistic problems laid before Louise, and grapple with the limits and frailty of human knowledge, is transporting on a level equal to the film's sublime visual and aural effects; with closeups of Adams' face frequently dominating the screen, there's true magic in her hushed directives and subtext-heavy silences. But even Adams' exquisite contributions, and those of the endearingly low-key Renner, can't prevent the movie itself from momentarily going south with the all-too-expected narrative shift from discovery to planned retaliation, true-to-life as this global military's response would no doubt be. Arrival, for the most part, is wonderfully unusual stuff. When the visiting alien race is subjected to the threat of violence (with Michael Stuhlbarg as the inevitable military grump leading the charge), it becomes well-executed yet sadly familiar stuff.

The same, though, cannot be said for the final 15 minutes, a gloriously inventive and moving wrap-up that takes everything we've seen – including that heartbreaking opening montage – and repurposes it into a meditation on the time-space continuum that blows your mind, and yet, upon reflection, makes all the sense in the world. So much of Villeneuve's offering is dazzling: cinematographer Bradford Young's sunlit warmth and shadowy teasing; composer Jóhann Jóhannson's alternately skittish and sweeping themes; every single interchange between our human representatives and the otherworldly beings playfully nicknamed Abbott and Costello. Yet I knew the film had fully worked its wizardry on me when, just before the end credits rolled, I was barely able to contain an audible sob and I wasn't even sad; I was just overwhelmed. Arrival is a knockout, and perhaps all the proof we need that ignorance, if actively fought against, can sometimes be transformed into bliss.

Kimberly Elise, Mo'Nique, Nicole Ari Parker, Danny Glover, and Gabrielle Union in Almost Christmas

ALMOST CHRISTMAS

Ironically, just like Arrival (and like Pixar's Up), Almost Christmas also opens with a succinct passing-of-the-years montage that ends with the mourning of a character's untimely death. Unlike Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi opus, however, writer/director David E. Talbert's holiday dramedy goes on to give us Mo'Nique as a braying backup singer, J.B. Smoove's comic electrocution by Santa's sleigh, and Gabrielle Union getting her fanny stuck in a window frame like she's Winnie-the-Pooh. I still had a good time. If we're lucky, we get only one of these big-screen dysfunctional-family reunions per year – a predictably sentimental laughter-through-tears outing in which at least four generations of family open old wounds, dig at new ones, and slowly Learn and Love and Grow on their way to a climactic group hug (or, just as frequently, a group dance). If we're really lucky, we get one as sensationally well-cast and -acted as Almost Christmas, a film whose spirits are so high, and whose performers are so strong, that you can easily ride past its legion of narrative deficiencies. Well … all but one, that is.

As Danny Glover's widower, his four adult children, and their respective spouses, kids, and hangers-on assemble in Montgomery, Alabama for their first Christmas since Mom's passing, there probably won't be one subplot established whose outcome you can't predict the moment it's introduced. But as oftentimes happens in this genre, that isn't necessarily a liability, especially when Diane Keaton is nowhere near the premises. (All love to Keaton, but she's the undisputed queen of mostly-terrible family-gathering comedies.) Will long-sparring sisters Rachel and Cheryl gets their acts together and stop blaming one another for their unhappy teen years? Of course, and there's great joy in watching their equally luminous portrayers Union and Kimberly Elise simmer, boil over, and ultimately chill. Will football star Evan get off prescription pills and forgive himself for not being at his mom's deathbed? Naturally, and watching the fully committed Jessie T. Usher gradually do so is both believable and touching. Will Glover eventually stop his unintended ruination of his late wife's sweet-potato-pie recipe and, at one point, grumble, “I'm gettin' too old for this shit”? Duh. And God bless. Talbert's seasonal offering is just what you think it'll be. Thanks to the aforementioned talents plus Omar Epps, Romany Malco, Nicole Ari Parker, John Michael Higgins, a trio of terrifically assured child actors, and the unstoppable, unimprovable life force that is Mo'Nique (whose every syllable here is to be treasured), it's also much better than you hope it'll be. And because the movie's one major failing is bothering me to no end, I'll just purge myself of the nausea and say it: Malco plays a guy who's running for Congress, and in the universe of Almost Christmas, election-related lawn signs start getting planted on December 20. Sweet Jesus, no-o-o-o-o!!!

Jacob Tremblay and Naomi Watts in Shut In

SHUT IN

I can imagine a few reasons, beyond the paycheck, why Naomi Watts would agree to star in director Farren Blackburn's scare flick Shut In: the chance to return to a genre that made her a marketable star in 2002's The Ring; the chance to act opposite Room's grade-school wunderkind Jacob Tremblay; the chance to on-screen Skype with Oliver Platt. But after the film's reasonably promising opening half, all of those rationales, like the movie's plotting, go right out the window. What, as I'm sure Watts will be forvermore asked, was she thinking?!

It starts decently, with a horrific car accident involving Watts' teen stepson Stephen (that Stranger Things weirdo-sweeheart Charlie Heaton) and her unnamed hubby (an actor – apparently a wise one – similarly unnamed in the credits, and even on the film's Internet Movie Database and Wikipedia pages). It even gets really intriguing, with Tremblay's deaf, love-deprived foster kid needing Watts' help at the very moment she's feeling especially resentful toward the now-immobilized, catatonic Stephen. But it's not long after Watts begins hearing odd noises in the crawlspace of her rural-Maine dwelling and having upsetting dreams about killing her stepson that events go from confusing to ludicrous to downright laughable. And the instant the “shocking” mid-film reveal behind the goings-on is explained, you may be giggling too hard at Shut In to cozy up to Watts' natural empathy or Tremblay's voiceless, wide-eyed performance enjoyment; Blackburn's movie has descended into just another retrograde killer-with-an-ax movie, albeit with a healthy dose of The Shining pretension. (Not only does Watts replicate Danny Torrance's stepping-backward-in-the-snow evasion, but Platt is totally playing the Scatman Crothers role, making an endless trek in inclement weather for only one conceivable purpose.) You're left with merely one thing, one shot, that could conceivably explain Watts' participation in this profoundly ridiculous horror trifle: the image of her artfully posed, naked, while retching into a toilet, and looking more lithe and gorgeous at age 48 than most human beings do in their 20s. Look out, you Robbies and Stewarts and Stones; apparently, Naomi Watts ain't done being an ingénue yet.

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