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Arrival begins like most extraterrestrial movies do: The aliens have landed. They’ve parked their hovering spacecraft in 12 cities throughout the world. And the world, of course, is panicking.

But the authorities that be, at least in the U.S., don’t summon the country’s top fighter pilot along with a galaxy of explosives to handle the situation in a knee-jerk response. Instead, the military summons the country’s top linguist. Because the point isn’t to destroy the unknown. It’s to communicate with them.

Denis Villeneuve—who’s thrillingly subverted expectations over the past several years with films such as Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario—directed Arrival, so it should be no surprise that he delivers a piece of science fiction that’s heavy on conversation and light on action. Adapted from a short story by Eric Heisserer, the film chooses ideas over plot, with heady themes including how we interact and connect with each other, how we perceive time, how we process grief, how we live, and how we love. One character’s name is a palindrome, reflecting the story’s musing on beginnings and endings. 

Don’t worry: There are also ominous oval spaceships and squid-like E.T.s who roar when humans approach them. 

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is the language expert Army Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits to join the team that’s trying to determine what the aliens want. Louise, a professor, is single and reminiscent of Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, still mourning the loss of her daughter. Her approach to decoding the aliens’ language is visual, starting with a board on which she writes “human.” Weber, who must answer to higher-ups, initially objects to her plan, arguing that “grade-school words” won’t get them any closer to successful communication. 

But the aliens, who are dubbed heptapods, respond, using circular symbols that emit inklike from their starfish-shaped limbs. The heptapods appear at only certain times, and during each visit, the team—including theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner)—receive new symbols to decode. Though Louise remains determined throughout the project, even taking risks such as shedding her biohazard suit so the heptapods can truly see her, those grade-school words trigger memories of her daughter, often seemingly catching her off-guard.    

Arrival introduces Amy Adams as an assured leading lady. Ever since her breakthrough role in 2005’s Junebug, Adams has proved deft at defining characters and expressing their emotions simply using her eyes, which here project feelings such as fear and distress, but more often wonder. Unlike the militaries in countries such as China and Russia who’d rather take a violent tack, Adams’ Louise views the experience as a wildly unforeseen opportunity to learn and connect, and the awesomeness of the situation is clear on her face. 

The nearly two-hour film is at times a bit too chatty, perhaps leaving some sci-fi fans wishing that the team’s reasoning was seen and not heard. Unlike last year’s Sicario, whose pervasive score earned composer Jóhann Jóhannsson an Oscar nomination, Arrival’s music—also by Jóhannsson—is minimalist (though the two films have in common what should rightfully be known as the Inception drone). Alien films are, admittedly, rarely about aliens themselves, but stand as some metaphor for humanity instead. Arrival may offer a few too many metaphors to keep some viewers engaged. But it’s guaranteed to stick in your mind a fair amount longer than, say, Men in Black 3

Arrival opens Friday at area theaters.