Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The science fiction film has seen a creative surge in recent years thanks to a series of thoughtful takes on the genre by a number of big-name filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), and Ridley Scott (The Martian). Now, Denis Villeneuve, whose Arrival is so vastly different from his recent pictures like the woefully underrated thriller Prisoners and the tense drug war drama Sicario, that it displays an impressive range for the up-and-coming filmmaker.

Although the picture doesn’t quite stack up to Villeneuve’s previous successes, it’s a unique take on a close encounter and features a story that doesn’t involve an invasion so much as a visit that nearly leads to a crisis. In other words, it’s closer in nature to The Day the Earth Stood Still than Independence Day.

As the movie opens, we meet Louise, a language specialist who is called in to attempt to translate after Earth is visited by a series of spaceships. She’s teamed up with a scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner) and tasked with finding out the purpose of the extraterrestrials’ visit. Although we mostly see the aliens through a wall shrouded in mist, we can glimpse gigantic octopus hands that squirt ink, which is the beings’ form of writing.

It’s difficult to discuss the plot of Arrival too closely because there is a significant twist that will color your interpretation of the entirety of the film once it actually arrives. The twist is clever, and used to give you a different view of everything you have seen, rather than just pull the rug out from under you.

Adams gives a tightly controlled performance as Louise, whose life outside her work involves a series of interwoven sequences in which she interacts with a young girl we assume to be her daughter. Renner’s Ian tells Louise that he too is alone, which helps to form a bond between the two specialists. The cast is rounded out by Forest Whitaker as a military man overseeing the operation to communicate with the aliens, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a hasty government agent.

The film occasionally lags, especially in the early scenes when fairly seismic events are portrayed as low-key. The repetitiveness of Louise and Ian’s visits with the extraterrestrials also halts the picture’s momentum from time to time.

But overall, Arrival bounces around some fascinating ideas, includes some impressive but modest special effects, a strong lead performance, and ultimately arrives at a concept that reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, of all things. To say more would be to give away the film’s secrets, but Villeneuve’s film poses an interesting question to its audience as to how we would choose our actions if we already knew the result. Arrival is occasionally a little too toned down for its own good, but is at its best thoughtful and insightful.

Watch the Arrival trailer below: