Denis Villeneuve has a great eye -- his images are at once elegant and forbidding -- and in films like Sicario, Prisoners and Enemy he has honed the ability to immerse you in unreal, deeply unsettling worlds. He's at his best with mood pieces, when he's not trying to navigate through conventional story beats and resolutions. Which might be why Arrival -- about the mysterious appearance of 12 floating extraterrestrial vessels in different corners of the world -- is the best film the director has made so far: Its atmosphere is its story.
Arrival finds Louise (Amy Adams), a grief-stricken linguist, and Ian (Jeremy Renner), a scientist, recruited by the U.S. military to communicate with the aliens, called "heptapods" thanks to their seven long tentacles. Hearing a recording of their inchoate wailing -- part whale noise, part metal machine music -- Louise realizes that she must actually be in their presence to understand them. Sure enough, when she does "meet" the heptapods, she realizes that their real language is not spoken but written, consisting of circular swipes in which every little wave and eddy and brush stroke conveys meaning. To find out why the creatures are here, and whether they come in peace, Louise and Ian try to master this nonlinear language.
If this all sounds very tone-poem-y to you, that's because it is. But Villeneuve can ground the metaphysical and the metaphorical without undermining the mood he's created. I have to respect a wide release with the gall to spend so much of its running time watching a linguist translate cryptic alien messages. And Adams, with her melancholy curiosity, does a fine job with this beautifully suffering character.