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As Amy Adams’ opening voiceover speaks in sad lyrical strokes, and director Denis Villenueve’s lens slides slowly through her empty home, and Johann Johannson’s mournful music breathes in the background, we know we’re not watching Independence Day.

Adams plays Louise, a linguist seemingly grieving for her daughter. Louise is last to know that twelve colossal spacecraft have entered the Earth’s atmosphere and are now hovering in various locations around the globe. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who has a bit of previous with Louise, invites her to join a team who will enter one of the alien crafts and try to communicate with them.

The rest of the movie is set largely in a military base in the shadow of the alien craft. The camera meekly moves beneath the huge hovering object, as if anxiously averting its eyes. The sense of awe is palpable and appropriate, filling the audience with a thrilling dread as the crew creep – and float – inside. The sparse design of the alien ship interior is fantastically foreboding, and the form of its pilots is convincing in its otherworldliness. I won’t describe them; I’ll just say they’re named “heptapods”.

The humans attempt to communicate. While Louise uses words and gestures, the heptapods rely on a kind of hieroglyphic language made from ejected ink. It’s pleasingly weird and graceful. These first encounters are the most engaging, successfully giving the sense of an impenetrable barrier between species.

Fans of modern epic sci-fi won’t be bowled over by the core message, but I won’t name names for fear of giving away the mildest of surprises.

The sombre colour-drained style may be standard these days, but Villenueve contrasts it effectively with Louise’s memories of her daughter. The editing throughout the film is textured and nuanced, even if it does collapse into a malaise of generalised Big Feelings in the end. Still, the quality of craftsmanship and the doomy style bode well for the director’s upcoming Blade Runner sequel.

For all the heavyweight actors, the supporting characters – from the gruff, pragmatic military leader to the slimy CIA suit – are stock for the genre. Adams is typically soulful and skilful, while Renner, to his credit, tries his best in a role written to be playful, except he’s under the thrall of a director who doesn’t really do play.

Arrival isn’t completely cohesive. There’s some of the hard sci-fi slog of The Andromeda Strain, but also the socially conscious grandstanding of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Both are great movies (and both by Robert Wise) – but are they great bedfellows?

Tonally I was reminded of Another Earth, a similarly mournful, cerebral sci-fi movie with a metaphysical twist. But that movie wore its melon-twisting conceit on its sleeve, as opposed to the Nolan-esque puzzle box narrative gradually unveiled in Arrival. As twists go, this one is ambitious: a clever cop-out or a mind-expanding revelation depending on taste. Your capacity for feeling moved may depend on your feelings about the bow-wrapped ending of Interstellar.

Along with Interstellar, a major touchstone is Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, which also focused on a passionate female protagonist driven by grief. Contact’s depiction of an invaded world swallowing itself whole through reactionary insanity was more fun and more convincing, although I guess the overblown public reaction in Arrival may speak more to the current feverish state of US politics.

Arrival suffers from many familiar elements, and a script that can’t match the sumptuous visual style, the committed performances, or the unique production design. Perhaps a little more lightness of touch may have alleviated the slippery slope of the film’s neat-yet-divisive second half. But there’s no denying that this is impressive, technically astounding filmmaking with an unapologetic intention to awe. Worth seeing – and worth seeing BIG.