Arrival is one of the most entirely ideas-based sci-fi films that I have ever seen; even its late turn from linguistics to moral philosophy is squarely in the realm of the intellect, and while it is in its own way heart-rending, that way is all mixed up in an impressively dense matrix of theories of mind and knowledge. And when I say "impressively dense", I do of course mean "impressively dense for a movie star vehicle that cost tens of millions of dollars, which I'm certain the production company intends to make back, along with some Oscar nominations and maybe a win for Amy Adams". But this is still about as close to hard sci-fi as the movies are apt to get.

Following in the footsteps of the undervalued 1997 film Contact, Arrival has a resolutely unromantic attitude towards one of the most romantic concepts in genre fiction: the awesome gravity of meeting a race of extraterrestrial beings. Faced with that grand notion, Arrival has this to say: it would be enormously difficult to talk to them. That's the simple, blunt reality that underpins most of the 116 minutes of its running time. And that is how we arrive at hero Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), professor of linguistics, and a throwback to the old '50s model of sci-fi, when watching academics do academic works was a bit of a generic cliché. She's hand-picked by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) of the U.S. Army, after wowing him with her skills as a translator, and assigned to the delirious, insurmountable task of translating an alien language, aided and abetted by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Meanwhile, experts around the world are working on the same problem at each of the sites where the aliens' giant petal-shaped spacecraft are silently hovering, which has the effect of heightening tensions between various countries already prone to antagonism, especially after the obscure and contextually confusing reference to "weapons" in the aliens' offer.

And that really is most of the film: I can't overstate how very little "happens" in Arrival. This does not keep the film from being generally quite enjoyable on the level of flashy spectacle, no matter how much linguistic theory Eric Heisserer's script, adapted from Ted Chiang's 1998 short story "Story of Your Life", throws at us. It's a drum-tight movie that races by even without much in the way of incident, thanks to a great many scenes which are individually well-mounted by director Denis Villaneuve, smartly treating a science procedural as a ticking-clock thriller, and framing the inside of the alien's ship with an undying sense of awe that doesn't dissipate no matter how often we return to it. It's a casually impossible space, where gravity functions all wrong (demonstrated early in an excellent setpiece), and where everything feels somehow too natural: the interior has the distinct tang of a cave system, and the chamber where the aliens dwell is all fog behind glass, feeling large and outdoor-ish despite our knowledge of the space's layout. The design of the outstanding CGI creatures, the space that houses them, and their written language - something like circle-shaped ink blots suspended in the fog - are all splendidly inhuman, and Villaneuve resolutely refuses to normalise these things, constantly finding new framings that keep us all disoriented and distracted.

This is particularly useful in the case of Arrival, since the movie is so unusually constrained. Outside of a few scattered scenes, there are really just three settings: inside the alien ship, the military base where all of the planning and sciencing is done, and the home of Louise and her daughter, shown only in a flashback structure wherein the experiences Louise had teaching the girl about linguistics and such end up informing her insights into how to crack the alien code in the present. Each of these locations is shot in a different way: the alien ship, I've mentioned, is allowed to retain its weirdness, while the Banks house is presented from a limited number of repeated angles, the better to stress the homey familiarity of it; the military base is cramped and close and hectic, with activity and a general fullness of stuff spilling off the edge of the frame. These visual distinctions matter; they give an intuitive emotional shape to the heavily intellectual material.

It's honestly a bit dry at times, but anchored at least by a particularly strong performance by Adams, who allows us to read into her distant expressions the feeling of loss Louise feels at losing her daughter to a fatal disease, while otherwise brilliantly embodying the dogged stubbornness of a researcher who permits (indeed, encourages) herself to forget about everything in the world other than her experiments. Not much else in the film is as commanding on a human level, though as an aesthetic object, Arrival is excellent: completely convincing CGI, and gorgeous by the great Bradford Young, whose name has quickly become a promise of enormously high quality, here seen mostly in the jarring contrasts between blocks of color (especially the outside of the ship and the inside), and also in the wonderful diffuse glow that he uses to depict the light from the aliens' enclosure, something like a heavenly light bathing Adams and shining in her eyes. Villaneuve directs beautiful films, this is not news; Arrival's not his most beautiful, but lighting, color, and the designed spaces where the film takes place all interact in particularly striking ways here, crafting something that feels as real as a particularly tangible dream.

Anyway, it's a lovely, intelligent, slightly arid and one-note film, and then things are rejiggered; it turns out that what seemed like a sci-fi science procedural has in fact been a heavily emotional movie all along, actively misleading us not for the sake of a dumb twist, but to help connect us to the characters and their own limits of knowledge. It is ultimately a film about moral choices and what it means to be a feeling person in a world where suffering occurs; it is ultimately a film about Louise's way of relating to other people, not about her skill set. I can't go into any more without feeling like I'm doing you all a great disservice, but I will say this much: the first, longer chunk of Arrival was a film I admired in a detached way without actually liking it, while the second and last chunk floored me with how simply and cleanly it present complex theoretical notions in an easily-accessible form that is always focused more on character than on the theories themselves. It made me feel an awful lot, certainly as much as or more than most of the year's other anointed prestige pictures, with enough creativity in its construction to make it a fun movie puzzle in addition to being an emotional gutpunch. It's not one of the year's best, most essential films, but its ending makes it pretty damn hard to ignore.