I remember a class of exercises in grade school that involved drawings of figures standing in Escher-like spaces in which each figure had its own frame of reference, so that up and down might be in any direction for any figure. Thus, Mr. A might be above Mr. B from A’s frame of reference, but to B’s left from B’s reference frame.

Whether the point of these exercises was simply to get us thinking about spatial relations and mentally rotating objects or to introduce us to relativity and how perceptions depend on frame of reference, I don’t know. I think about those exercises occasionally, though, when a movie plays with gravity or frames of reference: for instance, that brilliant early shot in Gravity with the camera moving in and out of Sandra Bullock’s reference frame as she spins in space, at one point showing us the Earth and the whole universe revolving around her every few seconds.

Doctor Strange recently weaponized relative reference frames, with sorcerous characters able to adopt any gravitational orientation they liked — or change it for their foes. Earlier this year Star Trek Beyond offered a visionary community of the future, a space station called Yorktown that was like a city wrapped into a perpetual Möbius strip.

Now Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and adapted by Eric Heisserer from the acclaimed short story “Story of Your Life” by science-fiction writer Ted Chiang, makes startlingly poetic use of the simplest possible version of the effect.

There is a gravitational threshold characters must cross between one reference frame and another. It’s a vertiginous crossing, but not a difficult one; one can even be carried across. The crossing is both prelude and metaphor, though, for a more challenging threshold for which one character will prove readier than others. Einstein saw with astonishing prescience that a theory of gravity is inseparable from a theory of space and time, and if gravity turns out to be negotiable, other things will be too.

Arrival is a meditative first-contact story that shares creative DNA with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Contact, and, perhaps surprisingly, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. In some ways it warrants comparison with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, if only because Arrival achieves much of what I was hoping for from Interstellar. Both films aspire to grand statements about the nature of time and space as well as humanity and the heart, and both involve major reveals that reinterpret what we’ve seen. But Interstellar is ultimately a puzzle box with no there there, and Arrival offers something richer.

The world changes the way the world does these days, with messages arriving on smartphones and tablets alerting people to drop what they’re doing and check the news. The aliens arrive in immense, oblong, shell-like vessels that don’t quite touch down in a dozen locations around the globe. Viewed horizontally, they would look like traditional flying saucers, but hanging vertically a short distance off the ground they look a little like a cross between 2001 monoliths and the humpback whales in the climax of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

The aliens’ spoken speech even sounds a little like the whale songs in that movie, or like the whale-like communication from the extraterrestrial probe that came seeking them. Since the aliens don’t seem to want to talk to whales, the U.S. military turns to linguist Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, partly because she already had security clearance due to a government contract translating communications from insurgents in Afghanistan.

“You made short work of those insurgent messages,” says a senior officer played by Forest Whitaker.

“You made short work of those insurgents,” Louise replies, in what could be a signal that the military will be bad guys in this movie, but isn’t.

Joined by astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise attempts to establish communications with the aliens. I could describe them, but that would be pointless; suffice to say they are not humanoid. More relevant is their other language: not the vocalized but the visual or “written.”

The aliens’ “written” language (if that’s the right word, since it involves somehow manipulating an ink-like substance released from their bodies) looks like a mashup of Arabic, ink blots and coffee-cup stains. The key structural element is that their writing is not linear but circular; words, sentences and perhaps even paragraphs have no beginning or ending, but are conceived and apprehended as wholes.

Beginnings and endings loom large for Louise, as it happens, because of a tragedy in her life: A prologue sketches the birth of Louise’s daughter, her brief, joyous life and her tragically premature death to a rare disease.

As much as Villeneuve’s striking images and visual motifs (note the frequent use of geometric patterns, especially rows and grids), Adams’ performance is the soul of the film. The part involves a tricky balancing act — just how tricky isn’t immediately clear — and she weaves together the cerebral and emotional challenges with persuasiveness and depth.

Notably, Adams plays most of the film looking like a woman working around the clock on an enormously important job, putting the least possible effort into her appearance and attire. The almost inexorable Hollywood impetus to sexualize the heroine finds no concession here. 

Louise’s encounter with the aliens will, we expect, be a gateway to some kind of catharsis or redemption in connection with her daughter’s death — but how? I found the answer unexpectedly poignant and powerful, because of how the film plays with some of my favorite cinematic themes.

Arrival is persuasively life-affirming, embracing the value even of a life cut short. The film shows, rather than tells, that we can look unblinkingly at sorrow and pain and still choose life. It even suggests, within an entirely naturalistic point of view, that nothing ever truly ceases to exist, that whatever is or was always matters.

Along the way, Arrival asks heady questions of a sort one does not expects in connection with a first-contact science-fiction film starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Is the cornerstone of civilization science or language? Are different languages more or less interchangeable constructs for expressing thought and perceptions — or do different languages, by their particular structures, shape how our minds are wired and condition how we think or perceive reality?

If, as Einstein’s theory of special relativity suggests, the flow of time is illusory or arbitrary and past, present and future are all equally real, what if anything does free will mean? Why in such a universe wouldn’t we remember future events as well as past ones?

The great Catholic film writer André Bazin wrote extensively about cinema as a language that can be used in different ways, an art form with a unique power, in Bazin’s view to preserve the temporal from transience; to capture and preserve events in time and space before they slip away. They still slip away, of course; film doesn’t really preserve, but only (Bazin’s word) embalms. Cinema can be seen as a weapon against death, but an unsuccessful weapon.

Even so, the effort to resist death, to preserve what is against the flow of time, says something about the sort of creatures we are: about our dissatisfaction with being circumscribed and limited by time, and our longing to transcend it. Arrival speaks to this longing as movingly as any film I’ve seen this year.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Follow him on Twitter.

Caveat Spectator: Brief violent images; limited bad language; stressful family situations. Teens and up, mostly because it would be incomprehensible to younger kids.