Considering the scope of its premise—aliens touch down simultaneously at twelve places widely scattered around the world in spaceships that look like huge orthopedic shoe inserts—The Arrival is a surprisingly small-scale and well-behaved production. The drama is focused on the fact that no one can figure out why they're here or what they want.
The U.S. military enlists crack linguist Amy Adams to break the ice, as it were, with the contingent of aliens who have appeared suddenly in rural Montana. She's accompanied on this tête-à-tête by physicist Jeremy Renner and a collection of military types who are itching to blast the intrusive pod to kingdom come. This storyline is intercut with mysterious and seemingly irrelevant "flashbacks" to Adams's personal life and memories of interactions with her daughter, who appears to have died before reaching adulthood.
Adams and Renner, bucking the establishment every step of the way, succeed in establishing a dialog of sorts with the creatures inside the pod, who express themselves not in words but in complex and attractive rings of messy ink that they squirt squid-like onto the transparent interface deep within their pod.
At first world leaders seem to be working together, trading information about what they've learned, but it isn't long before cooperation between superpowers comes to an end and the Americans must resort to satellite photography and other intelligence sources to see what's going on in other parts of the world. The fear is ever present that someone (China? Russia?) is going to start taking potshots at the pods.
It would be unconscionable to say more about the plot, except that it's more interesting than I've made it sound here, due to elements that I cannot divulge. However, it is safe to say that viewers looking for an action flick on the order of Independence Day or Starship Troopers are likely to be disappointed. The sky is often gray, and the tone of the film is brooding and largely personal. Yet Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and his crew do a good job of establishing a sense of profound foreboding, as if the end of civilization as we know it is just one diplomatic gaff away.
As I watched The Arrival, I was reminded from time to time, but for different reasons, of 2001: a Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Interstellar, and even Gravity. (After all, both Adams and Sandra Bullock are grieving mothers.) It's the kind of film that gets better as you stand in the parking lot ten minutes after its over, trying to figure out what actually happened.
(Spoiler alert.) Yet in the end, though the message of the film is worthwhile, its logic doesn't bear close scrutiny. The idea is that past and future are less "linear" than we imagine. In fact, if we learned to use the alien language rather than our own, we might eventually be able to "see" the future. The question then becomes, would we be able to alter it? And if not, would we be eager to participate in events to which we already know the outcome?
Such reflections are stimulating but ultimately sterile, like an M.C. Escher lithograph. The aliens seem to have asked and answered them already—otherwise, they wouldn't have bothered to pay us a visit. But I guess you and I will have to figure them out on our own.