Louise Banks (Amy Adams) remembers with great regret her daughter's all-too-brief time on Earth, from when she was born to when she died in her teens of a terminal illness, it has left her feeling aimless in life adrift in fate and without purpose. She does have her occupation as a linguist, however, which takes in a lecturing job at a university, and today when she shows up to teach she notices hardly anyone has turned up for the class. Nevertheless, she is about to forge ahead when one of the students suggests she switches on the news on the hall's television, and the reason for the quiet class is revealed: aliens have landed across the world. Are they an invasion force, or something peaceful? It may be impossible to tell...
Something else that was impossible to tell was what was going on in the well-nigh impenetrable gloom director Denis Villeneuve chose to shoot Arrival in, a film that garnered international acclaim until the voices of dissent began be heard louder and louder, revealing this to be a real love it or hate it experience. There may have been a middle path, but for every one person proclaiming it a masterpiece there appeared to be an equal and opposite reaction dismissing it as a two hour yawnfest with nothing to offer the average cinemagoer. Compounding that latter opinion was the issue with the sound and vision, leaving them not only squinting to see what was happening, but also straining to make out the muted dialogue.
That's the sort of combination that leaves audiences if not discombobulated, then actively angry, yet say you could make out what was going on as the plot played tricks with time, would its themes be of any worth? In theory, yes, as Eric Heisserer adapted Ted Chiang's short story which explored the potential of language and how it formed connections between people, moving beyond that to ponder if it could maybe rescue humanity, that ability to communicate a vital part of what kept us alive and vital. That was all assuming you could make yourself understood of course, which left the presence of these apparently superintelligent aliens dropping by all the more baffling that they should decide to set a puzzle.
Either that or they could not make contact in any other way, but given when Louise is recruited by the United States military to join them in an endeavour to understand these entities in their oval craft, which hang in the air above various parts of the globe, all the aliens do is make messy black circles with their tentacles you would have hoped they could have found a method of being clearer in their intent. But Louise, as an ambassador of the best of humankind, must have a linguistic mountain to climb to prove herself worthy to the extraterrestrials and the audience watching her exercise her brain cells, so she had to jump through various intellectual hoops on the road to ultimate understanding. The fact that these neither satisfied as mental stimulation or plot points was a big minus for Arrival's enjoyment factor.
Indeed, time and again Louise traipsed up the weird gravity corridor to see the aliens, who her barely there (physically and spiritually) physicist colleague Jeremy Renner names Abbott and Costello after their famous comedy routine of misunderstanding "Who’s On First?" which is about the sole instance of humour in the entire movie. But we never felt any progress was being made since every time she had a breakthrough, it carried no heft, it was simply the peace-loving protagonist in a science fiction movie doing pretty much what they all did when faced with the unknown. Either these aliens were going to attack or help, and as it was an anti-war movie there was little chance they were here for violence, so what they did offer was very mind-expanding but hardly of much use otherwise in a practical sense. Passing observations which could have been interesting, that for instance humanity is too divided to be ready for contact with a race from outer space, were fumbled, and the whole thing had a deadening self-importance and unconvincing would-be twinkle that it was difficult to recommend outside of the hardcore sci-fi fans. Music by Jóhann Jóhannsson.