Monolithic alien spaceships appear in twelve seemingly random locations across Earth's continents. The military call on linguistics professor Louise (Amy Adams) for an opinion, and she quickly talks her way onto the contact team and finds herself leading the contact mission alongside physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner).
What follows is a beautifully low-key first contact movie with echoes of both Contact and Interstellar, as the team races against time to decode the aliens' language before the fragile pax between involved nations breaks down. Adams stands out with a melancholy and human performance as a scientist plagued by memories of loss, and this is very much her movie - Renner is here in a supporting role although there's some good chemistry between the two.
Overall this is a well-scripted movie, and there's lots to enjoy - not least the alien language which is realised in depth, and the tension that builds between nations as teams at different sites become suspicious of each other.
There are however a couple of minor shark-jumps. Louise's first successful communication with the aliens is based on such a simple idea, I had trouble believing this hadn't been tried already. Later, despite being set in a military camp with tight security, one soldier manages to connect to a fundamentalist website on his laptop without triggering any alarms. These do not spoil the movie which stands on its performances and eerie atmospherics. The big twist, which I won't reveal here, is a narrative gamble with internal logic that in my opinion just about holds together. I liked it but it may well divide viewers.
The theme of interpreting alien languages is a science fiction favourite, although it can also get swept under the metaphorical carpet (yes, Babel fish, I'm talking to you) and it's a potential pitfall if and when we make contact with aliens in the real world. Of the many sci-fi novels that take up this theme I particularly enjoyed Jennifer Foehner Wells' Fluency, which features a scientist hero not unlike Amy Adams' character in Arrival, and Embassytown by China Mieville, a particularly bizarre tale of aliens who recruit humans to become metaphors in their language.