Mankind's first encounter with extra-terrestrial life has long been a fascination of sci-fi filmmakers, with the emphasis often on the effect this has both on individuals and the planet as a whole. Arrival does have these elements but the emphasis is as much on the process of communication itself, and despite having a fascinating premise, and some good performances, the script flounders with a disappointing payoff.
When gigantic spaceships touch down in a dozen locations around the world. Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called in by the US government to discover a way to communicate with them. But with panic on the streets, and nations on the verge of war, will she find a way before the aliens turn sinister - or before humanity destroys itself?
Adams does her best with the clunky dialogue that sounds deeper than it is ("We are so bound by time. By its order.”), managing to create some sympathy and emotional depth with her character. Forest Whitaker also does good work as Colonel Weber, the middle man between the scientists, the politicians, and the more gung-ho elements of the military.
The CGI is a mixed bag, with the huge spacecraft flawlessly blended into the Montana countryside setting, making it even more disconcerting. However, too much of what we see of the alien creatures feels like, well, it was created in a computer, which, granted, is the problem I have with most CGI.
However, the real problems lie with the script. Some of the plot twists rely on the highly unlikely, such as soldiers having unfettered internet in a locked down high security military base. The underlying theme of a planet whose population is about to tear each other apart because of a failure to communicate is interesting and drives much of the tension, giving a ticking clock countdown to the work of Professor Banks. But the Deus Ex Machina pay off to this feels lazy, as if the writers have scripted themselves into a corner.
In addition, too much of the script is talky, resorting to the cliché of boffins standing around pointing at whiteboards, a pitfall perhaps of trying to explore the concept of language in a visual medium.