Twelve alien ships, shaped like shells, hover over different random points on Earth. Their apparent means of communication is humming, at least initially. What is their purpose? Do they mean harm, or a benign first contact? As one of the shells arrives in Montana, the U.S. Army under Colonel Weber's (Forest Whitaker) command, cordons off the area to prevent the site from becoming a tourist attraction. Two foremost civilian experts, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, and Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, lead the contact teams.
Steady but slow progress is made, but when humans misinterpret aliens' "words", some countries shut off the exchange of information, threatening a war among species. Racing against the clock, it is up to Dr. Banks to decipher the aliens' true intentions...But to convey a message that may save us all she will have to risk her life.
Arrival is an unconventional movie in several ways; unlike in most science-fiction movies, the “heptapods” (aliens) do not invade, and they come with a desire to communicate with humans. Also for the first time in a movie of its kind, a linguist leads a contact team, recognizing the importance of language as a means of communication.
The narrative in the movie switches between linearity in the present, and flashes (in Dr. Banks' mind) of events that may or may not have happened. Little by little, we get the pieces of this puzzle until everything makes sense in the end. The humming and the foreboding musical score create an eerie atmosphere.
The performances by Forest Whitaker, Jeremy Renner, and Amy Adams are outstanding—the last two having re-teamed after the much celebrated American Hustle—, but it is really the story and its meaning that make Arrival a movie so different than those of the same genre.