I just finished watching this incredible film and wholeheartedly agree with the hype surrounding it, and the awards/accolades showered upon it that it won. The layered narrative was intelligent, devoid of spoon feeding, emotionally gripping and (in my opinion) an accurate representation of how our first contact would actually transpire.
I'm going to try and make this review as concise as possible, but it will be filled with spoilers because I feel that the negative reviews crying about the movie's pace and it's supposed 'randomness' and 'incoherence'/'nonsense' storyline are not only ridiculously inaccurate, but depressingly indicative of a generation of movie-goers and audience-participants afflicted with a kind of attention deficit derived from cancerous reality TV and unhealthy addictions to the 140/280-status-update-social-media-entertainment reality that unfortunately pervades society's everyday life now. ARRIVAL is not only an entertaining movie, but it's narrative made complete sense and was stunningly original and, ultimately, refreshing thanks to a kind of Drake-equation-authenticity approach to crafting a plausible scenario about humanity's first encounter with an advanced intergalactic wayfaring species.
So, being as brief and succinct as I can, here is the plot explained.
1. Louise and Ian are recruited to decipher the newly arrived visitor's language in an effort to uncover our guest's true motive for visiting.
2. I'm an earlier discussion in the film, Ian asks Louise about a linguistic theory and whether or not she abides by it's stated principal: when an individual immerses themselves in the study of new language(s), they ultimately rewire their synapses/brain chemistry and alter the way they interact with perceived reality and use of their senses. The name of the theory eludes me atm but it's stated in the movie.
3. Ian and Louise begin to immerse themselves in this new language with incredible results. Louise begins having flashbacks to the life of her and her husband daughter, who died at a tender young age from a rare, unknown affliction when she was a young teenager.
4. The round-the-clock immersion into Heptapodese logogram (the alien language and it's written symbols) also causes Louise to begin dreaming in Heptapodese logogram, as well as the Heptapodese spoken. This is evidenced by a brief spat between Louise and Ian where Ian asks Louise if she's been dreaming in Heptapodese instead of English, to which Louise replies, "so what, that doesn't mean I can't still do my job." The obvious takeaway is yes, Louise is in fact dreaming in the alien tongue (also evidenced by a very brief 5 second dream sequence where we see a Heptapod standing over Hannah and Louise's beds before Louise is jolted awake by the 18-hour-interval klaxon).
5. China and Russia give the Heptapods an ultimatum: leave in a day, or we will annihilate you; total destruction. Heptapods respond with a visual metaphor as well as a linguistic one: Twelve together are one (proceeded by the rotation of the Heptapod spheres revealing that each sphere is actually a perfectly measured fragment of an even bigger sphere which would be created if each of the twelve spheres parked in around the world decided to combine together (evidenced by Ian's measurement epiphany of 100 ÷ 12 after Heptapod Costello gives them that massively layered message). This makes Louise realize that the Heptapods are trying to tell them not to attack, but to combine all their knowledge learned from their encounters so they can communicate with them more productively. Against the wishes of cooler heads, a rogue faction of mutineers sabotage one of Louise and Ian's meetings with Abbott and Costello with C4 and Bushmasters in a futile attempt at attacking the Heptapods and killing Louise/Ian because of their antagonistic stance towards aggression. This of course fails, and the Heptapods save Louise and Ian by ejecting them from their ship before the c4 explosion can kill them. Unfortunately, the explosion mortally wounds one of the Heptapods and so all humans are now banned from entering the ship--except the translators.
6. Louise runs away from the compound after having a prescient vision of the Heptapod black ink swelling her hands which forces her to Intuit that the Heptapods want to speak to her and only her. So she runs to the middle of an open steppe and the Heptapods transport her aboard their ship. The surviving Heptapod expresses the other Heptapod's death to Louise to which she commiserates and apologizes for her species irrational and fearful behavior. She asks for the Heptapod to again reiterate the true nature/purpose of their visit, which it replies 'to help humanity, so that they can help us 3,000 years from now. ... The weapon we offer you is time. ... Louise can see the future." Louise learns that the Heptapods want to give her the gift of prescience/clairvoyance, but she can't understand how they will give it to her, or how it will work once they do give it to her.
7. Louise then has a 'flashback' about a conversation she once had at a UN event/Galla with General Shang, China's military figurehead spearheading the 24 hour ultimatum against the Heptapods. In this memory, Shang thanks Louise for reciting his wife's dying words of love to him because of the comfort and tranquility these words bring him in times of hardship. Louise then risks a charger of treason to make a satellite phone call to China to convince them to stand down from their ultimatum and to participate in the complete exchange and sharing of all gathered intelligence from the Heptapod interactions. Because of Louise's words to Shang, China agree s and the rest of the world follows China's lead.
8. Peace is restored as China softens it's stance and eliminates the ultimatum. The Heptapods leave after completing their job of giving humanity it's most useful weapon: itself. Humanity teams up to solve problems and boost progress, instead of competing and behaving surreptitiously. This is hinted at earlier in the film when Halpern comments to Louise and Ian something along the lines of 'How would you get anything done as an alien species if the other species your interacting with is divided into several leaders without one true position of power to guide everyone?' (not verbatim, but it's the exact spirit of what Halpern was saying.
9. Louise realises finally that, after all this time, her flashbacks of her daughter Hannah are actually prescient visions of a daughter that she has yet to give birth to. This epiphany tires back into the early part of the film when Ian take about the linguistic theory where fully immersing oneself in a new language alters the way one interacts with reality. Louise has immersed herself so deeply in Heptapodese logogram that it's effectively rewired her brain, making her clairvoyant.
10. It turns out that Ian is going to be Louise's future husband, and the father to their daughter Hannah. The movie ends with a sort of clairvoyant memory reel of the life of Louise, Ian, and Hannah's future journey together before tragedy takes Hannah away from them at a young age. We learn that the memories of Hannah randomly had throughout the movie were actually the sequences where her brain was altering itself as it tried to acclimate to this new prescient way of interacting with reality and time. Yet again, there's as very brief scene where Louise explains to the Colonel that Heptapodese logogram doesn't express time in a linear fashion like humanity's languages do--an early hint at the notion that whoever buckles down and learns Heptapodese logogram will ultimately be able to perceive time in a non-linear fashion.
Honestly, I thought ARRIVAL was a beautiful, almost magical film. It was so much more than a kind of ID4 Doomsday Alien flick that permeates the global cinematic universe. ARRIVAL may be a film about Heptapods and our attempts at understanding them, but ultimately it's a passionate movie about humanity coming together to genuinely better understand itself.
I know I said I would be brief, and I tried, but it looks like I failed (lol). Kudos if you read my wall of text, I hope this explained the story my clearly. If it clarified things, I also hope that it shorted your negative opinions on the film into more positive ones.
Bravo to Villeneuve and everyone involved in creating arrival. It's now in my top 5 alien films of all time! I give it six out of five stars and would definitely recommend to anyone who likes mature sci-fi with an emotional drama component to its narrative. Cheers