This is a fascinating and compelling science fiction drama/mystery that is occasionally undercut by Hollywood military cliches. It’s probably pretty hard to talk about this movie without SPOILERS but I will try.
But, seriously, SPOILERS
I generally like any science fiction movie which approaches aliens differently than little green men. In this case there is some attempt at imagining aliens differently than in other films, though there are echoes of The Sphere and Slaughterhouse Five. I don’t know anything about linguistics, so the approach here works well as seeming mysterious.
The movie does an excellent job of creating a sense of wonder and mystery. A lot of effort is put into trying to convey what people might really feel like when encountering incomprehensible aliens.
And, of course, it looks great. Villeneuve makes pretty films, and this film looks pretty damn great. And it’s not just the alien ships and the helicopter/drone shots, which are great. The way the interior of the military camp is shot is really well done, with some really great tracking shots. I also like how Louise is a little disoriented without resorting to the usual “disoriented hero(ine)” cliches.
My major nitpick is the behaviour of the military/CIA people, who feel a little bit like Hollywood cliches. It was easier to handle these cliches before I lived through a pandemic. But now that I know that the US military will not immediately take over everything during an unprecedented emergency – and firebomb us into oblivion, or whatever – it’s harder to take seriously the soldiers trying to sabotage things or the CIA agent (and whomever he’s speaking for) trying to get in the way of the experts. (Or later trying to shoot someone.)
Though I guessed what was happening right at the first chance I could have, I still mostly liked how how the reveal was handled and I think once you figure out what’s going on the movie still manages to make that compelling. (Though it could use a few fewer shots of the daughter.)