Short version: it's great, go see it.
Long version: I confess I was a bit worried when I got tickets to this movie. When I heard that Ted Chiang's great story "The Story of Your Life" was being made into a film I was very pleased and excited . . . but then I saw the trailer for the movie under its new title Arrival and it seemed to have a lot more running-and-shooty-bits than I remembered from the story.
I've seen what Hollywood did to stories like Heinlein's Starship Troopers, or The Puppet Masters; or Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles or "A Sound of Thunder." And "The Story of Your Life" seemed like a very difficult story to adapt. It would have been all too easy for some producer to decide to dumb it down and make just another "scary aliens invade" actioner, or the equally cliché "misunderstood aliens arrive and mean Army guys want to waterboard them" story.
So, as I say, I was a bit worried. But when the movie began with a montage showing the tragically short life of the main character's daughter, I relaxed into my seat and began to enjoy myself. It's the daughter who is the "you" in the original short story title, and her inclusion meant the movie was actually going to follow Ted's story.
Which it did, almost line-for-line. I haven't seen a more faithful adaptation since Rosemary's Baby (according to Stephen King, Rosemary's Baby precisely tracks Ira Levin's original novel because the director, Roman Polanski, didn't know he was allowed to change things).
I'm not going to give any "spoilers" because the movie's still in theaters — though there isn't any kind of lame "twist ending" which woul ruin your enjoyment if I revealed it. Instead I'm going to mention some of the things that impressed me.
First of all, there are no villains. There are people whose goals are opposed to those of the heroine, but those goals are perfectly understandable and logical. There are no mustache-twirlers in this movie. I really liked that. It's also more suspenseful: you know an obvious villain will ultimately meet her doom, but what if the entirely reasonable antagonists turn out to be right?
Second, the movie has real aliens. I've griped in the past about how wedded moviemakers are to the "guy-in-a-suit" look for alien beings, even now that computer animation means you can put literally anything someone can imagine on the screen. I'm also tired of aliens with eyes-over-mouth faces that plug into the hard-wired face-recognizing parts of our brains.
Well, Arrival doesn't have any truck with that nonsense either. The alien Heptapods are extremely non-human, but still look like something which might have evolved on another world. They don't even have faces.
Third, the movie does a wonderful job of convincing me that "this is what it would be like." That's something I look for in movies: a sense that I'm really experiencing something fantastic. The movie Unbreakable gave me that feeling, as did the first 90 minutes or so of the movie Signs, and the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Arrival's depiction of how the world and the characters reacted to the aliens was utterly convincing to me. (One particularly nice note was how believably nervous everyone was before the moment of first contact.)
I hope Arrival makes a ton of money. Partly because I'm happy to see Ted Chiang get issued a Rich-and-Famous Contract, but also for what it might mean for future science fiction cinema. Arrival is not a dumb movie. It doesn't pander to any lowest common denominator. If it's a success then maybe we can finally drive a stake through the heart of the old myth that audiences are too dumb to "get" science fiction unless it's the excuse for showy effects in an action movie.
I have long suspected that blaming "dumb audiences" is a convenient crutch for dumb moviemakers. Moviegoers are smart enough to install HVAC systems, do other people's taxes, manage farms, repair vintage motorcycles, and sell real estate. It's absurd to think that the contrivances of storytellers are too hard for them.
If that's true, and if Arrival is reasonably successful. then maybe people who make movies will take note. Science fiction films don't have to be action-adventure; they can be dramas, or comedies, or mysteries, or all of the above. There's a century of excellent science fiction short stories waiting for someone to turn into screenplays.
I've got a couple. Call my agent.