Louise and Ian contemplate things in Arrival

“But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.”

Science fiction is a genre that makes us think by asking questions about our advancement as a species. Some sci-fi movies eschew emotion to focus on the thoughts and ethics of their subject matter, like Ex Machina. Others dive head-first into emotion, making that the focus rather than the ideas, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Very few films do a good job of stimulating both the intellect and the emotions of the viewers; Arrival is a smart film that does exactly that. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Sicario) and starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, this film shows us a first contact between humans and aliens who have chosen to land here. This isn’t an action film—it’s a much more cerebral and thought-provoking experience, although it’s not hard to follow or boring. In fact, it’s rare that a film that makes you think like this is made for mainstream audiences, let alone made so well, earning it a spot on this list.

The story opens with 12 alien ships landing at various locations on earth. In order to investigate peacefully, the government finds two experts to help them: Louise Banks, a linguist, and Ian Donnelly, a scientist. It’s their job to understand the aliens, figure out how to communicate with them, and determine if they’re a threat. Through all of that, we see Louise’s memories of a lost child and a failed marriage that haunt her throughout the film and become more important as the film progresses. I’m not going to give away any more than that, but it’s a very solid plot.

Like their ship or their bodies, their written language has no forward or backward direction. Linguists call this ‘nonlinear orthography,’ which raises the question: Is this how they think?

Pretty much right from the start of the film, the question of why the aliens are there hangs over everyone and moves the plot forward, and the answer they eventually give is surprising and somewhat unique in this genre. This isn’t a simple story of making first contact, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind—the aliens have a solid and complex reason for being there, and all the mysterious encounters make sense in the end. The film went much deeper than I originally expected, and the ending strays from hard science a bit to also focus on language, psychology, and even our perception of space and time. This is a film that will appeal to language and psychology enthusiasts as much as those with pure scientific minds. A film covering that much ground has the potential to be a confusing train-wreck, but this was surprisingly easy to follow, although hard to predict. When I figured out what was going on, I was hooked for the rest of the film to see how it played out.

Director Denis Villeneuve took great strides to make this film realistic. He hired scientists to act as consultants to make sure the scientist characters in the film and the tools they used were all portrayed as it should. But, even more impressive, this feels like the real world. Many sci-fi films feel far removed from reality, either happening in some far-off future or happening to people you would never meet in real life. This one feels like it could happen tomorrow. Even though I don’t know a lot of scientists or linguists, both main characters feel very real and grounded, thanks to great performances from Adams and Renner. And it’s this grounding in reality that makes the fantastic place it takes us even more powerful.

Louise holds a graphic with an alien language in Arrival
I’m a bit of a psychology nerd and have always had an interest in linguistics. This film made me happy.

Though this is a cerebral and somewhat slow-moving film, it is not boring. Adams and Renner have enough charisma to keep audiences attached to their characters, and getting bits of Louise’s memories throughout the film give her character some depth. There’s plenty of tension, initially in just determining the nature of the aliens, but eventually happening on a larger scale as well. They mystery and the final reveal, while not on the same level as some of the great like The Usual Suspects, is still engrossing and interesting and recontextualizes many of the earlier scenes in a way that a good mystery should. If you’re expecting an action film, maybe you’ll be disappointed, but I certainly wasn’t bored watching this.

Arrival is an intelligent and well-written sci-fi film that gives us a healthy dose of drama and emotion without being overly sentimental or illogical, and it’s a fairly competent mystery too, with clues revealed throughout, although many of them only make sense in retrospect. There also aren’t many movies that focus on language and its effect on the brain (I used to work for an organization that did literacy work in developing countries, so this is very dear to me), and it actually makes that topic interesting. This is a science fiction film that accomplishes what few others do: it appeals to a general audience without sacrificing anything that makes science fiction great. For that reason, this is a film I’d recommend to anyone.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:56
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Year: 2016
Genres: drama, mystery, sci-fi
Rating: PG-13

Movies like Arrival

  • Interstellar – This is another film with a great balance of hard science-fiction and moving drama. It deals less with psychology, but it casts a vision of human potential and inspires viewers to think of all the places humanity could go. Also, the science in this film is impeccable—you’ve never seen a black hole like you’ll see in this film.
  • The Martian – This film has a great emotional heart, but the main character uses real-world science to solve the problems he encounters. This is another film that focuses on scientists but remains accessible to general audiences and balances both emotion and intellect without sacrificing either.

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