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10 Reasons Why “Arrival” Is The Best Sci-Fi Film Of The Decade

25 November 2016 | Features, Other Lists | by Shane Scott-Travis


Accomplished Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi follow-up to 2015’s Sicario, Arrival, may well be my favorite film of 2016. It’s an ecstatic and otherworldly experience, extraordinarily romantic, deeply moving, and filled with buoyancy, and wonder.

Arrival is also something of a weepie––though importantly it earns its tears in an honest manner, there’s no emotional blackmail here––and, balanced by a bold narrative, visual versification, and a brilliant turn from Amy Adams, Villeneuve’s film functions best, perhaps, as a bridge between Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and the profound yet fable-like speculative writings of Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin.

Villeneuve proves once again that he can master any genre––as seen in recent works such as the psychological mindfuck Enemy (2013), the detective procedural Prisoners (2013), and the cartel crime epic Sicario (2015)––and the artistry on hand here is wondrous, with sequences of such aching, ingenious elegance.

The following list will briefly touch upon the transformative and spellbinding elements that make Arrival a richly rewarding pièce de résistance, and one of the most moving affecting and eloquent films of 2016.


10. Arrival is respectful of its source material and yet is uniquely its own


Eric Heisserer’s script for Arrival is based faithfully on “Story of Your Life”, a 1999 piece of award-winning short fiction by Ted Chiang (author of 1991’s Hugo-winning novella “Tower of Babylon”).

Thus Arrival begins in an agile procedural vein as we meet linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams, brilliant) who reluctantly heads an elite team of investigators after a dozen massive, monolith-like spaceships touchdown in seemingly random locals around the earth.

As panic spreads amongst the populace and nations tremble on the brink of all-out earthly war, Louise’s team hustle to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrials. The earlier procedural modus gives way to mysticism and flat-out spectacle as Louise unravels their alien language, risking her life and perhaps all human life.

The results, while skillfully subdued, restrained, and ruminative is rich and colossal with emotion and imagination. We’ll go a little deeper further down this list but Arrival presents a relevant reminder to exercise empathy over apprehension, love over alarm, and progress over stasis. No offense, but this isn’t Star Wars.


9. Villeneuve understands sci-fi and this bodes well for ‘Blade Runner 2049’


Before diving into the nitty-gritty of Arrival it’s worth it to placate the diehards, butterup the fanboy contingent and let the sci-fi aficionados know that Villeneuve is a virtuoso, full stop. With many potentially “butthurt” speculators online anticipating a Blade Runner follow-up to be a faux pas of epic proportions it’s easy to view Arrival, a glossy, grand-scale science fiction chronicle to be something of a preliminary test-run. And if that’s the case then Arrival passes the first round with flying colors.

While Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Blade Runner from 1982 is something of a sacred cow, and certainly the best PKD adaptation to date––and that’s no small feat––Villeneuve displays ample evidence of being every bit the clever visual formalist as Scott.

In fact, Villeneuve easily matches and perhaps surpasses Spielberg’s populist successes like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) to bask in the warmth of such celebrated antecedents as the aforementioned Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky (think Solaris and Stalker).

And as far as the contemporary genre cannon, Arrival takes a place in line with Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015), Christopher Nolan’s soapy Interstellar (2014) and Scott’s more mainstream marvel The Martian (2015).


8. No spoilers but the ending of Arrival is a stunner


Arrival joyfully affords some dazzling twists that not only will make the likes of Christopher Nolan and M. Night Shyamalan reevaluate their vocation but will send audiences buzzing and discussing after the end credits scroll. This is the type of film that delights at the cinema and then continues into cafes and living rooms long afterwards.

Rather than ruin anything for those who’ve yet to see Arrival let’s just say that there is a dazzling detour in a temporal sense that brings the film to a risky conclusion that’s both moving––I’m unashamed of the heartening tears I wept––and unabashedly bold. This is cinema without a safety net and only the adventurous need apply.


7. Villeneuve expertly offers a rewarding slow reveal


While Arrival builds up considerable momentum and offers up numerous moments of awe and astonishment, it’s sometimes the teasing buildup and dramatic flourish that yields the most fist-pumping of rewards, surprise reveals and gobsmacking eye-openers.

At times it would appear that Villeneuve has taken a page from the Ishirō Honda playbook. Honda, a frequent and lifelong collaborator of Akira Kurosawa, is best remembered for his kaiju and tokusatsu genre films, such as Gojira. These films, while decidedly unsubtle show remarkable restraint from Honda as he takes his precious time before revealing Godzilla, using every opportunity to ratchet the suspense and build momentum.

This is the tack used before we glimpse the alien spaceship Louise will come to know so well in the mists of Montana. It’s a risk that gets great results and heightens the hurry most effectively.


6. The aliens and their language are rich and insightful


I won’t go so far as to say that Arrival is a flawless film––there’s something of a cosmically convenient derived form of deus ex machina in the third act that’s tied to the alien language––but I will certainly admonish and celebrate how magnificently rendered the alien heptapods are and how wondrous their logogram language is.

Our first glimpses of the aliens run congruent to Louise’s as well. She’s not the first human to have seen them at this point, and they’ve already been given the moniker “heptapods” in reference to the seven tendril-like trunks that dangle from their towering bodies.

There is something Cthulhu-like in their visage, but also something elephant-like in their ruminative nature and deeply intuitive perception. The texture of their skin and their lumbering movements as well as their atavistic way of thinking draws an insightful parallel to both the earthly pachyderm and cetacea marine mammals, too.

As Louise and her theoretical physicist partner Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) begin to communicate with the heptapods via a dry-erase board––the heptapods use ink from their tendrils sprayed upon a glass-like barrier––they eventually begin to articulate what they can via logograms (words represented by symbols).

This pictorial language that the heptapods use circular images, at first almost like ring-shaped coffee stains until the patterns and nuances emerge. The annular shapes of the alien language also offers up evidence as to how the heptapods perceive time, which brings us to our next point of interest.

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  • I am so afraid of watching this movie,because the internet wont stop hyping the shit out of it

    • D Train

      Hype is easy to avoid & if a film garners buzz just take it for what it is; a film that is exciting for many people.

    • KrisRenateox

      That’s the worst reason to prevent yourself from experiencing something. If people are talking about something, go see it for yourself and join the conversation! If you think it sucks, then oh well. At least you saw it and you can have an opinion.

  • D Train

    Great film. Definitely one of the decade’s finest sci-fi films along with Under The Skin!!!

    • Arrival_is_a_shitty_movie

      I can see that you’re a boring type of person

  • Totally agree with all of these statements and more. I also want to add that it doesn’t take itself too seriously by infusing bits of humor in the right places.

  • Rudi

    Very strong article and I agree with all points. Arrival indeed really is a unique movie by combining all these aspects.

    People complaining about ‘the twist being too easy to spot’ kind of missed the point, I think. It’s not a Shyamalan movie, the ‘twist’ is just a way to combine two equally important aspects of the film and it does so in a beautiful, slow way. It gives you the time to fit the pieces of the puzzle yourself before explaining it.

    • D Train

      I agree but I also agree that fans of Shyamalan’s earlier films will find much to admire here, if they’re looking for a film that has some stunning revelations. I guess we both agree on that. 😉

  • Reality

    Fuck off.

    • D Train

      Good you took the time to articulate such an insightful comment. Pfft!

      • shane scott-travis


      • Reality

        Brevity is the key to communication.

        • Yohn

          … no, it isn’t. Gratuitous cussing, however, is the key to be treated as total douche.

          • Reality

            Yes it is.

  • LilyG95

    Man oh man, if Amy Adams doesn’t sweep the awards with Arrival I’m gonna flip my shit

    • Chrisychipz

      She’s also very good in Nocturnal Animals

  • colonelkurtz

    What I disagree is that the first 40 minutes were great—pacing, build-up, etc. Then Hollywood seems to step in, muddy the story with cliché humans attacking aliens, and skipping the whole intellectual side of linguistics: here are the swirls, then bam, translating verbs and specific words here and there like it’s magic. The usual “hacking world’s hardest code in two seconds” movie trick. Still good viewing.

    • shane scott-travis

      Arrival is a very faithful adaptation of the award-winning short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. I don’t see how anything Hollywood seeps into this film at all, really, apart from some populist casting choices. In fact, that the film doesn’t end in explosions but takes a more cerebral tact seems very anti-Hollywood by most estimations.
      I do mention in my article that Arrival isn’t a perfect film and there’s something of a deus ex machina with the ending, what you call “the usual ‘hacking world’s hardest code in two seconds’ movie trick,” but is also, I think, a staple of the genre.
      Something else that Arrival does well is prove that a film can very much consist of genre staples good and bad and still transcend or attempt to transcend the genre.
      Thanks for read!
      BTW, ever see Upstream Color? Also one of the best sci-fi films to come along in ages. 🙂

      • colonelkurtz

        Interesting points, and I can see your side. While my criticisms still stand, I do give it loads of bonuses for not being another aliens arrive and fight movie. When I saw the trailers, that’s exactly what I expected. The movie proved to be much more thoughtful.
        I have not seen Upstream Color, but I’ll add it to my to-watch list, thanks 🙂

    • Jacob Boos

      I have to disagree with you on that. I understand where you are coming from. However I feel that it wasn’t really hollywoodish at all. I think a huge theme of the film is communication and the dangers of misinterpretation. So when we misinterpreted what the Aliens were saying with “weapon” it caused major issues. I also feel it was realistic how the world would respond if Aliens showed up and didn’t attack right away.

  • SupernaturalCat

    Although I’ve not seen this movie, I have to say that in regards to most science/speculative fiction I’ve watched (or seen a trailer for) in recent days, I’m beyond sick to death of nearly all of these movies being little more than a glossy info-tainment propaganda commercial for the mass murderous military machine. It’s almost as if the actual plot is secondary to attempting to persuade the gullible and ignorant that the military/militarized police automata are Your Friend …they’re not–they first and foremost serve corp/state interests, kill for corp/state profits, and are comprised of people who considers anyone who isn’t obedient to the corp/state an ‘enemy’ to be dealt with.

    In fact, have you ever stopped to consider the staggering amount of ALL tv and movies that primarily revolve around promoting authoritarian/police/military worship? …it’s as if there are very powerful corp/state elements desperate to impose perception management/manufacture of consent upon the public, and do so with the propaganda couched within a familiar story delivery system.

    The CIA’s Work With Hollywood Filmmakers

    • D Train


    • KrisRenateox

      Oh my dude you will LOVE this film.

  • Arrival_is_a_shitty_movie

    This is a stupid movie who, tries so hard to make a whatsoever ‘plot twist’ that might have ‘blown typical people’s mind’ oh please, what’s so plot twist bout the aliens which looked like octopus and the language is just like ink spread out on a piece of paper. And predicting the future? How is that so unexpectedly amazing that it can get 8.4? Fucking dumb movie that gets 8.4 imdb due to typical idiots who vote it high just because they think it’s so mind blowing. Okay. The movie is constantly showing flashbacks that makes no sense for any plot building or story building, no, none. Not even close. Not shocked to know that who’s the father. Oh please it’s so fucking obvious. And what the hell is with the phone call thing? Yea yea one phone call saves the world and where the hell is the critical moment in the movie? Oh i forgot, it must be that so nervous and very intriguing phone call scene, which took 2 hours to reach that scene, and ends with a hug, with a guy who just confess out of the blue, without any romance building, how’s that even close to being touching? No touching scene, boring plot with 80% of movie is about learning the alien’s language by drawing and writing numbers on a paper and then programmed it in computer. Wow, stop wasting money to produce such a stupid movie please, and I can say how much I regret watching this ultimately fucking boring and dumbass shitty movie that I have ever seen in my whole fucking life that made me comment here to show how stupid this movie is how typical these people are to say that this movie is amazing. Please wake up, there are a lot of great movies out there and frankly, this movie is just a piece of shit. Come on, ask yourself. Would you rematch this movie? Well, unless you wanna go through all those octopus squirting ink and whatsoever flashbacks of a child laughing and running and a fucking dumb woman who uses her mouth to breathe noisy as fuck, (she doesn’t know how to breathe through a nose) and spending your precious time watching her drawing symbols on a piece of paper, okay. If you want to , go ahead. Best sci-fi? YEAH, sure. Keep deceiving yourself mate.

    • D Train

      You really have no clue.

      • Arrival_is_a_shitty_movie

        Yeah, and that’s the reason why this movie is not good at all. If it is good, it should be able to express whatever they wanted to show in the movie and make even someone like me understand. But they failed to do so. Well if you think this movie is so great, how bout telling us your oh so great opinion on how amazing this movie is for it to be the BEST scifi movie ever?

        • D Train

          It really sucks to be you.

          • Arrival_is_a_shitty_movie

            Says someone who can’t even give any comment to support his own point, and can only reply using one sentence. It sucks to be YOU.

    • 1234

      First of all, I think you might be the dumbest person on these bloody forums. I understand people will have different opinions about this movie and I get that but honestly nothing you just wrote sounded smart. Clearly this movie was made for someone with a higher intellectual capacity than you. If you paid attention to literally any of the movie (which you clearly didn’t) you would realise how much of an emotional rollercoaster this film is and the deep meaning behind it. Like obviously, people wouldn’t spend millions of dollars to make an oscar nominated film about fucking octopuses writing with ink. There is more to it than that. You most definitely missed the point of the movie. Some people might find it boring but just because it doesn’t have guns and explosions and flying fucking monkeys doesn’t mean it deserves your bullshit of a response.

      • Arrival_is_a_shitty_movie

        First of all I didn’t try to sound smart, dumbass. I’m just giving my opinion on how dumb this movie is. Get it? Yeah, if this movie spend millions of dollars to make this dumbass movie but resulting in 60% of the people in the world saying this movie is boring, how is this movie successful ? And please do not add stuffs or assume things by yourself as I did not say anything about a movie should have guns or explosions, but at least not octopus squirting ink with dumbass flashbacks about things that they don’t even bother explain at the end of the movie. If you think this movie is soooooo amazing, then congrats! You’re “arrival – type- kind – of – douche” however please don’t try to inject your oh so intellectual mindset into other people’s mind. Arrival is a shitty movie, that’s what I thought and will never change. You like it? You think it’s so intellectual ? Go ahead man, wish u can watch more movies like arrival in the future!

      • Arrivalsuckssomuchuntilmygradm

        You are so stubborn and stupid. Spent million of dollars on such a boring movie oh hahhaaha yea sci fi shit. I can see how lifeless you are watching sci-fi movie which is created to entertain lonely stupid people. Anyway this movie deserves shit. Keep wasting people’a time go on please go.

    • bigdizzle

      As soon as you said “Flashbacks”, its obvious you didn’t understand what is really going on at all. Unfortunately I can’t say much more without giving away bits of the movie to someone else who may read this before seeing it, and I dont want to spoil it, but I will say of almost everyone I’ve talked to who didn’t like the movie, didn’t UNDERSTAND the movie. A lot of people didnt understand the flashback scenes and if you dont get them – you dont get the entire movie.

      Arrival is a fantastically original movie, yes its like a million other aliens invade movies but that’s really where the similarities end. Its so original, so fresh, so unique, so completely NOT what you expect from an “aliens have landed” film.

      • Arrivalsuckssomuchuntilmygradm

        Ok. Clapclapclap

        • bigdizzle

          Put your bong down and try watching it again.

          • Arrival_is_a_shitty_movie

            no thanks,and like I’ve said, I don’t wanna rewatch this movie at all. It’s boring to me no matter how many times I watch it , and it doesn’t matter whether I understand it or not. The thing is, I don’t like the story plot, how it brings out the story of each character, to me, everything in the movie is NOT significant at all. I don’t feel that this movie is putting any effort in making the audience understand any shit ( the movie tried so hard to make it so mysterious) , instead, each part of the movie is so boring that even if I understand it, I don’t really care, ok? I don’t care whether it’s flashbacks, or scenes showing its the future , whatever it is, it sucks, the romance in this movie is not touching ( but the movie again tried so hard to seem touching) and I don’t feel anything when I watch this movie, get it? I don’t feel any PASSION in this movie. Why should I rewatch? I rather watch Charlie Chaplin movies ( Wayyyy better) than watching this piece of lame shit.

          • KrisRenateox

            You seriously don’t feel passion in Arrival?

            Lmao you’re pretentious.

    • johnny henry


      • Arrival_is_a_shitty_movie

        Referring to yourself ?

        • johnny henry

          Yes, and even as an idiot I can still recognize a faulty argument.

          • Arrival_is_a_shitty_movie

            Then I would like to suggest that maybe if you weren’t an idiot you would’ve realized that this is not an argument, this is a comment section for people to comment on what they think. And that’s what I did. So there’s no right or wrong, faulty or whatever because if you want to put it this way, I could’ve said that everyone who likes this movie is an idiot blabla and that doesn’t mean I’m right, right? That’s why, if I think this movie is shitty, it’s my thought , you can say you like this movie or it’s the best movie you’ve ever seen in your entire life, however, I DONT CARE, but if you say I’m wrong just because I didn’t agree with you, then you’re the idiot.

    • Sylwester Więzowski

      wow you’re the smartest 12 years old i saw in a while… no its not a complement

      • Arrival_is_a_shitty_movie

        Wow you can guess people’s age by reading the comments? Then I guess you’re a comment diviner … And btw no it’s not a COMPLIMENT *. (confirmed you aren’t an English teacher )

    • Wormy

      Concerning your main point: These scenes weren’t flashbacks. Watch the movie again and this time till the end. It deliberately keeps the audience in the dark for parts of the film. It wouldn’t work without it, because this is how it builds up to the climactic reveal, being the circular conception of time that comes with the heptapods language, which was given to humanity as a gift.
      If you think about it now, knowing that she saw parts of her future (Her child with the physicist and the gala dinner for her accomplishments) not parts of her past, doesn’t all this make a bit more sense?
      It’s not that the movie is bad because you didn’t understand the climax. And I admit, if you slept for one moment there, just the one moment of the big reveal, the whole movie would seem like a shitfest of plot contrivances. But it isn’t.
      If you still think that the movie is bad, then think whatever you want. I can’t stop you from that. But please do so knowing what the story is actually about.
      Also: It’s natural that the military would lose their shit about the word “weapon”. Think about it, there were 12 of those ships in total, all of them in different countries. If everyone was given a weapon that could potentially destroy a whole enemy faction, this would tear the world apart.
      The cold war was based upon nothing but that. Both Sowjet russia and the USA constantly expanded their armory with more and more nuclear weapons, simply because they exist and if you don’t have one, you can’t intimidate your opponent into not using them. It’s a defensive move and an offensive one at the same time. The mere existance of nuclear weapons can start and prevent a war out of fear. The same would happen if there was a new all-powerful weapon which 12 countries could build.

    • KrisRenateox

      You completely missed the point of this movie. Sorry it was too smart for you, I guess.

    • KrisRenateox

      But given your user name, I can only assume you even made a profile to bitch at length about a film that you didn’t understand, because you were expecting something like Star Wars or Aliens.

      Even the things you’re complaining about really betray your ability to understand what makes Arrival good. You’re not rejecting it in spite of its merits, and you’re not rejecting it because you don’t like what the film is trying to do. You reject it because you completely missed everything good about it.

  • neill

    Watched it and quite frankly the biggest pile of poop since Jodie Foster met her dad in contact.

  • Benni

    I cannot believe this article is serious. The movie bored me to tears, was frustrating dull. I was so irritated I kept hitting the fast forward button, it was going nowhere for too long. I dont require action, I love a good story and a thought provoking film, but this was trying to be something it is not capable of being (think 2001 the odyssey)… the sound effects and music were irritating too so I kept skipping it. So I have no idea how the story ended and what it meant. Just couldn’t sit through it. Glad I didnt pay to see it.

    • KrisRenateox

      You skipped most of the movie and you complain that you took too little away from it?

      Really? The movie has a non-linear structure. Why would you ever do that?

  • Redrerick

    A waste of linear time.

    • KrisRenateox

      As someone who loved it, this is actually my only complaint.

      I had to roll my eyes at the Russians and the Chinese being the first to escalate things to military action. Mind you, the US military makes their fair share of unreasonable demands and looks at weaponizing things too, so they might not be the chief of assholes but they are still assholes. I’ll give it that.

  • johnny henry

    Arrival is a great film, but Ex Machina is better by far.

  • Sylwester Więzowski

    any1 who says this is bad move is eather 12 or just a total moron….

    • Arrival_is_a_shitty_movie

      Anyone *
      Movie *
      Either *

      I guess you need to go back to primary school to learn your English ( even worse than a 12 year old) sigh