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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

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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

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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’

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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

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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

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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

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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.

  • D Train

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

  • 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

        Hahaha!

      • 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
    http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-cias-work-with-hollywood-filmmakers/5519436