I’m not really the biggest fan of science fiction. While yeah, I like stuff like Star Wars, those don’t really fall into the “hard sc-fi” category, such as Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a very broad genre that mixes with a lot of others, making it difficult to define. Late science fiction writer Damon Knight stated, “science fiction is what we point to when we say it.” As others have echoed, it’s similar to pornography: difficult to actually define, but when you know it, you see it. Maybe it’s all up to personal interpretation. I’ve come to know science fiction as more than just spaceships, aliens, and ray guns. They also deal with the implications of how grand events have an effect on our relationships, psyches, and general humanity that make us unique as a species. We’re not meant to look at an otherworldy species and immediately think of war and destruction, but at what similarities and traits we all share.

In Arrival, twelve giant UFO’s, nicknamed “shells”, all appear across different regions of the Earth. Seemingly innocuous, they are unable to communicate with humans, so the US military enlists linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) in an attempt to understand their language. As Louise and company attempt to communicate with the aliens and discover their purpose, other countries are not as trusting, wanting to attack the visitors. It’s now a race against time while Louise and her team have to decipher the alien’s language and prevent the other countries from attacking the shells, which could bring on potentially negative consequences.

In this current age of cynical sci-fi filmmaking of grey skies, malicious beings, and crumbling societies, it was refreshing to see one that made me feel a bit more optimistic. Yes, even this cynic’s icy heart likes to be warmed, at times. This film isn’t going to change your life, or make you question your own existence, or anything. There were just a lot of ways that this film could have gone completely wrong. Instead of giving us standard alien invasion fare, we get a much more thoughtful story. The main theme of most invasion movies is of survival and the world coming together to face a common threat. This one is about the world coming together by means of communication, not only to help us as a species, but other species, both terrestrial and extra. The theme of humanity putting aside their differences for the greater good is prevalent in many sci-fi works, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Watchmen, but the twists screenwriter Eric Heisserer pepper throughout makes it feel a little bit less routine.

One of my main issues with science fiction, especially the more heady, cerebral kind, is that it can get too bogged down in the technical details, thus sacrificing character and story. Arrival strikes the perfect balance between the two. While I would usually have a problem with endless exposition, I was able to forgive it as it’s not only a staple of the genre, but the way it was dealt out. Not only were the core ideas interesting, but the expert filmmaking from everyone involved made me intrigued throughout the whole journey. Director Denis Villeneuve has made a name for himself directing very slow paced, methodical films, while at the same time making them feel perfectly paced by how engrossing they are. Everything from the production design, to the cinematography, to the editing makes you feel like you’re part of this phenomenon and working with the other characters to unravel the mystery. Although I was constantly being talked to, I was never bored and couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next.

However, interesting science and themes alone are not enough to keep the film emotionally investing. Luckily, Heisserer gives us a fully developed, relatable lead character to be attached to. Amy Adams gives the best performance of her career here. Her and the filmmakers expertly put you in her shoes, making you feel what she feels. You’re initially terrified by the sight of these gigantic spacecrafts and the thought of entering them, but that terror and apprehension slowly evolves into wonder and hope, as relationships are established. That wonder and hope was assisted by the wonderful design of the aliens. They were minimalist, but had an air of grandness and mystique to them. These are some of the most awesome extraterrestrials I’ve seen in quite some time. Although they’re from another world, they had much more personality than any of the secondary human characters. Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whittaker are always going to be great, but there’s not really anything to their roles to care much about. It’s the central character of Louise anchored by an outstanding performance by Adams that really brings the whole film together. Not only are you latching on intellectually, but also emotionally. The best of both storytelling worlds.

Arrival is proof that more intelligent science fiction still has room in our multiplexes and in our hearts. It’s not too heady, or cerebral, while concurrently not being dumb or trite. It’s just an intriguing sci-fi concept brought to life by filmmakers who also wanted to tell an engrossing story with a true emotional core. Similar to how a real alien invasion would probably play out, we would initially feel an increasing sense of dread and unease, but if we actually try to understand them and work together, hope and prosperity can possibly be achieved. Let’s just hope if we ever do meet them in the future, that they’re as benign as they are here.


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