A great science fiction film looks at the world through a critical lens and aims to expand the viewers’ perception of their current reality. From Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, science fiction films have constantly pushed the boundaries of possibility in analytical storytelling. The entirety of 2016 has been genuinely disheartening, with tragedy and division overpowering the public consciousness. As the year continues down the path of distress, film-goers desperately need something to restore a glimmer of hope to their lives. Director Dennis Villeneuve accomplishes this restoration of hope with his new film Arrival, a science fiction masterpiece based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.
The film tells the story of a linguistics professor named Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is enlisted to help the United States after 12 crescent-shaped spaceships land in different locations around the world. She is joined by scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a group of researchers led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Their assembled team attempts to make significant contact with the alien invaders, in hopes of eventually learning their purpose on Earth. With the entire world thrown into disarray and uncertainty, Louise carries the heroic burden of communicating with the aliens. As agitated nations prepare to declare war on the extra-terrestrial visitors, Louise tirelessly studies their language in the hopes that she can save humanity through a linguistic understanding of the creatures.
Arrival’s strongest aspect is its thought-provoking story, which strays incredibly far from the average modern invasion-blockbuster. With an extremely compelling main character, the film is able to engage its audience through what could, in the wrong hands, be an exceptionally tedious language lesson. Louise, a reasonably quiet and anxious character, is portrayed brilliantly by Amy Adams. With subtle emotion and subdued heroism, Adams creates an instantly understandable character that audiences will almost immediately care for and empathize with. Likewise, Renner’s portrayal of Ian is pleasant and smartly charismatic, creating an on-screen duo that is uniquely interesting. These great performances are accented by a fitting score composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose other works with Villeneuve have led him to two Oscar nominations. Jóhannsson’s score is both haunting and hopeful, drawing impressive parallels to the film's seamlessly constructed narrative.
The film is made even more engaging through its visuals, which were expertly captured by cinematographer Bradford Young. With his work on smaller films like Selma and A Most Violent Year, Young was able to bring a necessary intimacy to Arrival, one often easily lost in films of this size. His use of color is exceptional; giving the audience a deeper understanding of Louise’s emotional state throughout the film. Leaving big stars, like Adams and Renner, hidden in darkness and accented by rich blue colors is a bold and ultimately smart choice, which allows character to transcend actor. Young’s decisions provide a stimulating visual experience, and his efforts embolden the already captivating film.
From direction to sound design, Arrival is a perfectly constructed film that stands apart from the mediocrity of the modern science fiction genre. It is a thoughtfully crafted film that ultimately delivers an entertaining and engaging escape from the turmoil of 2016. With its intelligent ideas and a clear message of unity through adversity, Arrival stands itself apart from any typical good-versus-evil narrative. The film is a fight between knowledge and confusion, a narrative battle that has no true villain or hero. It is through the lack of vilification of the unknown that creates a powerful message in the end. As the great science fiction author Sir Arthur C. Clarke once said, “good science fiction is the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug there is”, and Arrival is truly great science fiction.