It’s been a good few years for the sci-fi genre. As films like Ex Machina and Interstellar have proven themselves to be massive crossover hits, we’ve seen sci-fi grow out of its niche audience into decidedly more mature territory. All that though was merely a setup for 2016. Directed by Sicario‘s Denis Villeneuve, we can say with absolute certainty that Arrival is the best sci-fi movie to come out of the last five years, if not the last decade. Beyond that, it also stands right now as 2016’s best movie period, and it’s no contest.
The film is based on a Ted Chiang short story titled “Story of Your Life,” and follows renown linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as she is called in to help communicate with mysterious alien visitors. When 12 separate “shells” appear across the world, it’s up to her and a physicist colleague played by Jeremy Renner to decode their obscure language, and figure out their purpose on our planet. It’s a relatively simple concept overall, but even that’s merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Arrival brings to the table.
Yes, from a thematic standpoint this is a movie about first contact and how humanity would potentially cope. But it goes so much deeper than that. The first 10 minutes will punch you in the gut to Up-level proportions, throwing you right in the thick of a heady sci-fi narrative directly following. From there, Louise is scooped up by the military, meets physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner), and heads for Montana, where the closest alien shell has touched down.
The lead-up to Louise’s initial encounter with our visitors goes exactly as you might expect it to for anyone on the front lines of first contact. After a day-long helicopter ride, she’s quickly briefed on the situation, taken through a maze of tents, and tossed into a hazmat suit, before going directly to the shell with nary a moment to collect herself. She, Ian, and a team of soldiers then enter through a doorway that opens once every 18 hours, stepping into a vertical, dark passageway with its own gravity. A white light sits at the end of the tunnel, and then the real fun begins.
As Louise and Ian slowly attempt to decipher the odd written language, we see other themes emerge. An undertone of tragedy in Louise’s past is masked by her own all-business demeanor, feeding into the distinct feeling that we’re missing a piece of the puzzle. That piece hides in plain sight in a way that’s impossible to predict, but is elegantly revealed, leading to a jaw-dropping “ah-ha” moment that’s equal parts subtle and affective.
The sum total of all this is a film that instantly enters into the realm of sci-fi classics. We see the influence of films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact, but it’s in the way Arrival stands on its own two feet that makes it truly shine. The muted, often understated approach gives Arrival a quiet power you don’t see in many modern movies, and it makes the final, climactic act land that much more when the action finally does ramp up.
So what makes this the best movie of 2016? In order to understand that, we need to look at it within the larger context of movie releases this year. Admittedly, we’re only now entering into the thick of Oscar season, and yet still, based on what we’ve gotten so far, it’s not all that close. Arrival is more thoughtful than Hail, Caesar!, exists on a larger scale than Moonlight, and challenges you more than sci-fi contemporaries like Midnight Special and 10 Cloverfield Lane. There are still plenty more films yet to hit theaters that could potentially challenge it, but for now, it reigns supreme as the year’s best all-around film.
All this is buoyed by stellar performances from both Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Both react in the exact way you’d expect yourself to in their situation, leading the aforementioned first contact that Richard Roeper aptly describes as “an exhausting, crazy, tense, even darkly funny sequence during which you have to remember to breathe.” Arrival is a film that specializes in truly human moments, punctuated by an artfully realized sci-fi aesthetic.
The rest of the year promises a handful of releases to relieve the stress of what’s been a disappointing year for great cinema. It’s Arrival though, that really fulfills that promise, and it couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Our country is coming off of a bruising election cycle, global politics are boiling over, and along comes a movie that challenges us to look inward toward our better angels. You get a sci-fi movie that accomplishes that maybe once in a decade. Arrival is that movie.
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