best science fiction films


Arrival (2016)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Cinematography by Bradford Young


It is official. Denis Villeneuve is my favorite working director. This could change, but my Lord is Arrival brilliant. Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, and now Arrival are all some of the best films of this decade - no, century - and each has an indelible respect for the audience. It trusts that we will follow along as Villeneuve spins a web that, though it may not make sense initially, will craft a gorgeous vignette of some element of existence. Arrival is most certainly a part of this collection now and is one of the best science fiction films in a while with stunning visuals, chill-inducing brilliance, and incredible performances.

Admittedly, however, Arrival missed the mark for the first half or so. It seemed so different. So unique. Nothing truly made sense from the opening with this daughter that seems out of place for the film I expected to receive, plus the weird narration scene by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). It just seemed so haphazardly put together that it seemed wholly indigestible. However, after this halfway point, the film is pure brilliance. Even better, it opens up the world of the first half to the point that you realize that - even if the narration is still a moment that I cannot wrap my head around - everything else adds up. In this second half, Arrival soars with the grace and beauty previously only experienced by eagles.

A confusing, nonlinear film, Arrival follows Louise Banks (Amy Adams), the country’s best linguist in the aftermath of the arrival of extraterrestrials. In the interest of determining their purpose, Louise is tasked with cracking the code of the heptapods (the aliens). What transpires is film that can often mirror Dances with Wolves in its respect for language (Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well to a degree for this) and Contact for its similarities regarding the military and its approach to, again, language. In many respects, Arrival is a science fiction film, but it is also a film about destiny, free-will, and the beauty of language.

Through language, worlds open up. One can weave a beautiful sentence that can move readers to tears. Others can craft a speech that sways people to believe one thing or the other. Language allows people to express feelings, emotions, thoughts, or simply converse with others. Language, as discussed in the film, is the foundation of a civilization. In many ways, it is the foundation of humanity. Arrival delves into this sheer beauty of language throughout the picture. Villeneuve brilliantly allows this elegance to take centerstage with long drawn out sequences of nothing but communication between Louise and the heptapods.

Yet, the film hardly stops there. Through showing the possibilities the language of the heptapods can reveal, Arrival hits a peak. Once we learn that the heptapods language allows the speaker to see the future, Arrival’s philosophical explorations really take hold. This is the part where many will be lost and why I am skeptical as to film’s acceptance amongst general audiences. However, the film’s nonlinear storytelling is incredibly revealing and really works. Through the nonlinear storytelling, we know the end of Louise’s story. We do not know that we know this, but by the end, it is clear what her future is. Louise knows it and though she keeps it to herself in the present, we know the future is something that is simulatenously her past. It is already a part of her and one she cannot escape. However, it is clear she does not wish to escape her future. It is one filled with challenges, but filled with equal joy and love. Films have previously discussed the concepts of free-will and destiny (hell, Oedipus did this in the BC’s) and yet, Arrival brings a warmth to the discussion. Though Louise may know her future, she chooses to head into it with no hesitation. Yes, it will bring her unspeakable pain and tragedy, but it will also bring sheer ecstasy. For Louise and many others, this is more than acceptable. However, Arrival does not hesitate to ask: If you know your future, would you try to change it? This is certainly a fallacy, as I believe Arrival showcases. The heptapods knew Louise’s future. How? Because it already happened. There is no time, there is no free-will, there is only destiny. For the world of Arrival, the possibilities of the world are not endless. You are on a path and destined to complete this path.

Arrival often mirrors the language it discusses, not just the heptapods’ language, though. Language, as Louise states frequently, can be messy and confusing. Yet, it opens doors to the world that were previously locked tight. This is very similar to the film as a whole, as it is a complex puzzle and my initial hesitation to the film’s world was because I only received small pieces of a large puzzle. Once they started fitting together and the image became clearer, the film became a truly awe-inspiring, striking, and beautiful experience.

Given the current state of the country, Arrival is decidedly a film for the moment. At a time when we are most divided, we must unite and work together if we are to truly succeed. Not just in America, but globally. We live in a global world and things do not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they leave an indelible mark on the world and people that surround us. Through his work of art, Villeneuve calls for the world to become one unit and work together to solve the problems before us. Here, it is the the arrival of extraterrestrials. In the real world, it is the environment, racism, intolerance, and violence. This is what makes the film’s climax - Louise calling General Shang (Tzi Ma) in China - so poignant. The film leaves it in Mandarin with no translation, but per the screenwriter, it translates to, “War does not make winners, only Widows”. For the film, this causes the General to back down from attacking the aliens. For ours, it is a call for union. To lay down your arms, your bombs, your hate, your anger, and your contempt for one another. It is a call to realize that this violence solves nothing, it solely creates the same concoction of emotions that led to it originally.

Arrival is one of the most poignant films of the year and yet another truly brilliant addition to Denis Villeneuve’s filmography. If somebody else’s works since 2010 matches his level of output, I would love for somebody to tell me who they are so I can immediately sit down and watch their films.



This “modern” trailer for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK has got me pumped to see a film that’s close to 40 years old now and that I’ve already seen at least two dozen times or more!


Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island (1956) in Sayanora Jupiter (1984).