Over the last few years, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has repeatedly proven he’s no slouch behind the camera, his deft directorial talents on full display in recent years with Prisoners, Enemy, and last year’s stunning thriller Sicario. For his new film, Arrival, Villeneuve heads into the world of science fiction, and the results are outstanding. An intelligent and emotionally-charged exploration of the power of communication and understanding by way of an alien race’s appearance on Earth, Arrival is so precisely conceived and executed that it doesn’t feel hyperbolic at all to call Villeneuve’s latest effort one of the best science fiction films I’ve seen in decades, and one of the best films of 2016 (genre or otherwise).

In Arrival, Amy Adams stars as Louise Banks, a linguistics expert and professor who receives an offer that will forever change her life. Shortly after 12 mysterious alien crafts arrive on our planet, she’s asked to join a scientist named Ian (Jeremy Renner) with a military team stationed near one of the landing sites in Montana to help communicate with the new visitors and find out what their intentions are for our planet. And while there are 11 other teams working to establish communication with the various vessels that have landed, it’s Louise and Ian who make the most progress, deciphering the symbols the aliens (also known as “heptapods”) use as their language, and quickly establishing a rapport with the creatures, even giving them the nicknames Abbott and Costello.

But even though the US team is making great strides towards figuring out just why these beings have decided to hang out on our fair planet, other nations are growing impatient, and, becoming paranoid that the visitors mean to harm humanity, they want to declare war without knowing all the facts. Soon, it’s up to Louise to put all the alien puzzle pieces together before it’s too late for both the aliens and mankind.

There’s a line early on in Arrival that essentially says that the true cornerstone to any society is language, and that’s probably the best representation of the thematic ideas explored in screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s thoughtful and compelling script. I’m a big fan of sci-fi in any package—action/horror hybrids, summer tentpole films, you name it—but the science fiction that always resonates with me the most are the stories that have a far more nuanced and emotionally-driven approach, perhaps saying more about the human condition than the scientific aspects of the project.

Films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the original Planet of the Apes, Blade Runner, Children of Men, 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, or even the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (to name a few), are films I hold in high regard not just because of their nifty sci-fi tropes, but because they are about something much more intimate than aliens, invading forces, a dystopian future, or technology gone wrong. Alien is a brilliant film, but once you realize that the safety of the Nostromo’s crew is being disregarded by their employers for selfish reasons, Ridley Scott’s film turns into something so much more powerful than just another horror movie in space where people are being stalked by a monster.

That is precisely what Arrival is, science fiction cinema with a message on its mind, one that feels rather timely these days considering many of the issues plaguing us here and abroad. As Heisserer ups the political stakes, he also doubles down on just why we care in the first place through Adams’ character Louise, whose personal journey becomes just as compelling as the threat of global conflict looming in the distance. I’ve enjoyed her work for some time now, but she, as well as Renner, have never been better than they are in Arrival.

The film opens with a montage that introduces us to Louise, as we see her welcome her daughter Hannah into the world, only to one day have to do the unthinkable: bury her teenage child after she succumbs to a rare illness. That’s precisely why we remain invested in her. We see her quiet, desperate determination to connect with the heptapods as her way of filling a gaping void in her life, and as she gets closer to finding out why the aliens are here, that’s when Arrival’s narrative takes an unbelievable turn (and I mean that in the best way possible), opening up the film’s story in an emotional way that I was not expecting, leaving me absolutely stunned upon the film’s conclusion.

To say anything more would be a huge disservice to anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but I applaud the pure audaciousness of how Arrival all comes together in the final act. It’s a film I cannot wait to revisit again when it’s released on November 11th.

Movie Score: 4.5/5

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.