Genre movies are like geology: There are long stretches of gradual, creeping change, and then there are unexpected interruptions that shake everything up. These outliers are the things we remember. When it comes to science fiction, they’re Shelley and Verne and Wells, Asimov and Bradbury and Le Guin. A Trip to the Moon, Metropolis, Blade Runner, 2001, Close Encounters, Children of Men.
In the bright light of something shiny and new, it’s easy to declare that thing an outlier: To smile and point and proclaim that here, at last, is a thing that makes everything that follows a little bit different. But unlike a natural catastrophe, art usually takes a little more time to assess, to figure out, to weigh its importance. One has to wait until the dust has settled, until the shine has dulled, until the Magic 8-Ball floats up an answer that isn’t REPLY HAZY, TRY AGAIN.
I saw Arrival last night, which means it’s undoubtedly just a bit too soon to declare it a science-fiction classic. Given that we’re finally (finally, finally) coming to the end of 2016, though, it’s probably fair to declare it this: One of the bright points, and one of the greatest movies, of this horrible, awful year. It’s also likely the best film yet from Denis Villeneuve, the director behind the excellent Sicario and Prisoners—and who, with Arrival, offers something entirely different. Arrival is an ominous, thrumming, beautiful thing that starts out being about aliens who need a decoder ring. It ends up being about something quite different.
The aliens show up in 12 towering, ovoid ships that hover like shadows just meters above Earth, looming in places that, as far as anyone can tell, are utterly random. China has one, and Australia, and Greenland. America’s hangs over a bucolic stretch of Montana. Which is why Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up at the doorstep of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams): Banks is a linguist, and Weber could use her help. Every few hours, a door opens up at the bottom of the aliens’ ships. They seem to want to talk to us. There’s only one problem: No one can figure out how.
It’s not long until Banks finds herself onboard one of those silent, disconcerting ships, joined by a mathematician (Jeremy Renner) who’s as flummoxed, horrified, and intrigued as she is. And it isn’t long until the situation complicates further: “ALIEN CRISIS: DAY 5” reads one of the graphics on a cable newscast as international diplomacy breaks down, as riots break out, and the internet fills up with demands to send the unknown creatures a blunt and cruel message.
To know much more before seeing Arrival is to go in with too many preconceptions, too many biases. It’s better to know nothing more than the basics—to try, as Banks and her team do, to assume nothing.
Based on Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story “Story of Your Life,” with a screenplay adapted by Eric Heisserer, Arrival is about Big Things—and the manner in which Villeneuve gets to them, as his camera slowly traces structures and landscapes both familiar and strange, can’t help but surprise and impress. Arrival finds nuance and surprise in a way that not only echoes the nuance and surprise of language, but in a way that echoes other forms of communication, too—forms of communication that, like language, have the power to change how we feel and how we think. (It’s probably not a coincidence that the wide white window through which Banks glimpses the shadowy aliens resembles nothing so much as a movie screen.) Visually and aurally remarkable, Arrival sometimes unfolds like a clever puzzle and other times like a raw-nerve thriller; throughout, with heart and wit, Heisserer and Villeneuve never lose sight of the film’s characters—creatures in a situation that’s weird and mournful, exciting and threatening.
It seems strange to say that Arrival somehow manages to be about even larger issues than a fleet of alien spaceships and international chaos, and it also feels strange to point out that a film about humanity’s struggles to communicate arrives just as America emerges from a years-long refusal to engage in any sort of meaningful discourse. But as timely as Arrival feels, there’s an element of timelessness in the film—a sense of the legitimately profound that marks a true masterpiece of science-fiction, of great filmmak—
REPLY HAZY, TRY AGAIN.
I will, this weekend. And, I suspect, again and again in the coming years—each time sliding Arrival off a shelf where it might sit alongside a few other science-fiction classics.