2016's Arrival is based on a novella called "Story of Your Life" (1998) by Ted Chiang. Like the novella, the film tells the story of linguist Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner) as they try to decipher the language of aliens (later called heptapods) who have just landed on Earth. Along the way, Louise learns a lot about herself, science, language, and time and eventually has a daughter with Ian (who appears throughout the film in flash-forwards).
Arrival takes inspiration from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that people who speak different languages interpret the world differently. In Arrival, this idea is taken to a new extreme: the aliens perceive the very nature of time in a way that is completely, well, alien to humans. The story is told in a non-linear way to underscore this idea.
Upon release, Arrival received tremendous critical and financial success. On the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes.com, it has a critics rating of 94% and an audience approval rating of 82%. That site's critics' consensus reads: "Arrival delivers a must-see experience for fans of thinking person's sci-fi that anchors its heady themes with genuinely affecting emotion and a terrific performance from Amy Adams." The film was also nominated for a plethora of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Villeneuve, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing (which it won). It is considered one of the best films of 2016 and a defining film in the science fiction genre in the vein of Blade Runner (the sequel to which Villeneuve would go on to direct the next year in Blade Runner 2049). On a moderate budget of $47 million, it returned a staggering $203.4 million at the box office.
Director Denis Villeneuve, a French-Canadian filmmaker, has been known to dabble in every popular genre of film there is. One of his greatest-known films was a box office-smashing action movie by the name of Sicario. With Arrival, Villeneuve wanted to deviate from the overused trope of aliens venturing to Earth and interacting with bewildered humans. As the plot thickens, there seem to be flashbacks that occur throughout, to the confusion of most audience members. A twist occurs at the very end of the story which explains every "flashback" that was shown. Villeneuve is a skilled storyteller and leaves audiences guessing. On the aliens who spoke a complex and cryptic language, star Jeremy Renner says, "Thematically, it's about what unites us and what divides us... Like religion, language does that more than almost anything else". Moviegoers and critics alike have likened Villeneuve's creative genius to that of Christopher Nolan.
The film is also praised for its intense and thought-provoking visuals. Cinematographer Bradford Young, who has worked with the likes of Selma and A Most Violent Year, uses a crisp and sharp look to the lighting that plays off the complexity of the story. With a largely blue color palette, the filmmakers were able to create a cold and almost dark atmosphere that was perfect for the science fiction setting. Villeneuve also made sure to emphasize the power of symbolism as seen in the heptapod's circular language. This is further seen in the film's poster which features the seven-legged aliens. The poster is meant to represent the theme of communication and how it is used by aliens and humans.
The film also features a talented and diverse cast of actors, including Forest Whitaker, Tzi Ma, and Michael Stuhlbarg. Whitaker plays Colonel Weber, the military leader tasked with dealing with the heptapods, while Ma and Stuhlbarg play the Chinese and Russian interpreters, respectively. All three actors bring a unique element to the story and help to solidify the message of the film.
Arrival's success has been built on its incredible storytelling and its ability to push sci-fi boundaries. The film takes a unique approach to the genre, asking questions about the power of communication and how language shapes our understanding of the world. It also forces us to rethink our perception of time and how it relates to our lives. With its stunning visuals, intense score, and captivating performances, it's no wonder why Arrival is still being discussed and celebrated today.