Let’s Talk About ‘Arrival’ (2016)

When twelve extraterrestrial space crafts appear and hover over various locations on Earth, linguist Louise Banks is approached by the US Army to study them and try to make first contact through communication. It turns out the Heptapods, as they come to be known, are there to help humanity because in 3,000 years, they’ll need help from us. An arresting sci-fi film follows that takes us on a journey through Louise’s perception of time as she struggles to understand the Heptapod’s language and why they are on Earth. Arrival is a smart, thought-provoking film that is easily one of the genre’s very best.

What Arrival Means to Us

The heady nature of a first-contact science fiction film that deals with linguistics and concepts of self and time could easily have overwhelmed the human aspect, rendering it at best a dry, intellectual enterprise or, at worst, a bombastic thriller using the trappings of sci-fi to justify on-screen pyrotechnics. Instead, the intellectual elements inspire and enhance the emotional aspects – the characters and their journey are as important as the science. The who as important as the why. I wasn’t expecting a lot from Arrival when I first sat down to watch it – I didn’t know much about Dennis Villeneuve and was watching it pretty much because I like Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and science fiction. Even the poster isn’t really that inspiring. So I was completely uprepared for the sucker punch the film delivers. I try not to talk about that much, even now, because I want people to experience it for themselves. It’s one of my favorite films of the last decade, though. I even got a little misty-eyed just thinking about this movie again, while writing this blurb. I’ve seen it twice. I know the whole deal and still I’d watch it again. And cry again. Because, like life itself, it’s worth the journey, even when you know the destination.

-Bob Cram

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Arrival. My employer took my team out for a team building outing that included a movie screening. I wasn’t aware of what the movie was about, who Denis Villeneuve was, or the history of his filmography. For the first twenty or thirty minutes of my viewing, I thought I was in for a really standard and emotionally flat movie. As the film continued to reveal itself to me, I slowly became more and more excited about what I was watching. By the end, I was completely blown away. The exploration of how we experience time has always fascinated me as a cinematic exercise. The addition of the emotional stakes at play here is what elevated this from a movie I really liked to a movie I absolutely loved. It remains one of my favorite movies. One that I can revisit on a yearly basis. I don’t know that I’ll ever outgrow the feeling of pure awe that sweeps over me whenever I watch this movie. And I don’t know if I’ll ever want to.

-Raf Stitt

Story of Your Life

First published in 1998, Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life told the story of linguist Louise Banks and how her past involvement with the arrival of aliens to Earth determined the future of her and her daughter. Chiang’s story dealt with determinism and communication and posed the question of whether or not knowing one’s future would be a blessing or a curse. The novella went on to win quite a few literary awards and caught the eye of writer Eric Heisserer, who, after being deeply moved by the story, wrote a spec script based on it. Over several years the script received little attention until producers Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, and Dan Cohen of 21 Laps expressed interest and began to work closely with Heisserer to develop the film. 

The fates coincided when they approached director Denis Villeneuve. For some time, Villeneuve had wanted to make a science fiction movie, and Story of Your Life came along at the most opportune moment Villeneuve and Heisserer reworked Heisserer’s first draft into a final script and changed the name to Arrival – to avoid sounding like a romantic comedy.

In War, There Are No Winners, Only Widows

Inventing a form of alien linguistics was necessary, considering the movie is about humanity’s desire to communicate with our alien visitors rather than waging war against them. Several linguists were consulted, and the final design ended up being a creation between artist Martine Bertrand and writer Eric Heisserer. We watch the story unfold as Louise begins to decipher the Heptapod’s complex language and, while doing so, has flashbacks – or visions? – of her young daughter.

Louise is finally able to ask the Heptapod’s why they’ve come to Earth, and the answer sets off a chain reaction across the globe that can only end in catastrophe. Arrival is a study of language and how it shapes our lives and our future. There are consequences when communication breaks down. How we live is based on our ability to communicate, and if humanity wants to survive, then they need to learn how to do precisely that, not only with otherworldly visitors but with each other. The Heptapod’s have come to save humans from themselves. Will they succeed? Arrival is a slow-burn kind of movie, but Villeneuve paces it perfectly, building the tension between first contact and the final reveal until you have no choice but to start the movie over to catch all the signs and clues you might have missed along the way.

When we finally realize what the Heptapods have been trying to teach humanity all along, we understand Louise’s visions and how her actions in the present will determine her future. It’s a bit of a mind twist but so effective. Accompanied by Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight, we take a journey through Louise’s life and suddenly understand what it was she saw and how her choices shaped not only her life, but the life of her daughter and her future husband, played by Jeremy Renner. It’s devastatingly bittersweet.


Arrival is marketed as a science fiction film, and admittedly, when I hear sci-fi, I think of action, space, alien invasions, and explosions. Arrival is really none of those things. The aliens do not invade our planet. They simply arrive peacefully and await first contact to begin communicating with our people. One could say there is some action, but Louise Banks is no Ellen Ripley. She’s a different kind of heroine. Her actions are more subtle, and Amy Adams’s stunning performance is emotional, nuanced, and compelling. How she didn’t even get a nomination from the Academy Awards for her role as Louise will continue to baffle me. Arrival became the thinking man’s sci-fi film that challenges its audiences emotionally and intellectually. It’s a movie you want to discuss after you finish it. It’s a movie you can watch again, if only to catch the things you missed the first or second time. 

Arrival is a movie that shook me emotionally. Perhaps because I’m a mother or just an empathetic person, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t ask myself the same big questions that Arrival tries to answer. Would I do everything the same if I knew my future? Or the future of my children? It’s hard to say for sure, but Arrival puts that question into your mind and makes you ponder if life’s joys are worth the pain and heartache accompanying them. It’s the kind of film that will be remembered for its emotional depth and bringing something new to the table in terms of time-travel. I absolutely adore this movie and it’s truly one of the best sci-fi movies of all time. 

Are you a fan of Arrival? Do you have a fun fact, piece of trivia, or analysis about the 2016 film? Share it in the comments!

Author: Romona Comet

"I'm probably watching a rom-com right now."