ByKit Simpson Browne, writer at
Writer-at-large. Bad jokes aplenty. Can be gently prodded on Twitter at @kitsb1
Kit Simpson Browne

(Warning - the following contains some mild SPOILERS for the not-yet-released Arrival, albeit no more than watching the trailer would offer. Proceed with whatever level of caution that suggests to you is wise, though...)

Now, there are arguably few tougher tasks in Hollywood nowadays than making a science fiction movie. With much of the lighter side of the genre having been colonized by superhero movies and the action genre, there's an increasingly small slice of the pie left over for serious, thoughtful sci-fi in the manner of a Blade Runner or a 2001: A Space Odyssey. After all, if you have the option of funding Jurassic World, or a complex, cerebral sci-fi movie with barely any action in it and no pre-established IP, then the 'smart' investment is always going to be the big dinosaur movie.

Sometimes, though, Hollywood bites the bullet, and takes a chance on something a little more unusual than the mainstream, big budget sci-fi that's out there. And, as such...

Arrival Is A Very Different Sci-Fi Movie To What You're Expecting


Which, of course, shouldn't really be a surprise at all. Not only is it directed by indie-darling Denis Villenueve — director of the subtly searing Prisoners and Sicario — but it's based on a fairly dense short story by Ted Chiang, The Story Of Your Life. And yet, bland Hollywood product has been brought off the production line with a similar back story — especially when major stars like Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are involved, as they are with Arrival.

Arrival, though, suffers from no obvious creative compromise — no evidence of studio interference or marketing pressures shining through a subtle, slow-moving exploration of grief, linguistics and first contact. In other words?

Arrival Is An Independent Sci-Fi Movie In Big Budget Clothing


After all, the film may arrive off the back of $50 million-or-so of production costs — which more-or-less makes it 'mid-budget' nowadays — and look set to receive a huge promotional push (and a release in IMAX), but that doesn't make it a challenger to Star Wars Episode VII and Jurassic World's box office crowns. Instead, it's attempting something a little different: To be a commercially viable 'serious' sci-fi movie, much as Villenueve's previous directorial effort, Sicario, was a commercially viable 'serious' meditation on crime and violence, rather than a conventional action or crime movie.

As such, though the movie may feature a whole host of box-office-friendly stars (Adams, Renner and Whitaker also star in DC, Marvel and Star Wars-themed projects, respectively), it's not attempting to tread on the toes of, say, Mad Max: Fury Road, or Edge of Tomorrow. It is, in effect, a more 1970's-style approach to science fiction film-making — one that has largely been lost over the past few decades. Specifically:

Arrival Is A Surprisingly Old School Sci-Fi Movie


Which isn't of course to say that it's necessarily old-fashioned, and certainly not that it's out of touch in any way. Instead, it simply means that it approaches its subject — the complexity of communicating with the first alien life forms to make contact with Earth — in a manner that is both hugely enjoyable and intellectually rigorous. Much like the classic sci-fi movies of the 60's, 70's and 80's (2001 and Blade Runner are perhaps the most widely heralded, but Solaris, Alien, Alphaville, Westworld and Close Encounters of the Third Kind have also been remembered fondly by many), the film opts to trust in its audiences ability to keep faith with its central conceit — and its science.

It's not, in short, a movie heavily laden with exposition, or with 'layman's terms' explanations of the complex linguistic problems Adams' Dr. Louise Banks is faced with. Instead, the movie offers up faith in the audience's ability to follow along, and to embrace both the challenge of understanding complex ideas, and accepting that not every question raised by the film will be fully answered. What's more...

Arrival Is Very Much Not An Action Movie


Now, to go into any sort of detail about exactly how Arrival is or isn't an action movie — or indeed a recognizable 'blockbuster' — would be to spoil many of its more carefully wrought moments, but suffice to say that if you're desperate to watch Jeremy Renner blow things up, you're probably better off re-watching Captain America: Civil War (or The Hurt Locker). In the place of such action, Arrival drives its story along by provoking intellectual curiosity... and being extremely well made. Accomplished dialogue, skilled performances and striking visuals are all incredibly helpful when it comes to keeping viewers engaged, it seems — especially when a movie opts, as Arrival does, to put quiet moments of reflection ahead of big action beats.

Or, put another way?

Arrival Is Probably Unlike Any Other Sci-Fi Movie You've Seen In A Movie Theater In Years


It's not, of course, alone in being an intelligent science fiction movie with commercial potential, but unlike the recent likes of The Martian, Inception, Interstellar or even the widely lauded Ex Machina, Arrival has strikingly little interest in playing with the generic conventions of the adventure film or the heist movie, and shows little inclination to throw in action beats or the stern tension of a thriller. Instead, it's something far simpler, and yet far more complex: It's a movie about humanity, told with as little fuss as possible.

As such, it arguably has far more in common with the sort of low-budget dramas that tend to populate film festivals like Cannes and Venice — and, perhaps to a lesser degree, TIFF — than with more obvious forerunners like The Martian and Interstellar, or even many of the low-budget 'hard sci-fi' offerings that tend to go straight to VOD nowadays. As such, it may actually be able to bridge the (largely imaginary) gap between 'mainstream' audiences and 'independent' ones, something that could well make it a huge success, both commercially and come awards season.

You can check out why for yourself in the trailer below:

That, of course, would be great news, for two key reasons: Not only is it a lovely movie, that deserves all the success it can muster, but success for Arrival might also open the floodgates, and allow even more subtle, complex sci-fi movies to get the go ahead from major studios. And, perhaps, allow Villenueve's upcoming Blade Runner sequel the creative freedom it so richly deserves. Here's hoping, then...

Want more on Arrival, and its 'grown up' sci-fi context? Check out:

The big question now, though?

What do you reckon? Are you excited to see Arrival arrive? Let us know below!


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