Hulking squid-like aliens arrive on Earth in massive and towering black space shuttles, and they loom mysteriously over some of the planet’s biggest cities. Citizens across the world are terrified, and governments are mobilizing their militaries. It’s the sort of scene that serves as the inciting incident in countless action-packed, logic-bereft sci-fi flicks, followed by an hour’s worth of adrenaline-fueled man vs. alien battles. But in Arrival, there is never a single shot fired; instead, the most dramatic and exciting moment comes when a linguist, played by Amy Adams, exchanges pleasantries with an extraterrestrial on the other side of a glass wall.
The new movie, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is about as sober as science fiction film can get. Based on a short story by author Ted Chiang, Arrival eschews nearly all action and instead focuses on the sober — and sometimes tedious — process of decoding a symbol-based alien language. It received rave reviews from critics, but did not seem like the easy escape that an exhausted American public might pay to access after last Tuesday’s election. And yet, the film made an impressive $24 million this weekend, its first in theaters, despite playing on just 2,300 screens.
It’s a big win for Paramount Pictures, which made the film for just $40 million and is sure to see a nifty return on its investment. But it’s even better news for serious genre fans, as the popular and financial success of the movie provides yet more fiscal incentive for studios to continue to produce similar high-minded films.
In fact, the last decade’s heavy focus on intellectual property, sequels, and multiverses has obscured the fact that serious science fiction has established itself as a reliable — and lucrative — movie genre.
There’s no obvious recent corollary to Arrival — critics have compared it to Contact, but that came out in 1999 — but more broadly, there have been a series of nice results for heady, future-looking films. The Martian was a huge hit last year, having taken in $630 million worldwide; while its lead (Matt Damon) and director (Ridley Scott) certainly made it an easier sell, it was also filled with real science and mathematics, which did not turn off audiences at all.
Also in 2015, claustrophobic tech drama Ex Machina, which focused on the morality of interfacing with artificial intelligence, made $36 million worldwide on just a $15 million budget. It also won an Oscar for visual effects. Its box office take is even more impressive considering that it began in limited release, and maxed out at 2,000 screens across the country.
Just months before that, Christopher Nolan’s heady space epic Interstellar made $675 million worldwide. Sure, that was one of the year’s most anticipated films and starred Oscar-winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, but the fact is that people were excited over a movie that mostly concerned itself with metaphysics and the downfall of NASA.
Not every film is as big a hit as The Martian or Interstellar, but the last few years have also seen audiences flip for Looper (which, granted, was violent, but also thoughtful), Her (a meditation on artificial intelligence and loneliness), and even Moon (Duncan Jones’ freaky hit about a guy stuck on a lunar base). Each of those films were heady in their own way, and introduced new technology that reflected contemporary concerns.
That has long been the purpose of science fiction, and perhaps because technology is so tied to our off-the-charts modern anxieties, these films have connected in ways they may not have before. Now that the United States has been plunged into a culture war and fears of authoritarianism have been stoked since the election, smart science fiction may take an even more prominent role in relevant cinema.
Sure, the subgenre does not and will not make anywhere near the billions earned by Marvel movies and the Transformers franchise, but the relatively low budgets required to make movies like Arrival — and the margins created by their box office success — should ensure an uptick in serious, smart sci-fi films.