Twelve alien ships arrive at seemingly random locations around the world, including one in the United States and another in China. Scientists and militaries quickly mobilize to study this unexpected threat as each nation races to be the first to unlock whatever technology (or weapon) is held onboard.
As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that these octopus-shaped aliens aren’t on Earth to invade the planet or even study us. They’re here to teach humanity a new skill. One that will change the very way our brains and our society functions. In this way, the film flips the classic sci-fi trope of evil aliens on its head to tell an even more powerful story that will keep you guessing until the very last scene.
Arrival is that movie, and it’s streaming for free right now on IMDb TV. Here’s why it’s the one sci-fi movie you need to watch. Especially in 2021.
Based on the 1998 short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, Arrival (2016) was directed by Denis Villeneuve, who leveraged this first big sci-fi success into Blade Runner 2049 and the upcoming Dune (releasing on HBO Max this December). Arrival offers a template for Villeneuve’s abilities as a science fiction director. His films are story-driven and emotional. Even the blockbuster scope of Dune will likely share some of the moodiness exhibited so effortlessly in Arrival.
The film stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a professional linguist tasked with unlocking the alien’s language, which they scrawl out in inky circles on the glass dividing their tanks from the opening of the ship. She’s joined by Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly, a physicist brought on to study the alien ship itself, along with Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker attempting a terrible Boston accent) who leads the entire operation.
Eventually, Louise does crack the alien language, which she notes early on is written from both the beginning and end of each sentence at once. This is our first clue at Arrival’s endgame — and your cue to stop reading and watch the movie first if you haven’t seen it already.
When the aliens across the world share a message that’s interpreted as either “offer weapon” or “use weapon,” it sends diplomatic relations into a tailspin. With the U.S. and China suddenly on the verge of war, Louise argues that “weapon” might actually mean “tool.”
She’s right. And the tool the aliens are offering is their language itself.
Just like how they write from both sides of each sentence, the aliens perceive time all at once. Once Louise understands this and unlocks the tool for herself, she’s able to mentally travel through time, sharing information with a Chinese official that cools international tensions and allows the governments to work in unity.
That’s a very simplified synopsis of a beautiful and complex film — with one bad Boston accent and a very corny final line. But there’s a lesson to be learned from Arrival in 2021. As we prepare to exit our homes and return to a post-pandemic society, it’s important to remember that even though we may have some differences, we all shared a universal experience over the past year. All we need is a common language.