Last year, Arrival captured our attention with its thought-provoking themes, emotional performances, and elegant visual style. It captured the attention of the Academy, as well, earning eight Oscar nominations (and winning one). Even as its initial impact and Oscar-abetted aftershock fade, there’s no need to just wait for the next thought-provoking, well-scored sci-fi film to arrive when there are a few already out there that might hit the same spot in terms of theme and feel of director Denis Villeneuve’s film. With that in mind, here are five excellent science fiction films that you might enjoy if you liked Arrival.
Gattaca, like Arrival, is a film that relies more on character and backstory than traditional science fiction gadgetry and special effects. The near-future scenario envisioned in Andrew Niccol’s 1997 film is one where almost all children are lab-created and genetically modified in order to prevent any mental or physical imperfections. Ethan Hawke stars as Vincent, a “God child” conceived naturally and therefore irrevocably flawed. In order to pursue his ambitious career dreams, Vincent seeks help from a DNA broker and assumes a new, genetically superior, identity. Both films make excellent use of music to evoke an atmosphere that is melancholy and reflective. Gattaca has a beautiful orchestral score by veteran composer Michael Nyman (The Piano), and Arrival has an eerie soundtrack that makes use of traditional orchestral sounds as well as unconventional choral samples, rhythmic percussion and electronic synths. The films also both feature impeccable production design. Every visual element, from the set designs to the color saturation, assists in immersing viewers into these atmospheric and intelligent sci-fi stories.
Christopher Nolan’s epic space film, Interstellar explores some of the same science fiction concepts as Arrival. Most notably, the two films both gracefully examine emotional family dynamics with the use of a creative timeline. Interstellar is the story of a group of explorers who leave an ailing earth in order to seek new colonization opportunities elsewhere in the galaxy. Like Arrival, the survival of all humanity is at stake, but both films focus on a few characters in the midst of the broader conflict. In fact, each film directs its narrow narrative focus on the relationship between a parent and child. These relationships bring considerable warmth and intimacy to stories that might otherwise remain bleak and conceptual. And with a flexible understanding of time, both films feature masterful examples of nonlinear storytelling and film editing.
The Iron Giant and Arrival both stray from traditional alien invasion tropes and instead examine the complex and varied reactions that humans have when faced with something unfamiliar. The Iron Giant is about a giant robot whose unexplained appearance provokes a broad range of reactions from various characters. Hogarth, a young boy, is cautious but curious. He is determined to learn about the robot and communicate with it. Government and military agents approach the robot with stubborn paranoia and aggression. The aliens in Arrival incite similar responses. There is a lot of great tension when characters assess potential threats, and both films skillfully display this fascinating balance of inquest and risk. Although these two films seem very different, they both contain powerful and relevant messages about empathy, fear, curiosity, and mortality.
The alien invasion that takes place in Edge of Tomorrow conforms to a more conventional narrative featuring hostile aliens hell-bent on obliterating humanity. Arrival may differ with its fresh approach to the alien story, but both films’ storylines are enhanced by exceptionally creative, tentacled alien design. Edge of Tomorrow begins with Major William Cage, played by Tom Cruise, a public affairs official who is suddenly demoted and transferred to the front lines of the brutal war against the alien invaders. After a close encounter with one of the aliens, Cage is imbued with the aliens’ ability to manipulate time. He realizes that he’s living the same day over and over and that he’s able to influence the events of that day. Though the pace (and aliens) in Edge of Tomorrow is much more frenetic in contrast Arrival quiet progression (and slow, graceful Heptapods) in Arrival, both films feature a protagonist keenly aware of time and of what can and cannot be changed in experiencing it.
An adaptation of a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is a poignant and melancholy film with characters who share some of the same concerns as those in Arrival. The film centers on a group of young people who grow up with a seemingly carefree life in an English boarding school. The beautiful pastoral setting hides the disturbing truth that Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and the other school children are all fated to be compulsory organ donors when they grow up. Confronted with this grim and unavoidable future, these characters are faced with urgent and emotional questions about love, relationships, family, and death. Both films are incredibly pensive about matters of life and death and what makes life worth living, just as both feature dark reminders of death’s inevitability, but they both also offer hope and the opportunity to reflect on what we value most.