What is science fiction? Over the course of the past decade, the movie industry has revisited that question in hopes of finding out what makes a great science fiction film. After countless attempts, Hollywood still has this notion that science fiction equates to an action thriller dressed with space-themed costumes and set pieces. As sci-fi aficionados are wont to agree, it isn’t just about space or aliens. Writer Arthur C. Clarke says “science fiction is something that could happen—but you usually wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that could happen, though often you only wish that it could.” Sorry, Star Wars, but recent sci-fi hits like Her and Moon blow you out of the genre.

Coming to Philippine theaters this February 15th, Arrival makes a case for the best sci-fi film of the decade, outshining The Martian and Interstellar. The film is based from sci-fi writer Ted Chiang’s short story titled “Story of Your Life.” Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a comparative linguistics expert in the midst of the world’s first alien encounter. She is recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to decode the language of the alien visitors. She is helped by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist trying to understand the aliens’ advanced science. As always, the world is put under peril. Amidst uncertainty of the aliens’ intentions, humanity’s last hope is to work together in decoding the alien’s language. From the get-go, Arrival’s premise isn’t an action extravaganza a la Independence Day; it’s a thinking plot that relies on language as a critical key to move the story forward.

Its main story is not the only thing that Arrival is brilliant for. All the background details are well accounted for. The film shares in the tradition held sacred by science fiction cinema. Altogether, Arrival isn’t just a celebration of science fiction and its brilliant films; it also uplifts the genre to new heights.

Craft-wise, Arrival isn’t the most extravagant film brought to life. As far as one can tell, its most extensive use of CGI is bringing its aliens to life. Director Denis Villeneuve’s vision is simple but effective—aliens shaped like bacteriophages, a big difference from pop culture’s common vision of bipedal predators. Apart from the CGI, Arrival’s approach to storytelling is largely humanistic with only a tinge of truly alien elements, which is similar to the minimalistic approach that Her took.

Despite its simplicity, Arrival is meticulously crafted. Each scene is filmed perfectly with Villeneuve centering shots on his protagonists and using contrasting backgrounds as a frame. Putting your character smack-dab in the center of the frame is a film technique often left to journalism, but here, it’s a powerful mechanism to create more emotion. It’s very similar to Stanley Kubrick’s style in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Another key factor why Arrival succeeds is its music—or lack thereof. Like its simple cinematography, Arrival isn’t extravagantly scored. The score it uses angles mostly on bass. Often, the film uses pregnant silences to command focus and intensity. In fact, the silence can be deafening. It’s more serene than boring. For this one, check out Interstellar’s intense but peaceful score.

Perhaps even more than Arrival’s clever use of background shots and background music is its crafty development of Dr. Banks’s background story. Throughout the story, Banks is plagued with memories of her child lost to a rare disease. The film even starts with this memory: a tale of love and loss compressed into five minutes. She is constantly affected by these memories, lending a great helping of pathos to her character. Amy Adams is brilliant in bringing Banks and the burden of emotional trauma to life. One can only wonder how she was snubbed for an Oscar nomination. Together with the direction and the music, Arrival’s background story pushes itself into the foreground simply by developing how Dr. Banks is as a character even up to its mind-bending conclusion. It’s not just an afterthought; it’s integral to the whole process of filmmaking.

Science fiction’s grandeur culminates in what Arrival is today. It carries more pathos than Interstellar and more intensity than The Martian. It’s the next amazing sci-fi film of the century that deserves all the accolades it gets.

Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures