Genre Analysis of “Arrival” (2016)

This article aims to discuss the genre and analyze the genre of the movie Arrival (2016). Arrival is a sci-fi movie directed by Denis Villeneuve, with Eric Heisserer’s script based on “Story of Your Life” a fiction by Ted Chiang written in 1999. To discuss and analyze the genre of the current movie, the paper will summarize the movie, define sci-fi, with important elements of the specific genre, the genre’s varieties, and the genre’s socio-cultural aspects. The movie Arrival is about twelve alien spacecraft appearing in the world, to communicate with the creatures a linguistic the movie’s protagonist Louise joins into the military, to understand and communicate with the aliens, during their encounter and in every step into this learning process, she discovers more than communication. Movie focuses on communication, linguistics, time, and a mother losing her child. Even though this movie falls under the category of sci-fi, it is important to keep in mind that as stated by Neale as well “Genres are not simply bodies of work or groups of films, however classified, labeled and defined.” (Neale 1990: 161). Science fiction, is a type of fiction that is speculative, imaginative that is resourced by science, with the effects of possibilities and scientific concepts. It also functions as a generic discourse and furnish other generic forms (Staiger, 1997).

One specific element of sci-fi is, it’s “cognitive appeal”, meaning that the cognition processes of the individual and mind playing a significant role in the genre. Cognitive cognition, parallel with the movie our main character struggle with consciousness and memory, especially the memory of the future that is provided by learning how to communicate with the aliens. Communication via language and translation also plays a key role in the movie, since the scientists are studying alien’s language which is the core of the film. Likewise, the theory that the language we speak determines our way of thinking, and our reality is underlined in the movie. This first element of cognitive appeal is provided in the movie with its emphasis on memory and language. For instance, not all genres relate in the same way and to the same extent to their genres (Altman, 1984). In this case, this element of cognitive processes is also another uniqueness of the movie, rather than most sci-fi focusing on extreme futuristic elements and technology, the scientific component of this movie is focused more on the social science and the linguistic branch.

The element of “philosophical openness” is also seen in the movie, where the language and the philosophy of the language is a key concept in order to change an individual’s way of thinking and structuring their cognition. The philosophy of language interconnecting with time and “tenses” is unusual, they discover and gain a new philosophical perspective as they break down the communication barrier. The other mandatory and differentiative element of the sci-fi genre is the “sense of wonder”. While the sense of wonder signifies how the sci-fi genre is different from the horror genre, it also exposes the genre’s true nature. Rather than feeling any fear, our characters main feeling is a sense of wonder, they are acting not scared but curious about the aliens as stated by Sam Moskowitz with the quotes from Rollo May as well, they describe sci-fi as a sense of wonder with increased awareness and open attitude to new ideas and new ways of thinking (Grant, 1999). Their wonder is filled with amazement, and ambition to learn more about these creatures, they are trying to communicate with the aliens in order to satisfy their wonder rather than being threatened by them, which is highlighted in the movie.

Another element is “alternative possibilities”, this movie provides unlimited possibilities that comes from the knowledge that is gained from their communication ways. Another differentiation between sci-fi and horror/fantasy genre is that it seeks to entertain alternative possibilities (Grant, 1999). Louise’s destiny, acceptance of the specific events that happened in life push her to think about her decisions and other possibilities. Her ideas are shaped by her loss and pushed her to think about risks in life. Taking fate as another perspective of possibilities, Louise’s daughter’s death is what reshapes her decision-making in order to prevent what has happened, but on the other hand fate, in other ways, her limitations and the forces that control such possibilities is leading her to a different acceptance state. Since, Louise is to first one to attempt, understand, and communicate back with the Heptapod’s non-linear communication, she is the one that perceives this new reality, new possibilities, hence in the time-span she is slowly learning their languages, she actually learns more about herself and her daughter due to the visions she has from her memories, that is triggered by this communication. This non-linear form of communication is capable of creating experiences and make choices according to that or offering changes in past events, giving them an endless possibility. It gives an opportunity to see and change the non-linear future, but at the same time, the limitations and acceptance into not being able to change everything are still existed due to everything being already determined.

Another important form of the sci-fi genre is “gaze”. The gaze in this particular movie is mostly up and out, which checks another item for a sci-fi genre. The reasons behind the gazes are up and out, is to transfer the feeling of “out of this world” and almost awakening there is something bigger feeling. While gaze going up mostly signifies looking towards the sky and stars, that provokes questioning of the world and space. In the movie, not only the audience is directed towards up, but our main character is being seen while looking up as well.

Moreover, “different life forms” are also present in the movie that helps to categorize itself into the sci-fi genre perfectly. While horror has a more closed attitude, sci-fi has a more open attitude towards the unknown (Grant, 1999). These life forms that have come from outer space create curiosity for the scientist, hence they are not running away or avoiding each other but trying to communicate and understand their condition. Even though there is nothing common in particular that can be seen between humans and these different life forms, there is still an empathy and understanding towards them, communicating in that sense is the common ground between the humans and the different life forms. This bidirectional relationship is not only from humans to the different life forms but from the alien’s perspective, the humans are another life form for them as well.

The widening horizons, the need to look and search the sky knowing what does the outer world looks like and what other life-forms are and their living conditions are is also provoked by the movie. Both for the audience and the characters in the movie, their horizons are widened. Parallel with this, the sense of wonder and their hunger to learn more about these creatures that are different from humankind, leads them into this “extraordinary voyage”, the extraordinary voyage can also be a beyond the world experience that they have experienced with their encounter and communication with the aliens because even though that are characters doesn’t go to space for the specific encounter, the arrival is done by the aliens with them stepping into the world with their spacecraft and giving humans the opportunity for this experience, the experience of them trying to communicate and understand these life forms is the voyage itself that is very extraordinary. Military force, well-developed scientists, and linguistics are come together not only to understand the other life form. Humans are creatures driven by wonder and control, they seek to communicate is not only to understand how the aliens operate but control them as well. This urge to control what is going on in outer space is only can be done by first understanding and communicating with them. Linguistics, in this case, has another mission which is what helps humans save the world. The arrival of the aliens starting an international crisis is also another reason of the urge for control.

Furthermore, “the deep issues” and “the fluidity of time” is another important element, the issue being deeper than Louise’s experience comes up after they communicate face to face. The weapon the Heptapod’s are referring to is the tools that are necessary for the language itself, which they won’t share with humanity, due to their extinction in the future and they seek help from humanity. The fluidity of the time, is already existed due to the Heptapod’s language interconnection with the fluidity of time. Louise sees visions of herself as a child, which attacks her time-perception and leads to confusion. The movie also reveals that in an encounter between the Louise and Chinese General Shang who already perceives time in a different form and knows to communicate in Heptapod’s language, tells her a thing that Louise said to him to stop the war in present, that will eventually help her in the past. Another example is to understand this is that, since time is non-linear taking into account a circle shape provided by them, time itself has no stable direction for cause and effect relationship, in this case, Louise speaking with the Shang is what made him speak with her at the gala, but on the other hand due to two-way cause and effect relationship, Shang speaking with Louise at the gala is also what made Louise say what she has said in the first place, which is a brilliant example of the fluidity of time.

Similarly, the socio-cultural aspects of the genre can be separated into three, as thematic concerns, special effects and sublime. While the thematic concerns plays a key role in the movie due to its reliance on nature of human beings and their identity connected with their memory in relationship with their cognition, future, past. The encounter with the other, in this case the aliens, not only shown as the other but also redefined their idea about other. In cinematic effects, the cinema of attractions is provided with visuals and settings of landscapes, minimal spacecrafts of the unknown that draw attention of the audience. The special effects are also enriched by soundtracks and images that transforms the audience to the specific world, gives an overwhelming experience and activate their sensory by evoking their hearing, sight leading into a different spirituality. This hard to describe sublime feeling driven by the movie specially in the scenes of their last encounter, this almost out of body experience leads into the sensation of the power that is larger than life, and re-think about such limits.

The paper discussed the movie and analyzed its sci-fi genre, in means of its definitions, forms and conceptions, with respect to their socio-cultural aspects. In final words, the movie Arrival is an extraordinary example of a sci-fi genre with Villeneuve’s themes on memory, traumas, and identity. In comparison with the genre’s other examples, Arrival does not point out whether the aliens are evil or good, it just underlines that they came to communicate and cooperate for the fate of the future. In conclusion, the movie also creates a mystery that can only be solved with communication, the concept of time and chronology focuses more on transferring the message, with its dark and minimal atmosphere. The movie has a stable mood and a slow reveal leading into a bold ending and despite its genre it still stays reliable and relevant, offering the audience magnificent visuals, heavy and an atmospheric soundtrack, with the messages of conceptions from perspectives on time to the basic and complex human feelings of existence, loss, and memory, proving that it is more than just an alien-encounter movie.


Altman, R. (1984): “A Semantic/Syntatic Approach to Film Genre”, Cinema Journal23/3: 6.18.

Grant, B. K. (1999): “Sensuous Elaboration: Reason and the Visible in the Science Fiction Film”. In K. Ahnette, Alien zone II: the spaces of science-fiction cinema,16–30. London: Verso.

Neale, S. (1990): “Questions of genre”, Screen31/1: 45–66.

Staiger, J. (1997): “Hybrid or Inbred: The Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History”, Film Criticism22/1: 5.20.



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