It might be hard to believe that a story about linguistics was one of the most compelling films of 2016, but Arrival — Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the brilliant short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang — took the world by storm when it was released. Deeply contemplative, incredibly affecting, yet still with enough tension and fear to draw viewers in, the movie wowed audiences and showed off the complete, brilliant range of its lead, Amy Adams. Although it only won one of the eight Oscars it was nominated for, today it remains a landmark film. If you loved seeing how Adams’ character grew and changed, or are just interested in sci-fi that prioritizes smart stories over action-laden plots, then read ahead for our guide to the 10 best films like Arrival.
Natalie Portman stars in this intriguing, intelligent sci-fi and does supremely well, although that shouldn’t be surprising as she’s had some experience in the genre. Like Arrival, Annihilation charts the journey of a group of scientists as they join a dangerous mission that seems to involve extraterrestrials. Portman plays Lena, a biologist who’s trying to uncover what happened to her husband when he entered the ominous-sounding Area X, also known as “the shimmer.” She’s right to be worried, as this mysterious field is expanding through America, and when she enters it with the rest of her expedition they uncover a bizarre world full of surreal scenery and animals that’s both captivating and deadly. A risky film that works thanks to a great cast.
Who would have thought that a sci-fi film with such a bright sounding name would be so heavy on the looming dread? Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is all about the tension of the unknown, and when you add the unbelievable visuals to it, you get a movie well worth watching. The plot is relatively simple: a group of astronauts are sent on a mission to reignite the dying sun with a nuclear device, but as they approach their target things start to go wrong, with truly dark consequences. With plenty of homages to the genre (Boyle was allegedly desperate to do a sci-film set in space) it can feel more over-familiar than interesting at times, but it’s generally a great watch that — like Arrival — shows us how limited we truly are when compared to the rest of the universe.
While the 2002 American remake of this Russian classic has its charm, the original maintains a certain edge to it that makes it superior. Solaris follows Kris, a psychologist who arrives on the titular space station to investigate a strange phenomenon that’s happening among the crew, whereby people from their memories are appearing and even interacting with them. As Kris tries to unfurl the mystery, he has to deal with his own past while also trying to figure out what’s real and what is down to the mysteries of space. Deep, moving, and intensely powerful, this is a bit of a slow burner but — like Arrival — will really make you think about just how little we really know about life in the universe.
2001: A Space Odyssey
In a sea of Kubrick masterpieces, 2001: A Space Odyssey manages to stand out for its singular nature and brave storytelling. This is the sort of movie that demands to wrap you up, and even though it’s got a mammoth runtime, every second is earned — and that’s saying something, since a huge majority of the film is filled with a vast, cavernous silence that makes you feel like you’re in space. 2001 famously begins with a group of ancient hominids finding an alien monolith, before getting into the real meat of the plot as we jump millions of years into the future, when we see a collection of astronauts and scientists try and figure out what a monolith much like the one we saw earlier is doing on the surface of the moon. Much like the aliens in Arrival, the mysterious monolith is what links this epic together, but it’s so much more than that. A must-watch.
Like Arrival, this independent film is on the more thoughtful end of the sci-fi spectrum, although it definitely gives the viewer a bit more obvious conflict, rather than the implied yet present danger in the film that inspired this list. Moon follows Sam, an engineer nearing the end of a three-year stint on the moon where he was the sole person overseeing a harvesting plant responsible for the mining of an energy source that comes from lunar soil. However, as he gets closer to seeing his family again, strange hallucinations make him think all isn’t well. Moon grapples with all sorts of deep existential questions, while also serving as a great allegory for the damage that we do to both the planet and ourselves when corporate greed is put above all else. This may have been director Duncan Jones’ debut, but he did an astoundingly good job.
This space-based thriller hits a lot of the same notes as Arrival, especially how it links parental and child relationships to the wider, more sci-fi like story, and how it explores the psychology of venturing into the unknown. The plot of the film is fairly basic: Roy McBride, an astronaut, is tasked with going on a mission to find an old spacecraft that now appears to be pulsing out surges that are affecting life on Earth, all the while uncovering the truth about his missing father, the leader of the project that was based on the now dangerous spacecraft. Although there’s tons of great action and visuals, the film is elevated by its contemplative nature, and has had somewhat of a cultural rennaisance since its release.
The mysteries of the universe are a tantalizing prospect for humans, who seem to have a deep-rooted desire for exploration. In Interstellar, this is taken to the extreme. The epic film follows a group of researchers and astronauts as they embark on a mission through a wormhole that’s opened up near Saturn, in an attempt to find a more inhabitable planet as Earth rapidly deteriorates. Another great film buoyed by brilliant performances and truly stunning visuals, it shares a lot of aspects with Arrival, like its focus on how things like time and space don’t work in the depths of the universe like they do on our planet.
Under the Skin
This Scarlett Johansson flick might have been a bit of a box office bomb, but there’s no doubt it’s elusive, haunting, and oddly compelling. Johansson plays a nameless creature who disguises itself as a human woman and drives around Scotland, attempting to pick up unsuspecting men so that she can send them into another dimension. Aesthetically stunning, but not in the big budget, bright way that many other films on this list are, how you interpret this artistic movie is up to you, but one thing’s for sure: it will certainly make you wonder just what aliens would want from us if they did turn up, much like Arrival does.
Never Let Me Go
Never Let Me Go, the 2010 dystopian romance that’s based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel of the same name, maintains a huge sci-fi element, but also touches on similar topics as Arrival – like the notion of fate and destiny. It follows a group of teens at Hailsham Boarding School, who we soon learn are clones of people from the outside, raised purely to provide organs for the people they’re cloned from, and to care for other clones. Deeply moving and utterly brilliant, this is one of those adaptations that manages to capture what makes the book so well.
While Arrival delicately toes the line between nerdy linguistics, strange sci-fi, and interesting plots, Contact occasionally veers too much into the brainy, but generally speaking is a compelling watch that will leave you feeling intrigued. It follows a radio astronomer as she discovers the existence of intelligent life from outside our planet when they begin sending signals. She and her fellow researchers begin trying to decipher their code, soon realizing that they’re building a mysterious machine that they don’t know the purpose of. A bit slow in parts, but a brilliant watch overall.