×

‘Arrival’: 5 Reasons the Brainy Sci-Fi Thriller Scored

Arrival,” a brainy sci-fi thriller, scored at the weekend box office, debuting to an impressive $24 million and muscling its way into the awards race. It’s a much-needed win for Paramount, the studio behind the alien invasion tale, as it follows a series of flops such as “Zoolander 2” and “Ben-Hur.” It also proves that audiences will show up for films that are willing to grapple with big ideas and that use spectacle and computer imagery to make larger philosophical points.

Here are five reasons that “Arrival” stuck the landing.

1.) Sci-fi isn’t just for boys

Amy Adams is front and center in “Arrival” as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who must figure out a way to communicate with alien visitors in order to find out if they come in peace. It’s a meaty part, one that has earned Adams Oscar buzz. The film also gives Banks a personal tragedy to grapple with that, like Sandra Bullock’s grief-stricken astronaut in “Gravity,” grounds the fantastical story in human emotion. In the case of “Arrival,” Adams’ presence helped broaden the film’s appeal. Science-fiction films tend to draw a heavily male crowd, but “Arrival’s” opening weekend audience was 48% female.

“Having Amy in the lead is fresh in the best way,” said Kyle Davies, Paramount’s distribution head. “There’s also a real emotional storyline that speaks to women.”

2.) The marketing didn’t give too much away

“Arrival’s” posters and trailers left audiences wanting to know more. At a time when marketing campaigns routinely give away major plot points or jam the best jokes and money shots into TV spots, Paramount showed impressive restraint. They leaned heavily on moody shots of the monolithic ships and brief glimpses of the aliens themselves, but refrained from spilling too many of the film’s twists and turns. Analysts compare the rollout to the ones that Paramount orchestrated for “Cloverfield” and “Super 8,” two hit thrillers that kept audiences largely in the dark about their plots before they debuted.

“Their trailers were just enough to whet the appetite,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “That kind of suspense is rare these days.”

3.) It kept a lid on costs

“Arrival” represents a risk. Adams is more respected than bankable, the film isn’t a sequel nor is it a superhero film, and it’s not an alien invasion film like “Independence Day” that basically exists as an excuse to blow stuff up. It’s also a sci-fi movie for older audiences, which tend to come out slowly, attracted by reviews and word-of-mouth, instead of rushing out in droves on opening weekend.

Because it bucks convention, the film’s financiers — a group that includes FilmNation Entertainment, LavaBear Films, and 21 Laps Entertainment — wisely reined in spending. “Arrival” cost $47 million to make, less than a third of the budget of “Independence Day: Resurgence” and a fraction of most major studio releases. That puts the film on the path to profitability after its solid opening. It’s also in contrast to a number of recent releases, such as “Deepwater Horizon” and “Inferno,” that were aimed at older crowds, and carried steep price tags that left them in the red.

4.) Riding the festival circuit built buzz

Film festivals tend to focus on lower-budgeted dramas and prestige fare, but “Arrival” was the rare sci-fi film to grab a spot at these tastemaker gatherings. The film started screening in September, kicking off with a world premiere at the Venice Film Festival before showing at festivals in Toronto, London, and Telluride, earning strong reviews as each port of call. That built up a wave of critical support heading into the opening weekend and put “Arrival” on cinephiles’ radars.

As Paramount’s Davies notes, “Sometimes the best advertisement for the movie is the movie itself.”

5.) It helped cure the election hangover

The overall box office was up roughly 50% this weekend as audiences flocked to the multiplexes to help them forget about the presidential race. Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton has sparked waves of protests, a flood of social media hand-wringing, and a lot of bruised feelings. “Arrival” and other theatrical releases like “Doctor Strange” and “Trolls” were able to provide moviegoers with some escapism at a time of great political polarization.

“People have gone to the movie theater for respite throughout history,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with comScore. “It’s one of the few places left where you can go and unplug for two hours.”

More Film

  • Toronto Film Festival Lineup

    Toronto Film Festival: 'Joker,' 'Ford v Ferrari,' 'Hustlers' Among Big Premieres

    This year’s Toronto Film Festival will feature super-villain origin stories, splashy literary adaptations, and Tom Hanks as the most beloved performer in children’s television. The Canadian celebration of all things movies unveiled its 2019 lineup on Tuesday, and it appears to be an eclectic mixture of glossy awards bait, auteur-driven indies, and populist crowd-pleasers. It’s [...]

  • Sylvester Stallone Variety Cover story

    Sylvester Stallone Feels Robbed of an Ownership Stake in 'Rocky': 'I Was Furious'

    Sylvester Stallone shares an uncanny, symbiotic connection with Rocky, the underdog boxer character he created four decades ago — a kindred spirit who served as his creative muse in spawning one of Hollywood’s most successful film franchises. In his long career Stallone also played another memorable screen role — John Rambo — but Rocky was [...]

  • Beware of Children

    First Trailer Released for Venice Days Entry 'Beware of Children' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the first trailer for Dag Johan Haugeruds’ politically and socially charged drama “Beware of Children,” which premieres as part of the Venice Film Festival’s Venice Days section. The pic, which is being sold at Venice by Picture Tree Intl., features the dramatic aftermath of a tragic incident in [...]

  • The Tower animated film about Palestinians

    ‘The Tower’ Animation Wins Japan's Skip City Festival

    “The Tower,” Mats Grorud’s animation about the plight of the Palestinians, as viewed through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl in Beirut, won the grand prize in the international competition at the 16th edition of Skip City International D-Cinema Festival. The film also scooped the section’s audience award. The Skip City festival, which launched in [...]

  • For web story

    Transgender Immigrant Pic 'Lingua Franca,' Thriller 'Only Beasts' to Bow at Venice Days

    New York-based Filipina filmmaker Isabel Sandoval’s “Lingua Franca,” about a transgender immigrant, is among 11 competition entries, all world premieres, that will launch from the Venice Film Festival’s independently run Venice Days section. The only U.S. entry set to compete in the section modeled on Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, “Lingua Franca” is Sandoval’s third work. It [...]

  • Female-Led and LGBTQ Narratives Win Big

    Female-Led and LGBTQ Narratives Win Big At Durban FilmMart Awards

    DURBAN–Female-driven narratives and daring portraits of queer culture around the continent were the big winners at this year’s Durban FilmMart (DFM), the industry program of the Durban Intl. Film Festival, which handed out awards at a ceremony Monday night at the Southern Sun Maharani Hotel. Among the prize-winners were the story of a Zimbabwean woman [...]

  • Oscar Nominations Reactions Phyllis Nagy

    Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy Runs for Writers Guild Presidency, Citing Agency Stalemate

    Oscar-nominated screenwriter Phyllis Nagy is challenging Writers Guild of America West’s incumbent president David Goodman, citing his handling of the bitter stalemate between the WGA and Hollywood agents. Nagy announced her candidacy online Monday night, a day before the deadline for filing. She made the announcement  in a private online group as part of Writers for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content