The Film: Arrival
The Pitch: Close Encounters of the Verb Kind
Number of Nominations: 8
Which Categories? Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing
Will it Win? With La La Land seemingly unstoppable this year, the other films have an uphill battle to take Oscar home. I think director Denis Villeneuve and the rest of Arrival‘s team might just go home empty-handed, with the exception of writer Eric Heisserer who adapted Ted Chiang‘s short story “Story of Your Life”.
Synopsis: When 12 alien spacecraft land on Earth, U.S. officials ask linguistics professor Louise Banks to team with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly and learn how to communicate with the visitors. While Louise races to learn the aliens’ language, uneasy governments around the globe debate the advisability of military action.
Let’s get the big snub out of the way first. Amy Adams has not been nominated for her performance as Louise Banks, the linguist tasked with communicating with the aliens. This is a bit of a shock as the Academy generally likes Adams, but also her work in Arrival is extremely good (much better, in my opinion, than what she does in her other big film of 2016, Nocturnal Animals, where she doesn’t seem to do much except mope around her elegant house).
The narrative trick of Arrival is to fool the audience about a sequence of events – no spoilers, but at the film’s end you’ll be even more astonished by Adams’s performance. She uses her general air of sadness and perplexity and those large expressive eyes to great effect here, and it’s great to see a science-fiction film that values performances as much as plot and special effects.
Then again, this is a pretty serious sci-fi film (there are only two funny lines in the whole movie): it’s one for grown-ups, eschewing laser fights and explosions in favour of a thoughtful reflection on what first contact with an alien civilization might actually be like. There are a couple of moments in the script that are a bit shaky (the military/CIA reaction to the arrival of the spacecraft is predictable and a bit of a cliché), and some viewers might feel that the film is a bit of a cheat, getting to have its intellectual cake and a sentimental slice of it as well.
If aliens came to Earth, how would we communicate with them? Most science-fiction that tackles that idea tends to lean towards mathematics (hence the presence of Jeremy Renner‘s character, who is there initially to be a foil to Adams). I thought the film’s treatment of linguistics and communication was very interesting, and the scenes where Adams and the aliens ‘talk’ were very well done. Arrival is a film filled with big ideas but this is not a showy movie – the actual arrival of the spacecrafts happens off screen.
The design of the aliens and the way in which they communicate – think squid ink – is brilliant. They’re vastly different from humans, of course, but maybe they’r enot so different from us after all: they’re mortal as well. Arrival, like all great art, is about mortality
Apart from Adams, the other name I expected to see nominated was Jóhan Jóhansson, who once again demonstrates why he’s one of the more interesting film composers working today.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s next film is the sequel to Blade Runner. Following Enemy, Prisoners, Sicario, and now Arrival, he’s definitely on a roll.
Verdict: Four Death Processes out of Five