If there’s one genre that’s been maligned by the Academy over the years then it’s that of sci-fi which has had a very small showing in the almost 90-year history of The Oscars. Increasing the field of nominees in 2009 was meant to allow a more diverse range of genres to thrive but instead lately we’ve reverted to the prestige dramas and quirky indie comedies of old. With the exception of Star Wars and Avatar, sci-fi really has only been represented in the technical and design categories with very little thought given to films set out of this planet at all. It’s surprising then that a sci-fi film has managed to break that glass ceiling in 2016 although I feel Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival uses its alien story to tell a very relevant allegory about the modern world.
As the title would suggest, instead of focusing on an alien invasion, the film looks at the arrival of an alien race whose spaceships land in twelve different locations around the world. This arrival is seen through the eyes of Amy Adams’ linguistics professor Louis Banks who watches the events unfold via various TV screens. Soon Louise is drafted in to communicate with the alien craft that has landed in Montana to quickly ascertain why they’ve arrived in the first place. Louise is paired up with Jeremy Renner’s physicist Ian Donnelly and together they start to build up some sort of communication with an alien race who seem to speak in low hums. Louise soon realises that there are too many barriers between she and the newly-dubbed heptopods so she removes her orange hazmat suit and reveals herself to them. This has the desired effect as soon enough the heptopods are communicating through their written language which appears in what look like smoke signals. Although Louise is making progress several forces both in other countries and closer to home who feel not enough immediate action is being taken to see if these beings have arrived to threaten the human race. However, it is Louise who ultimately is the one that the heptopods choose to do their bidding as she helps to try and relay their message before it’s too late.
Although adapted from a 2000 short story entitled ‘The Story of Your Life’, I felt when watching it the first time that Arrival had many themes that were relevant to today’s world where everybody wants to act first and ask questions later. Whilst intellectuals like Ian and Louise are presented as the heroes of the film, it’s the Chinese general and the gung-ho soldiers influenced by right-wing news stations who quickly become the antagonists. The message that Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer are trying to communicate is that we shouldn’t immediately try to attack something that we don’t understand. Although most films would have you believe that aliens are bad news here their message is one of use although it also means that some very disparate nations have to work together. As somebody who isn’t the biggest sci-fi fan in the world I enjoyed the fact that Arrival used a fantastical plot device to tell a realistic tale that kept my attention throughout. The production design was astounding throughout especially through the presentation of the heptopods’ flying saucer which loomed large over the entire Montana landscape. In fact, I did feel that the three lead actors all took a back seat to the production and I’m not surprised that Arrival is the only one of this year’s Best Picture contenders not to receive an acting nod.
Although Amy Adams is good as the plucky linguist she’s shackled by the fact that the she’s got to keep the audience guessing about what’s got to happen in both her past and her future. Jeremy Renner almost feels like he’s sidelined in the role of hunky scientist who is tasked with presenting his exposition-heavy findings just to keep the audience updated throughout the course of the film. However, the one member of the cast who truly feels wasted is Forest Whitaker whose role seems to be berating Ian and Louise for not doing their jobs quicker and berating them when they step out of line. As this is the first review I’ve written since the nominees were announced I can now comment on the fact that Arrival has received eight nods in mainly all the categories in which I would expect it to feature including cinematography, editing and production design. However one snub that I feel Arrival has received is in the Original Score category as I believe that Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music really elevates the film especially in its final moments. Indeed, it had that much of an influence on yours truly that I came from the cinema with it still playing in my head and the same has happened when I rewatched it in order to write this review.
As Arrival is the only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees that I’ve seen twice so far I have to admit that I was less than impressed the second time round. That might have something to do with the fact that I feel you need to see Arrival on the biggest screen possible in order to experience it in all its glory. That being said even on the small screen there were certain elements of the movie to appreciate from the well-told story to the fantastic production design. More than anything I feel that Arrival has proven that there’s room for sci-fi movies to be included within the Best Picture category as long as they’re thoughtful and well-created as Villeneuve’s film which to me was still one of the best of 2016.