“Arrival” is an emotional and smart science fiction Oscar contender

It’s no secret that science fiction has a hard time at the Academy Awards. This year, the latest contender to hopefully buck that trend in a notable way is Arrival, which pairs director Denis Villeneuve with star Amy Adams. It hits theaters this week and is an interesting mix of independent sensibilities and mainstream blockbuster entertainment. Alien invasions tend to be large scale action flicks, but this film is a cerebral drama, and a very human one at that. When sci-fi is good, there’s always the chance that Oscar takes notice, despite its iffy history. With this one, there’s a chance, no doubt about that.

Once again, the film is a sci-fi drama centering on well regarded linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) who is recruited by the military to assist in translating alien communications when mysterious spaceships arrive at various locations on Earth. Working with a scientist counterpart in the operation named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), it is Louise’s job to figure out if these visitors come in peace and what they want. As the clock runs down, the possibility of war arrives through international tensions, but also of scientific breakthroughs like never before, as Louise and Ian slowly begin communicating with the aliens. Why they’re here, what they want, and how it all unfolds, I’ll leave for you to find out. Villeneuve directs a script by Eric Heisserer (who adapted the short story by Ted Chiang called Story of Your Life), while the rest of the cast includes Michael Stuhlbarg, Forest Whitaker, and more. Music is by Jóhann Jóhannsson and Max Richter, while the cinematography comes from the emerging master DP that is Bradford Young. Suffice to say, the ingredients were here for something great, so it’s very pleasing to see how well done it all is.

For me, this is a very good but just shy of great film. Everything about it works, but in my humble opinion, it’s missing just that little bit extra to make it soar. Perhaps some of it is due to me having guessed the twist very early on, but it’s just small nitpicking. Villeneuve directs this with supreme confidence, though I’d argue it’s not quite as riveting as with Prisoners or Sicario. The highlight, besides Adams’ turn, Jóhannsson’s score, and Young’s cinematography, is Heisserer’s script. It’s almost note perfect and could be a dark horse contender for Arrival’s winning chances at the Oscars.

Awards wise, Arrival definitely has a chance to be a contender in a number of fields, though nothing is certain and a lot remains to be seen. Look for campaigns in Best Picture, Best Director (for Villeneuve), Best Actress (for Adams), Best Supporting Actor (for Renner), Best Adapted Screenplay (for Heisserer), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography (for Young), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Score (for Jóhannsson), and Best Visual Effects. There’s no telling how the flick will play in this regard to the Academy, so anything is possible, but the quality is there. With the proper precursor attention, voters could get behind it, especially in the technical categories. Remember, more often than not, Academy members reject genre. This time though, who knows?

Overall, Friday brings a thoughtful sci-fi flick in Arrival. It’s certainly positioned to be intelligent mass entertainment, even if it has a number of indie leaning trappings. Fans of things like Contact and Interstellar will find a cinematic kindred spirit in this one. If you’ve liked how Villeneuve in the past has put a distinct spin on genre fare, that’s again the case here, so that should bode well for you. Adams fans will also find plenty to hold on to, as I found her stronger here than in the upcoming Nocturnal Animals. This is an easy movie to recommend, that’s for sure. Even if I fell just shy of adoring it, I still think it’s very good and suspect many of you will love it. Give it a shot and enjoy…

Be sure to check out Arrival, in theaters everywhere this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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