*Warning: This article contains spoilers for Arrival*
From today, the countdown begins to the glitz and the glory of one of the most prestigious award ceremonies in the world: The Oscars. Earlier today, the list of nominations were announced, igniting the debate on who deserves to be cherry-picked as the cream of the crop.
The lead contender, La La Land, has la la landed (I'm sorry) an impressive 14 nominations, equalling the Oscar record. But this article isn't to add heaps of praise onto Damien Chazelle's musical. Instead, this article is to argue why Arrival — the joint-second most decorated film along with Moonlight — should be showered with awards come February's ceremony.
The allure of #Arrival isn't something easily defined. Denis Villeneuve's first contact movie melds the grandiose and the intricate, meditating on questions of humanity, choice, time, destiny, communication, trust and language. It's precise and abstract, pragmatic and fanciful, all in one.
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'Arrival' Deserves Oscar Success
When 12 alien spacecrafts land on Earth, the fate of the world as we know it lies with linguist Louise Banks (#AmyAdams, who was snubbed for a Best Actress nomination), an expert in language who wades through personal fears and a growing sense of alien-xenophobia in an attempt to break down the barriers of communication and build a rapport with the extraterrestrial "heptapods."
This process of teaching alone is fascinating, and an exercise in putting trust in the intellectual capability of the audience to follow along. The pacing of Arrival is something to be admired, its steady build-up a rarity in modern blockbusters that has remnants of Stanley Kubrick's all-time classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It slowly builds the bigger picture — like an astronaut piecing together a jigsaw in zero gravity — which is crucial to the eventual unravelling of the film's narrative.
In his article on The Talk House (a fascinating read you can find here), screenwriter Eric Heisserer highlights this particular challenge in adapting the source material the film is based on, Ted Chiang's novella, "Story of Your Life." His discussion with the studio over the need to include technical terminology resulted in one of the film's key scenes. He wrote:
I realized how ridiculous I sounded: Here I was, defending a series of little scenes of a woman teaching alien life words like “eat” and “walk” and “home.” But this movie is about process, and I was passionate about protecting Louise’s process.
After explaining this to the studio, the basis of Heisserer's rant became the scene in Arrival where Louise explains why the aliens need to know what a question is, distinguishing the collective "you" from the specific "you" and boiling the essence down to the overarching question: "What is your purpose on Earth?"
As well as staying resolute on the technicalities of Chiang's source material (he's pleased he managed to keep the term "nonlinear orthography" in the final script), Heisserer needed to stay resolute in his belief for the project, having been rejected time and time again over the course of years.
"Story of Your Life" depicts a complex perspective on the perception of time, yet Heisserer's decision to drip-feed the non-linear "flashbacks" made for a poignant portrayal of another key them: The Sapir-whorf hypothesis — the theory that learning the structure of language can affect the speaker's worldview. The way Heisserer pieced it all together in blockbuster format alone is worth a win for Best Adapted Screenplay Award.
Denis Villeneuve: An Oscar Worthy Director
Villeneuve's ability to translate Heisserer's script into a big screen experience is another demonstration that he is quickly becoming one of the most gifted directors in Hollywood, with a string of exceptional and varied movies successive years with Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2014), and Sicario (2015).
Portraying the notion of alternate dimensions, and depicting the heptapod's ability to perceive non-linear time isn't an easy task. However, Villeneuve knew when to strip back to the bare essentials and when to lay on some visual flair, and made full use of simplicity in building tension and intrigue. If he doesn't win Best Director for Arrival, there's no doubt Villeneuve will see success at the #Oscars in the near future.
A nod also goes to cinematographer Bradford Young, who helped to create a landscape that primed for the audience to project their own ideas — for example the monotone, sterile granite interior of the spacecraft, mirroring Arrival's laid-back focus on the nuances of communication instead of big budget effects.
A Film That Makes You Feel
Combine these three elements — a intricate script, restrained direction and basic-yet-purposeful cinematography — and the result is one of the biggest reasons why Arrival should become the first sci-fi movie to win Best Picture. The film's focus also becomes the subjective experience, a story about non-linear time translates into a transcendental, almost timeless state for the audience.
Some of the most memorable sci-fi films allow room for the viewer to project themselves, their worldview and their experience onto the narrative, to become intertwined in make-believe, with the lines between reality and unreality, fictional character and sense of being blurring into one. Arrival's narrative on the nature of choice, and humanity itself, will prod most into reflecting on their own lives, their own choices.
The acclaim for Arrival lies with its technicality, and its complex and fascinating plot. But above all else, the movie achieves the ultimate goal of the cinematic experience: It makes you feel.
Should Arrival win Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars?