With fall nearly upon us, its time for movies to start getting serious. Gone are the whimsical animations and world-ending blockbusters, and in its place are trailers for very serious dramas and more cerebral offerings. Lucky for us, it also means that we can expect our sci-fi to be more mature too. Ever since the amount of Oscar nominees for Best Picture was upgraded from only 5 to up to 10, stories in space, such as The Martian and Gravity, have become serious contenders for the top prize and not mere novelty acts.
The latest to join the fray is Arrival, which seeks to follow on from The Martian and Gravity's success. The trailer, which dropped yesterday, is suitably enigmatic:
Directed by the criminally underrated Dennis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario), and starring five time(!) Oscar nominee Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, Arrival seems to be a thoughtful look at "contact" with the third kind, which could do very well come February. But just what will differentiate this film from your mainstream science-fiction fare and launch it into the highly exclusive world of Oscar nominees? Let's take a look:
Did you ever notice how secretly The Martian is one long science lesson? Starring everyone's favourite dad Matt Damon, it basically teaches you how to make food, recycle your own urine and generally survive when you are stranded on a planet with an uninhabitable ecosystem. Its pragmatic approach (reflected in Ridley Scott's economical filmmaking) to survival, and the total absence of any spiritual salvation, basically made it a paean to doing science properly.
Here in the trailer for Arrival, we see that Amy Adams is the best translator in the business, giving a realistic approach to how we would actually try and talk to aliens as opposed to simply assuming they speak English. This approach to success, as seen in Gravity (which won seven Oscars), is to, by all means, have an imaginative approach to space, but to ground it in a believable schema of scientific theory. This, it could be argued, is what limited Interstellar's Oscar success, as in the final act it went blasting off into the fourth dimension!
Yet despite being rooted in science it is important for science-fiction films to maintain:
A Sense of Awe
The key to the success of science-fiction films is evoking in the viewer a sense of awe at the limitless boundaries of space, as alternately terrifying and beautiful as that seems. Innovations in special-effects have progressed tenfold in the past ten years, with films such as Gravity, Avatar and Interstellar convincingly creating whole new ways of looking at the galaxy. These technological breakthroughs mean that science-fiction, now more than ever, can be the most creative genre in cinema.
What the Arrival teaser does very well is to not show us the creatures from the outer world, instead focusing on Dr Banks, the light reflecting off her visor, as she looks up, half-terrified, half-awestruck at what she is seeing. The teaser is perfect in baiting my attention, wondering just what to expect. Yet if aliens do arrive, it is better to:
Keep It Friendly
Ever since Close Encounters of The Third Kind showed us that beings from outer space can also be our friends, the representation of aliens on the big screen has been more varied and intriguing than simply seeing them as invaders. Coincidentally, no science-fiction film that has been nominated for Best Picture has ever portrayed them as evil, with Avatar and E.T seeing them as benevolent creatures, Star Wars as on both sides of the intergalactic war, and District 9 as the victims of xenophobia in an allegory for apartheid.
No science-fiction film has ever won Best Picture, and yet only one horror film - The Silence of The Lambs - has won one either. Therefore, if The Arrival wants to break through and become an Oscar-winning film, it is better to avoid horror and action clichés and instead move onto character driven dramas that happen to feature huge spaceships and aliens. The best way to do this is by:
Keeping It (Literally) Grounded
It is telling that the first shot of the trailer is also its most ordinary one: a child playing in a garden. In about two seconds of footage we learn that Dr Banks has a child, and that this gives her some kind of emotional motivation to do what she does.
Children are one of the best ways to create an emotional hook for a science-fiction story to progress from. Think Interstellar or Gravity, which used the vastness of space as a metaphor for the separation between parent and child. Additionally, recent Oscar-winning films such as 12 Years A Slave, Spotlight, and Room, are about adults doing their hardest either to help or to get back to their children. Arrival will have a tricky balancing act here, making sure that Banks is not defined by her motherhood, but that her love for her child is equal to her love for languages and science. From the trailer, and based on Amy Adam's excellent acting chops, it seems as if she can do both.
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Films set in space or science-fiction films that tend to do very well are ones that show the value of team spirit. Think The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, or the millions and millions of dollars that was spent by NASA to get Matt Damon off of Mars. Paradoxically the best sci-fi films are about humanity itself, and how we find a common interest in order to save the day. Arrival shows a world teetering on the brink of 'Global War', making connection with the aliens the only viable choice. The trailer shows some light banter between Banks and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner with glasses on) that prioritises the importance of working in a team. Let's just hope they don't shoehorn in some terrible romantic subplot.
Sci-fi films may deal in semi-mystical themes, but - with the exception of District Nine - no science-fiction film can really get off the ground unless it has big starring roles. Avatar had sci-fi legend Sigourney Weaver, Inception had Leonardo DiCaprio, Gravity Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and The Martian had Matt Damon. The casting of Amy Adams, best known for playing Lois Lane, is a canny one, as by attaching a hugely recognisable face to the protagonist less exposition and dialogue is needed to define her character, thus allowing more time to explore this new dystopian world.
If Arrival were to combine all these elements into a thoughtful package that also had a broad appeal, it could have a real chance of going for the top prize at the Academy Awards.
What did I miss? What else should a sci-fi film do to guarantee success?