For the second year in a row, a smart, character-driven science fiction film has been nominated for best picture. And for the second year in a row, that film is the most deserving of the nominees, if the least likely to win. “The Martian” has good company in “Arrival.”
The genre simply lacks the prestige for Hollywood’s biggest award. If you take away the aliens, “Arrival” is still a profoundly moving drama about loss, memory and the choices we make. The aliens are essential, though, as director Denis Villeneuve (“Sicario”) uses their unique otherworldly qualities to tell his mind-bending tale (based on Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life”).
Villeneuve’s customary visual flair provides just the right misdirection as he and screenwriter Eric Heisserer set up their narrative magic act.
Amy Adams was robbed of a nomination for her portrayal of Louise Banks, a linguist hired to communicate with the inhabitants of spaceships that have appeared, hovering above the ground, at seemingly random locations. She’s assisted by various scientists and military personnel, but the focus is squarely on Louise’s efforts to make sense of her seemingly impossible task. The movie is similarly all about Adams, who adds sensitivity and traces of self-doubt to Louise’s formidable, stubborn intellect.
The fate of Earth is on her shoulders, after all, but the tension in “Arrival” doesn’t come from epic battles or technological snafus. It’s rooted in the very cerebral challenges of doing research, looking for clues and making connections, while nervous governments push for answers before someone gets trigger-happy. Like fellow nominee “Hidden Figures,” “Arrival” lets nerds be the heroes (even hunky Jeremy Renner plays a physicist) and never dumbs them down for the sake of plot convenience.
“Arrival” has the awestruck wonder of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the humanism of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and the engaging ideas of “Star Trek” at its best. It also takes an emotional journey that rivals anything a “serious” picture can offer. Those qualities should earn it the respect of an Oscar win, but it might take extraterrestrial intervention to make that happen.
Read more of freelancer Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.