Oscar Beat: Is ‘Arrival’ an Awards Contender?

     September 10, 2016

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As the first trailer for director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi drama Arrival, well, arrived a few months ago, many folks had two thoughts. One: This looks incredible. And two: Could this sci-fi film be a major Oscar contender? Well the early reviews from Telluride and the Venice Film Festival lavished the film with praise, and now that it’s screened at the larger and more commercial Toronto International Film Festival (where I got a chance to catch it myself), we may have a better idea of the answer to that second question.

The film is based on a short story by Ted Chiang and begins when 12 UFOs arrive on Earth in various locations. Subsequently, the governments of the world make contact with this alien species, but face a massive obstacle: there is no clear means of communicating with said aliens. This is where Amy Adams’ linguist Dr. Louise Banks and Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly come into play, as the two are swiftly enlisted by the U.S. government to try and communicate with this alien species that has everyone in the world on edge.

The picture certainly has prestige, not just in Adams and Renner but in director Denis Villeneuve, who made his studio debut with the well-received 2013 drama Prisoners and found even greater success with last year’s spectacular Sicario. That drug war-centric drama cracked the Academy in a few categories, including Sound and Score, but could Arrival be Villeneuve’s first major Oscar player?


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Image via Paramount Pictures

It’s possible. The film is great, to be sure, and Adams delivers a stellar lead actress performance that could be the movie’s greatest shot over all. Renner and Forest Whitaker are solid as well, but this is Adams’ movie hands down. Jóhann Jóhansson could certainly land another Best Original Score nomination for his haunting and unsettling score, which is not dissimilar in tone from his Oscar-nominated work on Sicario. There’s also cinematographer Bradford Young to consider, who works wonders with very little artificial light, maintaining the film’s dreary palette while finding beauty in the sterile and mundane.

At heart, Arrival is really a drama about grief, and the film’s emotional punch seems to be connecting with the critics who’ve seen the film at the aforementioned festivals, including Collider’s own Brian Formo. But yes, it’s also a sci-fi film, and the Academy has always been reticent to be too receptive to the sci-fi genre unless it’s grounded deeply in reality like Her or The Martian. Aliens are hit or miss territory for them, mostly miss, but this is smart, intelligent, science-driven sci-fi, with beautifully drawn characters and a strong beating emotional heart. In that respect, it certainly fits the “grounded” bill of the sci-fi movies the Academy has gone for in the past, so perhaps Arrival could be right up the voters’ alley.

With regards to a Best Picture or Best Director nomination, the latter seems slightly more plausible than the former, if only because in recent years the Academy has felt obliged to fill out its nominees with dramas, indies, and the rare critically acclaimed blockbuster—and while I’d like to think audiences would turn out for something as smart as this, the box office receipts of Transformers: Age of We’re Gonna Make These Movies Forever say otherwise. Moreover, reports out of Telluride were that some of that festival’s older viewers (i.e. those closest to the Academy’s prevailing demographic) were confused by the film’s complexity, which to be frank isn’t even all that complex.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

Will Academy voters find this one too cerebral to penetrate, or will Adams’ emotional performance drive this thing home? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess. Paramount isn’t spread too thin this year, with Arrival, the WWII drama Allied, and Denzel Washington’s Fences marking their biggest Oscar gambles, and if they play Arrival right and it nets some serious critical acclaim upon wide release, I think it has some potential. Adams is absolutely Oscar-worthy here, but she’s also incredible in Tom Ford’s brilliant literary drama Nocturnal Animals, so she may well be competing against herself in the Best Actress category. The Academy loves her—she’s been nominated 5 times—so my gut says she’ll land a Best Actress nod this year, and while I’m leaning towards Arrival as her best bet, it’s a bit of a toss-up at this point.

So yeah, Arrival certainly has the goods—it’s a swell film with remarkable performances, evocative visuals, a haunting score, and assured direction—the question is whether Academy voters will fall as deeply for it as critics have, or if the majority of them will find their hearts leaning elsewhere. We’ll find out in due time, but it may be important to keep in mind that Sicario was somewhat dismissed as a major contender during its festival rollout last year, only to have a serious resurgence right as Oscar voting began.


Look for more Oscar Beat dispatches over the coming week as the 2016 Toronto Film Festival marches on. And for all of our TIFF 2016 coverage thus far, click here.

Best Bets

Best Actress – Amy Adams

Best Original Score – Jóhann Jóhansson

Best Sound Editing/Mixing

Could Go Either Way

Best Picture

Best Director – Denis Villeneuve

Best Cinematography – Bradford Young

Long Shots

Best Visual Effects

Best Production Design – Patrice Vermette

Best Editing – Joe Walker

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