The first big hitter on this list, with a total of seven nominations, this high-concept sci-fi film is expertly directed by Québec native Denis Villeneuve. Visually, the film is stunning and incredibly creative, and it’s a prodigious lesson on how tone and mood can transform a narrative.
Amy Adams’ performance (snubbed this year) is subtle and complex—made all the more impressive when you realize she was staring into green screens and nothingness for the majority of the shots. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s phenomenal score (deemed ineligible for an Original Score nom due to the use of Max Richter piece ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ in the film) adds a haunting depth and otherworldliness to piece.
The movie aims high, raising grand questions about language, perception, and time, but doesn’t become ponderous or inaccessible. Its ambition and scope is admirable, which makes its not-insignificant flaws easier to forgive.
The credit for this films successes clearly goes to Villeneuve’s choices here, as the script, stripped of the director’s opaque stylization and eerie tone, is, in a word, bad. It is riddled with alien movie clichés (the suspicious, warmongering military, the dangerous and unstable foreign powers, the news media panic-cum-exposition), which are thankfully transformed into something greater by the direction. The dialogue is at times actually cringeworthy, and the whole resolution of the film is a messy and unfulfilling deus ex machina (aliena ex machina?).
There is something of a twist—or perhaps more accurately, a revelation, at the beginning of the film’s third act, which is done effectively and well. However, Villeneuve clearly had no confidence in the audience’s ability to “get it”, as he continues to hammer the twist home for the remaining thirty minutes or so of run time.
The whole conceit of the ending feels unearned and thrown together, but overall the film is ambitious and enjoyable.
Verdict: A stylistically striking, thought-provoking, but ultimately flawed film that’s definitely worth seeing—probably twice.
Prediction: Nominated for Best Picture, Directing, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Adapted Screenplay, I’d be very happy to see it beat out frontrunner La La Land for Production Design, but unfortunately it’s more likely to get an entirely undeserved win for Adapted Screenplay (it took the Critic’s Choice Award in this category). However, I’m betting that Arrival will go home empty-handed on Sunday.