Arrival and Science Fiction at the Oscars

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Another Academy Awards ceremony has passed and, of course, there is a new wave of controversy surrounding the Oscars. A mix-up of cue cards meant that everyone’s predicted winner La La Land took to the stage to celebrate their Best Picture win. Except they didn’t win, Warren Beatty read the wrong card leading to a cringingly embarrassing rewind so Moonlight, the actual winner, had to embarrassingly replace La La Land’s cast and crew on the stage. You could say that everyone needed to brush up on their communication skills. Perhaps the people behind the scenes of the awards should have paid more attention to another Best Picture Nominee: Arrival. Denis Villeneuve’s film showed how potentially catastrophic miscommunication could be, albeit with much higher stakes.

Which brings me to my main point. Embarrassment aside, the 2017 Academy Awards had most of the typical winners that you would expect. Which means that genre filmmaking is, yet agin, poorly served. Arrival took home the Oscar for Best Sound Editing, other than that the only other genre film to win was Suicide Squad for Best Make-up; meaning that David Ayer can boast that he directed the Oscar-winning Suicide Squad. Horrifying but true. No one expected Arrival, which is arguably 2016’s most impressive film, to win any of the top awards: case and point Amy Adams tremendous performance wasn’t even nominated.

The Oscars is a strange ceremony: the winners can sometimes defy explantion. For example in the last few years the Academy has tried to keep everyone happy by splitting the wins for the top two awards: Best Picture and Best Director. Best Picture usually goes to the most worthy film; and sometimes the most deserving: Moonlight, and previous winners Spotlight and 12 Years a Slave. It’s in the Best Director category that the Academy usually awards skill: Alfonso Curon won for Gravity, Ang Lee won for Life of Pi, and Damien Chazzele for La La Land. The question is this: was La La Land more innovative than Arrival in terms of directing; not a chance.

As impressive as La La Land is stage musicals, and classic Hollywood musicals are much more impressive than Damien Chazelle’s work on La La Land. If we keep with the idea that innovation reaps reward then Denis Villeneuve should have been a dead cert for Arrival. Danny Boyle put it perfectly when asked about directing Sunshine how difficult it is to bring science fiction to the big screen. Compared to other films Boyle argued that with science fiction you must create everything from scratch, to build a world from the ground up. This is exactly what Villeneuve does with Arrival: he creates a world which is experiencing first contact with extra-terrestrials and acts out, in a realistic fashion, the wonder and turmoil that planet earth experiences through this historic event. That’s not all, Villeneuve also plays with the language of cinema to inform his own story about the coming together of two species. He plays with tried and tested cinematic conventions like editing and narrative structure to strengthen his story that has communication at its heart. He speaks to us in a language that we think we are overly familiar with then changes the rules. If that’s not innovative I don’t know what is.

Arrival’s nominations play the same role as most nominations for genre films: they are a pat on the back: “you made a great, popular movie. Well done, you won’t win.” If the Best Picture category was shortened to the five films of old, it’s hard to say whether Arrival would have been nominated at all. There are exceptions, but the last film science fiction or fantasy film to win Best Picture was Return of the King. Things haven’t changes much since then.

Even so, for next year’s ceremony the Academy should look back at Arrival, and see that nominations aren’t enough.

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