Telluride: 'Arrival' Poses an Awards Conundrum

Arrival - Still 2- H 2016
Courtesy of Jan Thijs/Paramount Pictures

Some movies require multiple viewings in order to be fully appreciated — or even just understood. Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's first foray into the sci-fi genre, which stars five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams, may be such a film. During its first North American screening at the Telluride Film Festival on Saturday night, I struggled to follow what struck me, and many others, as a convoluted plot. Now, it's a challenge to get most Academy members to watch a film just once, or to care about sci-fi pics even when they're easily decipherable. So I'm skeptical that this movie, which Paramount will release nationwide on Nov. 11, will factor in much of the coming awards season.

That is unfortunate for Adams, who, a pre-screening festival tribute reminded attendees, is one of the finest actresses of her generation. And in Arrival, she shows she can almost make even the most far-fetched scenario believable and powerful. In this case, she plays a linguist who is recruited by the U.S. military, in the wake of 12 alien spaceships landing across the globe, to try to translate the aliens' unfamiliar-sounding communications. She ends up becoming the aliens' closest confidante, all while fending off massive grief over the death of her young daughter. The film has a script by Eric Heisserer, who adapted Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life.

By having a regular person become mankind's ambassador to a suspicious spacecraft, Arrival evokes memories of 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In several other respects, though, it reminds me more of another Paramount release, 2014's Interstellar, which the Academy never really warmed up to (outside of five crafts nominations and a best visual effects Oscar).

It's one thing to let Christopher Nolan attempt such a risky venture, but quite another to hand the reins to Villeneuve, whose prior work, highlighted by 2010's Incendies, 2013's Prisoners and 2015's Sicario, though well-received, has been done on a much smaller scale. Even old pros like Forest Whitaker (doing a terrible Boston accent) and Jeremy Renner seem adrift on this particular canvas.