As the Heptapods tentacles reached out to touch Adam Adams and teach her about their non-linear view of time and space, science fiction fans all over the world swooned: finally! An Oscar-worthy science fiction movie that isn’t District 9! Based on sci-fi tradition, Arrival’s chances at actually winning Best Picture are slim, but among sci-fi movies that have been nominated in this category, it’s already unique. Arrival is the only Oscar-bait movie to really render aliens in a way that at least feels realistic.
Aliens are always tricky to depict realistically, mostly because as fictional characters, they tend to be metaphors for human beings. Prior to Arrival, the most notable nominated film to deal with aliens was District 9. And though it was nominated for Best Picture in 2010, it didn’t win. It certainly deserved to win, but the Heptapods in Arrival are better than the Prawns in District 9. And that’s mostly because the Heptapods were crafted as a believable alien race first and a metaphor for humanity second.
Because the complex alien language of the Heptapods is central to the story of Arrival, the entire film relies on the audience believing in the aliens in general. This isn’t always necessarily always the case, even in good science fiction. We may all love Mr. Spock, but on a gut level, he works more as a metaphor for humanity than he does as a feasible alien. In other words, the aliens in Arrival are different enough from aliens in other science fiction to both seem new and believable. And, best of all, despite having tentacles, they don’t fall into the very old — and sometimes offensive — space alien cliche of bug-eyed monsters.
Arrival is giving aliens a good name in the world of serious cinematic drama. Its an Oscar Best Picture nominee first: a thoughtful, well-made science fiction movie in which strange extraterrestrials get to shed their metaphoric skin and revel in their just how alien they really are. Now, cross your tentacles for Arrival to get lucky at the 2017 Academy Awards.