Why Amy Adams is Pivotal to Arrival’s Success

Arrival has 8 nominations at this year's Oscars, but nothing for its star, Amy Adams. Here's why the film wouldn't have worked without her.

The following contains mild spoilers for Arrival.

By now, you’ve probably looked through this year’s Oscar nominations, and alternately nodded and tutted your head at the choices. One of the most pleasing developments, at least for a genre site such as ours, is how much attention has been lavished on Arrival – director Denis Villeneuve’s smart, elegant sci-fi drama.

Arrival has managed to earn itself a highly impressive eight nominations, including Best Director for Denis Villeneuve, Best Adapted Screenplay for Eric Heisserer (the film’s based on Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang), and Best Production Design. Most impressive of all, Arrival has a nomination for Best Picture – a category that seldom recognises sci-fi or horror, save for such notable exceptions as Star Wars, District 9or Avatar.

Villeneuve’s movie, it seems, struck a chord with Oscar voters in a way that other genre movies rarely do – perhaps because it’s as much a drama about motherhood and loss as it is a sci-fi story. And yet, with recognition rightly handed out to Villeneuve, Heisserer, cinematographer Bradford Young (whose work here is spectacular) as well as the film’s sound editor, film editor, and more, there’s one name sorely missing: Amy Adams.

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Adams has received her share of Oscar nods in the past, with her performances in The Fighter, The Master, and American Hustle all receiving nominations for Best Supporting Actress. Arrival, meanwhile, is arguably Adams’ film and Adams’ film alone; there’s barely a scene in which she doesn’t appear, and the entire movie is told from her character’s point of view. Arrival is masterfully done in terms of writing and craft, but it’s Adams’ performance that gives the movie its heart and soul. As Melissa Silverstein put it on Twitter, “gets eight Oscar noms but the woman who held it together gets ignored.”

A pure demonstration of Adams’ acting skill, Arrival represents some of her best work to date. As linguist Dr. Elizabeth Banks, she’s invariably the smartest person in the room, yet Adams manages to invest what could have been a coolly intellectual character with warmth and humor. When the strange alien ships descend, sending the world – particularly its military leaders – into a frenzy, Banks is one of the few who keeps her cool.

We sense her fear and uncertainty as she heads off on her first jaunt inside one of the visiting craft – a genuinely spooky moment, thanks to all that great direction and production design – but Adams is careful enough that we also sense how her scientific curiosity wins out. 

Then there’s Dr. Banks’ relationships – the one we see her slowly build with Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, who puts in a generously low-key turn) and her daughter, Hannah. Both relationships, we gradually understand, are laced with quiet tragedy. The subtle way that Adams conveys all her character’s skills and emotion – intelligence, regret, hope, fascination and sorrow – are perfectly judged, and tonally of a piece with Villeneuve’s low-key direction.

In fact, the uniform brilliance of Adams’ performance might partly explain why she didn’t get a nomination. There isn’t one specific scene in Arrival that screams “Give me an Oscar!” – you know the kind of thing we’re on about: “You can’t handle the truth!” from A Few Good Men (Jack Nicholson got a Best Supporting Actor nomination) or “Show me the money!” from Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr). This kind of Oscar-worthy scene – the movie equivalent of a political soundbite – was masterfully lampooned by Mike Myers in Wayne’s World (“Am I supposed to be a man?!”):

There’s no such moment in Arrival – no massive outpouring of emotion, nothing that shouts, “Hey, I’m acting here” in large capital letters. Rather, Banks’ moments of pain or triumph are largely internalised, emerging only as a wistful stare or a gently uttered phrase. It’s this very restraint, we’d argue, that makes Adams’ performance one of last year’s best.

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Gongs aside, Arrival is the kind of movie that, we suspect, will live on long after more earthly dramas have been forgotten. It’s a thoughtful, unusually intelligent genre film – one that deals with lofty ideas about language and the nature of time, yet is also grounded in more everyday themes like motherhood, nurture and bereavement. Key to all this is Amy Adams: the shiny, vital centre around which Arrivals circular story smoothly revolves.

This article was first published on Jan. 25, 2017.