Arrival Could Be the First Science Fiction Movie to Win Best Picture

By  · Published on November 15th, 2016

Denis Villeneuve brings a new hope for an Oscar for genre fans.

No science fiction movie has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture. That may not seem too strange, but if we consider The Silence of the Lambs a horror film, then science fiction is really the only major movie genre left that still has never received the Academy’s highest honor (animation and documentary are not genres). There have been contenders, most of them in recent years since the increase in nominees have allowed for more options.

The whole lot of past sci-fi Best Picture nominees: A Clockwork Orange (1971), Star Wars (1977), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), District 9 (2009), Avatar (2009), Inception (2010), Her (2013), Gravity (2013), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and The Martian (2015). And that’s with one up for debate as qualifying (Gravity) and with another stretch (Midnight in Paris, the time travel element of which is more fantasy) not being included.

Last year seemed to have the best chance ever for a Best Picture win, as The Martian was an acclaimed and crowd-pleasing hit from a director who’d previously given us some of the most iconic sci-fi movies of all time. But alas it was Spotlight’s moment. This year, the best shot belongs to Arrival, the first dip into the genre by Denis Villeneuve (now working on a sequel to one of that other director’s iconic sci-fi movies). But is that shot good enough?

The competition is pretty strong against it. We’ve got a musical, La La Land, considered to be the frontrunner, with the dramas Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Loving, and Fences ranking high with pundits. Arrival should at least get a nomination, something that is now kind of an obligatory consolation for sci-fi. Since its return to the category in 2010, the genre has been represented in four out of seven years (five if we count Midnight in Paris).

Right now, in the wake of Arrival’s theatrical opening, the movie does have a good deal of momentum. Reviews are mostly very positive, its box office start heavily exceeded expectations, and think pieces celebrating its hope and its focus on communication and understanding are flooding the web (we’ve got our own share of good reads), with some address of how its themes and female protagonist relates to the world after the US election.

It also reminds us of sci-fi classics of the past that were or should have been nominated (and probably would have been had there been more slots in their years), the latter group including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact. If a movie like The Departed could win because it was finally time for a Scorsese picture to be named the best, then Arrival could be seen as the genre’s career achievement moment, a culmination of the inspiring and empathic sci-fi Best Picture noms E.T., District 9, Avatar, and The Martian.

But will its current excitement last? The movie’s CinemaScore grade is only a ‘B’, meaning its word of mouth among the general moviegoing public could be flat to even negative-leaning. The box office could drop significantly this weekend. Flaws in its writing, particularly with regard to its paradoxical climax and a forced, manipulative structure that doesn’t seem quite so smartly plotted really shows in a second viewing (if not the first).

And if it’s not deserving of a Best Adapted Screenplay nod (some pundits do have it as one of the frontrunners, I guess for doing some things well), then what other categories could it appear in that will make it look like a real Best Picture candidate? As great as Amy Adams is in the movie, there are a lot of exceptional lead actress possibilities. Villeneuve won’t get a nod for directing. Maybe Bradford Young has a chance at Best Cinematography.

So maybe this will be another glass ceiling not broken this year, but nothing in the world has been predictable lately (except for the twist in this movie) and we can’t say for sure Arrival won’t resonate with Academy members enough to make for a surprise win. Maybe its hopefulness will be a popular alternative to the more serious dramatic fare. But while this is a safe bet for one of the eight or nine slots, it’s a long shot to win Best Picture.

Arrival Review

That’s fine with me. In case you can’t tell, I’m not as big a fan of Arrival as many of my colleagues (including most of those at this site). I like don’t love it. So as a sci-fi lover, I would honestly be disappointed if it was the first of the genre to be recognized with the top Academy Award. Personally I’d rather see Jeff Nichols pull a Soderbergh and have both Loving and Midnight Special, my pick for best sci-fi film of the year, nominated for Best Picture.

Not to worry, the Academy will get there one day. Perhaps Villeneuve can even prove worthy next year with that sequel he’s working on, Blade Runner 2049. Or maybe Ridley Scott will be the person to achieve the milestone with his own sequel, Alien: Covenant. Actually, the first sci-fi movie to win Best Picture is likely something we’re not aware of yet, even if it’s something released in 2017. We’ll just have to wait and see what the future brings.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.