Warning: SPOILERS for Arrival are in play. If you don't want to be spoiled, please bookmark this story, and come back later once you've seen the film.
When it comes to the subject of words, a screenplay is one of the best examples of just how important the right ones are. So it goes to say that an adapted screenplay would put even more importance on words, as the events and content of one product are being re-interpreted and translated into that of the modern motion picture. Everything lives or dies by what the screenwriter does on their page, and the results can be either disastrous or truly sublime. Eric Heisserrer's Arrival is not only one of the most shining examples of the latter, it's the best adapted screenplay of this year and fully deserves to win those honors on Sunday night.
Arrival, as well as its source material, Ted Chiang's Story Of Your Life, both portray the life of linguist Louise Banks as one that is at once impressively historic and upsettingly tragic. With her daughter's death bookending and intertwining with the plot involving first contact between the human race and Heptapods, a lesser writer could have made this story of discovery and loss into something that's truly tear-jerking, but also extremely manipulative. Instead, the film actually mixes the wonder and awe of speculative sci-fi with the grounded emotional weight of personal loss.
And yet, Arrival doesn't use Louise's daughter as just some cheap ploy for tears of maternal empathy, rather their relationship is an important key to handling the diplomatic situation with the Heptapods, as well as understanding their language. The twist that Louise has been seeing into her future the whole time, seeing the aftermath of the events that are unfolding, holds water as a message for folks to watch events as they unfold, with one eye on the future and the other in the present. Somehow, Heisserer's script integrates such a message into the film with seamless precision, and it doesn't hurt the actual action at hand.
While there is a very emotional core to Arrival, there is most definitely a well-defined plot in play on the surface of the film, too. With the nations of the world struggling to communicate with the Heptapod emissaries, as well as Louise battling with the U.S. military to work through diplomacy and language rather than superior firepower. It's because of these focal points that we see the magic of language come to life in such a way that it translates into some extremely powerful cinema. The images are as important as the words, and as the writer adapting Ted Chiang's words into images to be directed by Denis Villeneuve, Eric Heisserer not only crafts sparkling and profound dialogue, but he sets the scene for moving pictures that vividly accent the words he's put into the audience's ears
It's because of Heisserer's work on the screenplay to Arrival that what's not being said in the film is just as powerful as what's being conveyed through the actual action. Any screenplay can put words and notions in its protagonist's mouths, but it takes a truly good screenplay to set the tone of the scene, develop the background characters and obstacles that keep everything moving, and ultimately tie everything up together with a pretty bow. Arrival does all of that, and more, with a story that contains zero fat and meditative pacing.
To pass up Arrival for the best adapted screenplay Oscar is, quite frankly, a crime on par with the lack of an Oscar nomination for Amy Adams' Best Actress worthy performance. That's not even saying that the rest of this year's candidates are bad films, as the field couldn't be more diverse or exciting. But a perfectly constructed film that not only entertains the audience with fiction, while teaching a lesson that could definitely use some discussion in our modern world, is something that is rare, doubly so when you look at the current state of sci-fi. Yet much like the Heptapods, Eric Heisserer's words have reached from somewhere beyond and into the minds of everyone who's seen Arrival, hopefully changing them for the better.
Arrival is currently on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital HD; as well as some select theaters for this weekend. If you haven't experienced it for yourself, and are intrigued by what you've read here, you should definitely treat yourself to the best adapted screenplay, and quite possibly the best picture, of 2016's crop.
CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.
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