Denis Villeneuve continues his thrilling track record of one-word film masterpieces with a thinking person's alien ‘invasion’ scifi.
While it’s predictable to leap to superficial sci-fi comparisons, it’s fair to say Arrival is sure to attract the kind of audiences who enjoyed the cerebral smarts and soul-searching of Contact, Close Encounters and The Abyss, not to mention Christopher Nolan’s more recent Interstellar. Can Villeneuve match their ambition? Absolutely. Arrival emerges as one of the best science fiction films of the decade.
Yet for all its dazzling existential concepts and eerie alien aesthetic, this is a Denis Villeneuve film first and foremost and science fiction is the latest subject to undergo the director’s introspective and emotional deconstruction. The way the macrostory interweaves with the main character’s deeply personal life history will appeal to fans of the shattering Incendies, while almost hallucinatory moments of dreamlike memory will recall the eerie surealism of Enemy. It may not be a stretch to think of Villeneuve as the new Kubrick; each film he tackles is thematically different from the last, yet he manages to master whatever genre he approaches with effortless style that not even his cinematic peer Christopher Nolan has managed. Where Interstellar stumbled ever-so-slightly in it's attempts to meld emotion with physics, Arrival communicates its message confidently and effectively. And at it’s heart, Arrival is essentially all about communication; demonstrating that in the end, the way we communicate with each other as human beings is at least as important as how we would communicate with aliens.
Amy Adams, currently enjoying a golden age in her career, gives one of her best performances yet as linguist Louise; a person who’s life is tainted with tragedy yet has a gentile yet commanding presence; and who’s candid perspective cuts a swathe through the more militaristic or mathematical minds around her. She is the perfect person for the job, and Adams plays her with restrain and composure. Jeremy Renner’s amiable Ian Donnelly is a good foil for her; gently coaxing her out of herself with mild humour, while Forest Whitaker once again assumes the role of soft-centred authoritarian; their military overseer who cautiously aids and abets their methods while keeping less patient parties at bay.
As for the aliens themselves, the creative team have come up with one of the most believable depictions of extrasolar beings yet. To describe them would spoil some of the mystery; suffice to say they are sufficiently, and eerily, non-humanoid; enough to present unique communications challenges yet grounded enough to seem like they could exist biologically in this universe. Dwelling in huge monolithic discs with gravity defying technology, and communicating in arcane circular symbols, these beings entreat their human visitors inside their vessels for some intergalactic ‘abc’ providing the film’s most captivating moments. It’s hard to readily think of any better extraterrestrial examples in Hollywood fiction.
The ending might be divisive, and some might accuse it of falling into a similar trap as Contact or Interstellar in its emotional delivery and sentiment. Yet Villeneuve never allows it to tip fully over into saccharine or cliché and the twist in the story is dazzlingly simple and brilliant whether you see it coming or not (even though it makes some '5th dimensional' intellectual demands on audience suspension of disbelief).
The cinematography, it goes without saying, is breathtaking. Yet for Arrival Villeneuve has chosen to employ Bradford Young rather than his Prisoners/ Sicario collaborator Roger Deakins. Not that you’d readily notice Deakins' absence; Young dazzles with some spectacular and beautiful exterior wide shots especially those showcasing the monstrous alien ‘shells’. The visual effects too are understated yet stunningly realized; eschewing flamboyant showmanship in favour of something that feels both ethereal yet strangely tangible. Completing the set up is Johann Johannsson’s outlandish score that reprises some of Sicario’s grim percussion combined with a more gentle, otherworldly sound. It’s subtle and superb.
In summary, Villeneuve does it again with a destined-for-classic-status emotional odyssey that showcases the best of what science fiction has to offer: using breathtaking theoretical and imaginative concepts as a window through which to muse on the human condition. Arrival indicates that not only is the upcoming Blade Runner sequel in safe hands, it stands an actual chance of eclipsing it's predecessor.