Denis Villeneuve continues his transition from Canadian indies to sprawling Hollywood fables that retain his masterful style and personal touch. After last year’s searing drug war thriller ‘Sicario’, the director has gone all sci-fi with a movie that starts like ‘Independence Day’ and ends like ‘2001’.
In between, Villeneuve manages to weave a credible human tale that both of those extremes of the sci-fi movie spectrum lacked. It should help push the talented and lyrical filmmaker forward even further. Given that he’s currently off shooting a ‘Blade Runner’ sequel right now, it certainly bodes well that he has managed to smuggle some of his own obsessions into this thoughtful science fiction odyssey already.
Stop me when this sounds familiar: The movie opens with mysterious ships from outer space appearing unannounced at various locations across the globe. Their intent is unknown, but humanity obviously fears the worst. The U.S. Army decides to bring in some scientists to help figure the whole mess out – specifically, a linguistics expert played by Amy Adams and a theoretical physicist played by Jeremy Renner. Together, they board the odd, mysterious and ever-so-creepy ship to make contact with the aliens. Gradually, Adams’s character begins to understand their language and teach them English. All the while, she’s plagued by vivid dreams and flashbacks to a recent trauma, which seems inexplicably connected to the otherworldly visitors.
‘Arrival’ is absolutely gorgeous to behold. Villeneuve mixes his usual poetic visuals with some uniquely dark and stunning sci-fi designs. The tension is palpable and effective, complete with news tickers and constant concerns of interplanetary war. However, the movie isn’t merely a flying saucer show. Deeper concerns about linguistics, communication, connection, and also far more painful and human themes slowly reveal themselves as the film goes on. Performances are strong, especially from the pained and wise Adams, who carries the bulk of the drama with ease. The story builds toward a damn effective twist that Villeneuve subtly plants all along and is an impressive feat of storytelling laced with deeper meaning.
The way ‘Arrival’ seesaws between Roland Emmerich material and more high-minded art house pursuits can feel a bit awkward, and some hokey and mawkish material gets employed for the sake of brevity and easy emotional manipulation. Nonetheless, when you stand back from the film long enough to admire all the things that Villeneuve accomplishes in both high and low forms, it’s difficult not to be impressed. He’s created a deeply moving and meaningful work of art that doubles and expensive mainstream sci-fi entertainment. That’s not easy. Fans of the genre will likely ponder all that ‘Arrival’ offers for quite some time (or, at least, until ‘Blade Runner 2’ is released).