When UFOs show up unannounced and hover over various locations throughout the world, it’s not normally a good sign. We’re conditioned through sci-fi blockbuster conventions to expect a lot of things to start blowing up. However, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a very different beast in quite a welcome way. The Montreal filmmaker has been slowly weaving his way through various genres to claim them as his own, delivering art house thrillers like Incendies and Polytechnique before slipping into Hollywood with the kidnapping potboiler Prisoners and last years brilliant drug war action flick Sicario. When he makes small personal movies, they tend to come with unexpected spectacle. When he goes Hollywood, a soulful intelligence follows. Arrival certainly falls into the latter category and despite its many wondrous images the film is ultimately designed to mess with your head and heart in a rather wonderful way.
The hero in this tale isn’t a president or soldier or even Charlie Sheen (despite what the title suggests), it’s Amy Adams as a linguistic expert and university professor. When the spacecraft show up unannounced, she’s contacted by Forrest Whitaker’s Colonel for help. They need someone to attempt to communicate with the aliens now that first contact has been made and Adams, along with theoretical physicist Jeremy Renner, has been called upon to find a way to speak to the creatures. They are soon whisked onto the immensely creepy ship, where gravity takes a holiday and the almost Lovecraftian aliens speak through what can only be described as floating ink drawings. Eventually, Adams and Renner find a way to break down and recreate the messages being sent to them. Unfortunately, they’re on a tight clock. Not every country is convinced that these aliens are friendly and some nations out there want to take a far more militant approach than a talky one.
It’s a strange set up, yet one that it undeniably intriguing. Villeneuve crafts a gripping sci-fi yarn, and one that doesn’t need violence and boom-boom to pull audiences into the drama. Instead, a mixture of mystery and dread propels Arrival, both in the question of what the aliens are trying to say and how humanity will react. As pure genre, it works. It falls more into the mindf*ck sci-fi category than anything else and will certainly cause plenty of jaws to slack amongst viewers who sign up for the film’s unique ride. There’s a deeper concept about how language defines our interpretation of reality that Villeneuve also explores that’s quite rich and even better, the filmmaker plays a unique game with movie language to express it. There’s a trick being played on viewers throughout the film that’s hard to pick up on at first and when it lands the results aren’t just clever, but emotionally devastating in a beautiful way.
Villeneuve’s natural gift for cinematic spectacle is certainly on full display as well. Though he has a modest budget at his disposal by blockbuster standards, the design work is astounding. The giant tubular spacecraft are forebodingly beautiful and forgo cliché designs. The alien creatures are nightmarishly tentacled, yet mysteriously friendly in ways tricky to pin down. Every shot is beautifully composed and links into others magically. Arrival is gorgeous to behold in ways that will pull viewers deeply into its mysteries, yet the story remains profoundly human and carried off wonderfully by an excellent cast. In particular, Amy Adams is a rock at the centre and carries the emotional weight of the film with an elegant ease that proves why she has grown into one of the finest actresses of her generation.
Arrival is the type of thoughtful and large Hollywood spectacle that isn’t supposed to be possible anymore. Yet somehow, Denis Villeneuve has managed to pull it off twice in as many years. Like Sicario, it’s easy to take Arrival purely on face value for its genre joys, but those who wish to examine beneath the surface will be rewarded with a surprising amount of thoughtful explorations of themes woven into the crowd-pleasing patchwork design. It’s a sci-fi flick that should be immensely appreciated by fans of the genre for quite some time. Based purely on Arrival, it’s clear Villeneuve is the right man to take the Blade Runner reigns. Throw in everything else in his career and it’s a safe bet that Blade Runner will be a summer popcorn blockbuster worth more than empty titillation. Bring it on.