Some directors hotwire projects and drive them hell for leather in the opposite direction. Denis Villeneuve likes to stay in his lane. Since his commercial breakthrough Prisoners (2013), the Oscar-nominated director has made a name for himself as a dab hand at an edgier category of multiplex fare.
Certificate 12A 115m 48s
Director Dennis Villeneuve
Louise Banks Amy Adams
Ian Donnelly Jeremy Renner
Colonel Weber Forest Whitaker
Agent Halpern Michael Stuhlbarg
Captain Marks Mark O’Brien
General Shang Tzi Ma
For example, whatever one thought of the cynical posture and/or politics of his Tex-Mex cartel thriller Sicario (2015) – a movie hailed in America by National Review for its conservative bona fides – it was clearly the work of a filmmaker with an eye for visceral details. Even while cribbing a bit from the Kathryn Bigelow playbook, Villeneuve conjured up ample atmospherics to surround his smart storytelling.
Sicario’s shapely pacing and embedded sense of dread clearly impressed the right people, because Villeneuve’s next gig is overseeing the much anticipated and potentially very valuable Blade Runner sequel, supposedly due in cinemas before the original film’s 2019 dateline. Not since Prometheus (2012) has the global fan community – non-Star Wars division – salivated so slavishly over an act of brand extension.
As such, there are two ways of looking at Villeneuve’s interstitial project Arrival. On the one hand, this costly, glossy incursion into sci-fi terrain gives him a preliminary try-out for the role of the new Ridley Scott – that is, a gifted visual stylist who never met a script he didn’t like. On the other hand, it’s a film that tries, early and often, to glom on to the visionary lineage of Kubrick, Tarkovsky and Spielberg, a wannabe contender for the modern genre pantheon.
Villeneuve passes the first test with flying colours. Arrival has the look and feel of a big-ticket production, albeit torqued towards millennial melancholy, complete with a muted, blue-grey colour palette by cinematographer Bradford Young. The early scenes have the stark, anxious clarity of a fable by Ray Bradbury; after learning of an apparent alien invasion from the Twitter-connected students in her advanced linguistics class – a wonderfully plausible bit of staging in which the surest sign that something big is happening is the dead silence of a dozen heads bent over their smartphones – grammar warrior Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is conscripted by the military to lead a delegation to one of the extraterrestrials’ spherical ships (a dozen of them are hovering menacingly in locations around the world). It’s a sudden call to action that also turns her into an audience surrogate for some close encounters of the third kind.
This set-up closely resembles Sicario in that it takes a brilliant female protagonist and puts her in a situation that powerfully undermines her painstakingly acquired expertise. Lumbering around in a hazmat suit, Louise is miles outside her academic comfort zone, and can’t use her vocabulary to keep feelings of fear and inadequacy at bay. But where Sicario played out as a crypto-sexist study in distaff passivity, Arrival mostly lets its heroine hold her own, and in doing so gives Adams an actual character to play: few actresses are as adept at conveying a native intelligence without lapsing into brainiac caricature.
As the staff mathematician, Jeremy Renner projects his usual mild annoyance, as if he can only barely be bothered to gawp at green-screen special effects (surely he’s had his fill of aliens after The Avengers), but it’s not detrimental to the overall entertainment value. (Renner really does act like the second, glowering coming of Harrison Ford sometimes; maybe he should be exiled to Amish country next, for a remake of Witness.)
Louise’s methodical MO and ability to process and codify the non-verbal, inky-hieroglyphic communiqués of the aliens – whose size, shape and slyly creature-designed strangeness are not worth spoiling here – makes her an impressively active heroine. Her clashes with superiors, played by Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg, flirt with cliché – arguments about protocol, and the requisite bit where she’s kicked off the beat as if she were Dirty Harry – but there’s enough juice in the scenario to hold our interest. Imagine if in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Patricia Neal, instead of just parroting ‘Klaatu barada nicto’ whenever she was in a tight spot, had had to figure out what it meant, literally, syllable for syllable: that just about evokes the dislocating intrigue of a movie where the technologically advanced visitors aren’t all that concerned about making themselves clear to their new hosts.
The inherent intellectual excitement of advanced cryptography keeps Arrival feeling awake and alert for most of its running time, and there’s a nice tingle to the filmmaking whenever the earthlings are airlifted to their arranged meeting place (once again, Villeneuve is great at dread filtered through awe). But the script, which is based faithfully on a piece of short fiction by Ted Chiang, eventually downshifts from its fleet procedural mode into a quasi-mystical register that’s bathed in rich, heavy emotions but also somehow less imaginative than originally promised, especially when it’s revealed that the resolution to the problem is based less on individual agency than on the hidden inner workings of a universe beyond our comprehension. Pauline Kael’s complaint that 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was a cosmic cop-out – “drop up” – also applies here, though this story is angled less towards genuine enigma than a too-tidy variety of deus ex machina.
Of course, regardless of his metaphysics, Kubrick was also (re)inventing the basic grammar and syntax of the science fiction movie, and in ways that are unlikely to be persuasively rewritten any time soon (like great silent cinema, large stretches of 2001 could be played without words; and when they do enter the equation, they’re deceptive and lethal). Nearly 50 years on, Arrival pretty much can’t help being derivative, and Villeneuve doesn’t necessarily try to hide his influences either. A screen-filling close-up of a human hand pressed against a giant partition, beneath pounding musical accompaniment, is a clear shout-out to Stan the Man, but without the deft touch that Villeneuve’s fellow Canuck Matt Johnson showed recently in Operation Avalanche, which improbably managed to cut the monolith slightly down to size.
There are other lofty nods and homages on offer – including some very Malickian music cues in a section whose cutting is indebted to The Tree of Life (2011) – but Arrival is ultimately closest to Scott’s The Martian (2015), with which it shares a very contemporary post-globalisation subtext. In both films, the plot hinges on the willingness of China’s government (there the space programme, here the military) to work hand in hand with other national powers towards mutually beneficial outcomes. (The fantasy of The Martian is a future in which the Chinese go out of their way to help retrieve a wayward Yankee movie star.) It’s interesting to note that the French-Canadian Villeneuve disguises and distils an agenda of American exceptionalism more smoothly than the septuagenarian Sir Ridley before him. But only to a point: watching a movie work an urgent, we-are-the-world groove without ever shifting its perspective (or aesthetic sensibility) away from the West offers a caustic sort of amusement.
The odds that Villeneuve will ever again make a movie in Canada seem long: the civically specific commentary of Polytechnique (2009), which evoked the 1989 Montreal massacre, or Enemy (2013) – the sharpest Toronto-plays-itself film of its era – are things of the past for a director whose artistic compass has become powerfully magnetised due south. It has pointed him straight towards Hollywood, and he should get cosy, because if Arrival is any indication, it’s likely he’s going to be right at home there for a long time.