Directed by Denis Villenueve
Opens November 11
The big American studio pictures of Denis Villenueve have, so far, ridden the line between mass-market pulp and adult-movie seriousness. Prisoners and Sicario are both essentially procedurals with extra attention paid to lead characters’ roiling emotions—the grief and rage of a father (Hugh Jackman in the former) whose kid has disappeared, and the frustration of a law-enforcement officer (Emily Blunt in the latter) whose role in the drug war seems increasingly out of her control. The technique isn’t always successful; both movies, good as they are, threaten to become handsomely mounted airport novels, sort of a slightly poorer and less bone-chilling David Fincher—especially the well-acted and beautifully shot crime wallow Prisoners. Is Villenueve making serious movies, or trying to make movies serious?
Villenueve’s new film Arrival plays a similar game. Its set-up is pure genre trap, beginning as it does with an alien visitation (“invasion” seems like too strong a word), filtered through the experiences of linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), and there are moments where it’s uncertain whether the movie is depicting big emotions, or schematically constructing them. But this time, the uncertainty makes a kind of science-fictional sense, and Arrival is emotionally satisfying—even, at times, devastating—in a way Villenueve’s previous American films haven’t been. All told, it’s pretty terrific.
Having established its pulpy premise (alien ships hover not far off the ground or water in countries all over the world; the United States gets one in Montana rather than the usual landmark-scapes), the movie spends time in the spaces that other sci-fi movies try their best to elide. Rather than having a nerdy linguist burst through the door with a breakthrough to help the heroes, much of the movie follows Banks as she tries to make that breakthrough and crack the aliens’ language. They’re not outwardly hostile, but are they just making sure Earth’s defenses are down before launching an attack? Or do they have something else to offer?
Banks is joined by vaguely credentialed scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and her semi-patient recruiter, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), among others, but this is very much a showcase for Adams, whose face Villenueve often stays on, and whose character’s subconscious he peeks into, filling in bits of Louise’s story during downtime. Like Prisoners and Sicario, the movie treats its procedural elements as real work. Villenueve loves shots, sometimes following and sometimes not, of his troubled heroes pushing through a crowd of professionals—a crime scene, or, in this case, a scientific/military base.
We do see aliens, too, in eerie scenes of contact that make evocative use of diminished gravity, pulling the visiting scientists up toward the unknown. The beings aren’t kept under wraps, but before they turn up, the movie toys with typical sci-fi imagery; early on, an eerie flash of white light comes from humans piloting a helicopter, not the aliens. The movie is shot with the damp, late-autumn poetry of cinematographer Bradford Young, subbing for Villenueve’s Prisoners/Sicario collaborator Roger Deakins, and the Montana setting feels tactile even (or especially) in its spareness.
That spareness reflects the narrative, too. Compared to most movies about alien contact, not a lot happens in Arrival, and some of what does happen feels a little abrupt. But Villenueve uses its unfolding to burrow into its sci-fi implications, and the movie gathers power and tension as it goes. Its short story roots (it’s based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang) allow Adams plenty of breathing room, and there are worlds of both melancholy and fortitude to her performance—and some wonder, too. Without saying much more about the movie, this isn’t Close Encounters wonder about the vastness and complexity of the universe; it’s something trickier and more bittersweet about how we make our life decisions. Prisoners and Sicario layer plenty of emotional anguish into their pulpy processes. But it’s Villenueve’s alien picture that feels the most human of the three.