Denis Villeneuve returns after the genius Sicario for another highwire balance act of theme, genre, and entertainment with science fiction wonder Arrival. As much as Villeneuve is proving to be a master of assembling precise craftspeople to create a harmonious experience with his films, Arrival also proves him to be one of the deepest empathy. If Sicario and Prisoners gave his worlds actual brutality, this time there is an agony of the soul to which he finds our greater natures – this is ultimately his most optimistic film, but the emotional triumph is also the most hard won. In a bravura feat of cinema, science, and language, Arrival will deceive you with its modesty and surprise you in its ideas.
From the film’s mysterious outset, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in as a language expert to facilitate contact with one of twelve alien vessels that have dropped across the globe. The intent of the visitation is unclear, the alien heptapods frightening but not obviously dangerous. As Banks develops vocabulary and communication with the visitors, the limits of language on her own planet escalates the sense of paranoia. Without spoiling too much, the film becomes about the very nature of language to alter our perceptions, our ability to think and feel.
That Villeneuve can wrangle intense, edge-of-your-seat drama with linguistic theory and huge swaths of anxious silence reaffirms his mastery of the craft. The film packages intellectual concepts into quite a digestible entertainment but without sacrificing the more complex ideas or thrills for the sake of another. Balance is certainly the most defining characteristic of Villeneuve’s work, but here he also knows how to withhold from the audience when they can and should process information. The final stretch of the film is crescendo of daring narrative construction, philosophical nuance, and brain-twisting the likes of which you won’t see in any other film this year.
But Arrival is far from just a heady experience. The head and the heart are in equal measure here, just as they are as integral to how we communicate with one another. In one of her most interior performances, Amy Adam is spectacular in projecting even the smallest shift in Louise’s thinking. For a film about verbalizing, Louise is frequently without words – but the expressiveness of the actress speaks volumes. With support from Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg, the film’s emotional seamlessness is greatly indebted to Adams’s undercurrent of sadness – the performance is one of her most fascinating.
Bradford Young replaces Roger Deakins as Villeneuve’s cinematographer, and the film proves Young as the successor to Deakins in more ways than one. The film is shot with elliptical disorientation like that of the narrative, with a cold burn with sadness and an unstifled sense of terrified awe. Young has the same exacting inquisitiveness as Villeneuve, so it’s a solid match. Returning to Villeneuve is editor Joe Walker and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, delivering equally risky and inventive work for the director.
Arrival could be called a knockout if it were so aimed at bowling you over by force. Instead, the film is gentle and deep, a holistic experience instead of a thundering one. It’s a unique science fiction experience with unexpected breadth for both the personal and the global, the symbiosis of the heart and the brain.
What can’t Denis Villeneuve do?