Since his 2013 English-language debut, 2013’s Prisoners, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has firmly established himself in the inner circle of Hollywood’s most exciting and critically acclaimed directors. His films have a luscious, yet stark, visual style, and his mastery of tension and suspense is close to unparalleled in modern filmmaking.
I thought that 2015’s Sicario, starring Emily Blunt, was one of the most thrilling films in recent memory, and I was very excited when it was announced that his next film would be a science fiction film starring Amy Adams, who is one of my favorite actresses.
Arrival, based on a 1998 short story by Ted Chiang, tells the story of Louise Banks (Adams), a linguistics professor who is called upon by the US military to help establish first contact with an alien race that arrives on Earth with unclear intentions. Immediately, the plot recalls Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), while the obelisk-like shape of the alien’s spacecraft recalls the granddaddy of all modern science fiction, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). If you’re going to reference films like these, you’d better be able to live up to the expectations you’re setting for yourself.
Thankfully, Villeneuve proves himself to be (mostly) up to the challenge. Arrival proves to be a thoughtful and ponderous film, beautiful even by Villeneuve’s standards, with a fantastic lead performance by Amy Adams. Villeneuve’s decision to mostly show the aliens, called “heptapods”, behind smoky clouds of gas, behind a glass wall, often obscured, is a strong directorial choice, and much of the mystery and wonder in the early going of the film is well maintained.
Ultimately, I found that Arrival fell short of my expectations in much the same way that I found that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) fell short – the melodramatic stories that the main characters of both films endure seem to wrap up in ways that feel inorganic and unnecessary; without revealing any spoilers here, I found the endings to both films somewhat unsatisfying; of course, it’s rare to find a science fiction film that truly sticks the landing (if you’ll pardon the pun), so it’s hard to ding either movie too much.
One thing that I love is that between Arrival and Sicario, Villeneuve has established himself as a director who makes some really great, progressive decisions, giving actresses like Emily Blunt and Amy Adams the types of independent lead performances that we don’t typically see. These types of decisions never feel forced, but allow us to see shades of characters that we don’t always see depicted on screen, and I’m thankful that great actresses like these are finally getting the opportunities they deserve.
Denis Villeneuve already has a slate of films lined up for his next few years, and I’m very pleased to see that he’s not straying away from genre filmmaking, and particularly science fiction. His next film, Blade Runner 2049, is the sequel to the 1982 cult classic sci-fi film, Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, and promises to be one of the most exciting films of 2017, and earlier this week it was announced that he will direct a new adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel Dune in the future. If films like Sicario and Arrival are any indication, we’re in for an exciting few years of Villeneuve films.