If you told me that Denis Villeneuve could walk on water, I’d believe you. Since moving into the English language after his 2011 Oscar nomination, Villeneuve has barely put a foot wrong. He reintroduced himself with the dark abduction thriller Prisoners, and then moved on to an absurd adaptation of The Double. Two years later, he set the world on edge with a slice of poignant political commentary, last year’s sumptuous Sicario. Villeneuve has gone from strength to stronger with each bold step, and that path continues in a genre he’s wanted to tackle since he began filmmaking.
“It’s been 30 years that I wanted to shoot science fiction, but I never found the right thing,” Villeneuve recently told Deadline. That was until he fell head over heels for Story of Your Life, a short story about humanity’s first alien contact. Renamed Arrival for the screen, the new title refers to the mysterious appearance of a twelve extra-terrestrial vessels, dotted around the world in seemingly random locations. After the immediate panic, the US turn to two tentative scientists, who are tasked with making meaningful communication. While the rest of the world gears up for Mars Attacks, the US sends in Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams).
Adams’ language expert and Jeremy Renner’s mathematician are not action-science types; leaving Goldblum-esque eccentricities back at home. They are careful and precise, reflecting Arrival’s script. Never showy, Arrival has plenty of spectacle but it never comes at the expense of plot. It is a quiet spectacle, putting the audience silently in awe, both first-hand and vicariously through Renner’s wide-eyed professor.
Arrival adopts a considered pace, consciously putting itself at odds with mainstream sci-fi and consciously in line with more cerebral pictures like Ex Machina. It is a slow burn in revealing tensions or developments – think Terence Malick, but less wafty. Precious little happens on screen but, in Villeneuve’s style, much happens in the viewers’ imagination, immersing us from the inside out.
This immersion takes on the power of hypnotism in the latter stages. The story drifts from one progressing with growing intrigue into one that develops a captivating tension. Louise becomes the isolated protagonist, pushed for time and submerged by her situation. Adams impresses with her air of breathless desperation, as she tries to rectify a situation teetering on the edge of disaster. Her humanity and mental strain is affecting and gives real power to the dramatic climb.
The progression does hiccup, but there is never the inclination to dwell on such momentary lapses. The picture is styled and paced so perfectly, that narrative niggles and dips in dialogue are naturally overlooked. These fractures are so hairline that only analysis can draw them out.
It is a tale of co-operation, which takes wistful liberties with notions of time and the human journey. It is outwardly optimistic, revealing truths we all know to be present, and embracing them with warmth. Villeneuve comforts us, and departs from the darker themes of his latest pictures.
Arrival is a marvel; a spectacle never reliant on spectacle, daring to push further with smartly constructed narrative drive. Subtle in their execution, the most fictional of elements are the most devastating. Arrival rocked me to my core, I don’t think I blinked in the last fifteen minutes but to clear the tears from my eyes. Arrival‘s ambition, passion and talent has helped draw together a once-in-a-decade picture, blowing everything around it out of the sky. A true masterpiece, and one I will be revising many times upon general release.
Arrival hits UK cinemas 11 November.
Images courtesy of the Independent and Telegraph respectively.