Denis Villeneuve is fast becoming one of my favourite directors. After a stunning double whammy of first-rate thrillers (Prisoners and Sicario) he has made the move into science fiction with the equally stunning Arrival, an intelligent and visually inventive alien contact movie.
When a dozen tall black alien spacecraft appear at key points across the Earth, Berkeley linguistics expert Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are called in by the US government to help make contact with the aliens. Will they discover why they are here? Or will miscommunication eventually result in frightened humans turning on their visitors (or possibly invaders)?
The Day the Earth Stood Still and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are clear influences on Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (adapting Ted Chiang’s original story), but Robert Zemeckis’s underrated Contact is also a touchstone, especially in a key subplot regarding Louise’s daughter. That said Villeneuve not only manages to craft a film that feels visually fresh, he has also chosen a story that cleverly ducks the usual genre clichés. For example, what other nations are doing in their efforts to communicate with the aliens is not merely lip service acknowledgement of a world outside the US, but in fact pivotal to the narrative. The resolution is also very clever in an M Night Shyamalan kind of way.
Performances are strong, special effects suitably special and Johann Johannsson’s spare score is innovative and eerie. Although messages about the importance of communication and the need for the human race to work together are hardly new to the genre, they are given a new and thankfully not too preachy spin here. Better still is the profoundly emotional undercurrent, addressing the mystery of parental bonds and grief, amongst other things, but in a way that is not depressing but positive and cathartic.
In final analysis, Arrival is a slow burning but gripping piece with plenty to arrest the eye, ear and brain. With Villeneuve at the helm of the long awaited Blade Runner sequel next year, perhaps he can pull off a stunning one-two punch in sci-fi as well as thrillers.