I did not expect a new Denis Villeneuve movie to make me cry. The man behind Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), and Sicario (2015) is not known for his delicate touch, but his new sci-fi drama Arrival makes a staggering case for looking at Villeneuve with fresh eyes.
The logy, intellectually bankrupt posturing of Prisoners and Sicario has been jettisoned, leaving only the good bits: razor-sharp cinematography, perfectly-pitched scores, and strong performances. Here, those are courtesy of Bradford Young (Selma), Jóhann Jóhannsson (also Sicario, Prisoners), and Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. Since his US debut with Prisoners, Villenueve has yet to direct one of his own scripts—his past films struggled to transcend dull writing despite their lavish aesthetics. Sicario, specifically, sees belabored visuals trapped in a death spiral with a truly stupid script.
Reading the credits for Arrival, you may think you’re in for a similarly hollow movie. Writer Eric Heisserer has a depressing history—The Thing (2011) remake, Final Destination 5 (2011)—but his work here is solid. And Villenueve’s treatment of the script, based on a short story by Ted Chiang, is smartly visual. The film finds vivid, disorienting ways to tell a story built on recursion and unstable chronology without bending over backwards to Blow Your Mind.
Arrival is essentially a first-contact-with-aliens (they are pointedly not invading) movie funneled through the perspective of Amy Adams’s linguist. We’re with her through the entire thing, from the turmoil of the first days to the aftermath, and we’re also privy to her backstory, involving a daughter with cancer and a ruined marriage.
It’s easy to imagine extraterrestrial contact going down this way; you sit around at home waiting to be blown to bits or vaporized, watching snippets of news in between naps, caught in a species-wide limbo.
Adams’s character is drafted to translate the aliens’ language, a splattering of sounds from guttural moans to dolphin-like clicking. It quickly becomes apparent that the creatures—which, do not worry, friends, are eventually revealed in their full Zdzisław Beksiński glory—communicate in unimaginable ways. Their language collapses time and space into a sort of palindromic, simultaneous rush, because that’s how they experience time, and as she learns their language, Adams begins to … well, you should probably just watch Arrival when it comes out.
It’s the rare movie that feels like it could win Best Picture not because it’s an easily digestible pile of mush but because it’s the ideal winner of the golden nude man: impeccably made, gives you the feels, and all-around good.
Arrival was screened at Fantastic Fest 2016. It’s to be released on November 11.