Director Denis Villeneuve is a master of visual manipulation. Last year’s ‘Sicario’ was one of the best films of 2015 and a culmination of everything Villeneuve does best. So like any master director, the mere mention of his name attached to a project breeds hype, and so ‘Arrival’, his latest, already comes with lofty expectations. And while it may not quite match ‘Sicario’s impeccable craftsmanship, ‘Arrival’ still has the director’s masterful stamp all throughout it.
The plot follows Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, a linguistics professor who, when alien vessels arrive mysteriously overnight, is tasked with translating the newcomers’ strange language. ‘Arrival’ is a small-scale personal drama inside a large-scale movie and yet it manages at the same time to act as a profound commentary on humanity, language and war. As with any other Villeneuve film, the drama is paced superbly. No scene is wasted to build character or develop the story and its complexly layered themes. The sci-fi elements are intelligently laced throughout to naturally build up to the absolutely astounding, mind-boggling climax. Without giving away spoilers, the third act brings everything together in an inspired way that feels truly novel and that manipulates the very medium of film in a way that transforms ‘Arrival’ into prime psychological sci-fi. It is this that makes the film stand out. It contains some of the most original ideas in cinema this year and all of them fit naturally with the story in a distinctly Villeneuve way.
Yet it is Amy Adams that deserves the greatest praise. This film would not work without her powerful performance, with which she demonstrates just how great an actress she can be given a clever script and a visionary director. This might be an alien movie but its story is not about them; it’s about Louise. She is in nearly every scene and manages to hold her own in all of them. Adams’ performance allows us to see the world of these aliens through Louise’s mind from the moment she meets them. We sympathise with her from the opening scene and it’s crucial that we do if the ending of the film is to work. And it does, so much so that I was thinking about ‘Arrival’, untangling its meaning, long after the credits rolled.
Jeremy Renner’s character, physicist Ian Donnelly, plays an important role too even if its not immediately apparent. He is most certainly a side character though, serving only to bring out Adams’ performance. As a result, Renner does suffer a bit and the actor known mostly for action roles cannot equal up to the master class in acting that Amy Adams gives in this film. It may be ‘Arrival’s most glaring fault and what makes it fall just short of ‘Sicario’, a film which is perfectly controlled in every way. It would be fine if it was just Renner but other actors fail also to match up to Adams’ lead, even Forest Whitaker.
If the supporting characters don’t always get their moment then the camera itself certainly does. The filmmaking is, as always for Villeneuve, flawless. While ‘Sicario’ had the benefit of having the eye of living legend, Roger Deakins, to steer its camera, ‘Arrival’ proves that ‘Selma’ cinematographer Bradford Young is a budding genius as well, with Villeneuve’s guidance. Some of ‘Arrival’s shots are just beautiful, playing with width, length and depth in a manner that really fits the film’s themes. Likewise Jóhann Jóhannson, a regular collaborator of Villeneuve’s, composes a score for ‘Arrival’ that is distinct and mind-bending, far and away the best of 2016 so far. Sometimes the score alone would be enough to make me feel the creepy otherness, the mysteriousness, which underscores the film.
Denis Villeneuve has made it clear that he is one of the most consistently brilliant directors currently working. ‘Arrival’ is further proof of his skill at guiding the art of cinema. It is possibly his most ambitious film, with themes more complex than I’ve seen in any sci-fi for a long time, and all of it relies on an excellent performance by Amy Adams to carry it through. While not quite as polished as ‘Sicario’, ‘Arrival’ is still a worthy addition to Villeneuve’s filmography and one that demands watching again. I eagerly await what this master brings us next.