Denis Villeneuve is a force to be reckoned with. In the last four years, he has churned out four quality feature films; each belonging to a different genre, each being a critical success, and each further solidifying his status as one of the most versatile & gifted filmmakers working in the film industry today. With every subsequent feature, he has built a strong legacy of his own while amassing an incredibly devoted fan following, and given the fact that his next project is the highly anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, due for release later in 2017, it is safe to say that Villeneuve is already at the peak of his filmmaking career, and all set to make the most of it.
Although Prisoners catapulted him into the Hollywood limelight, my first stint with his works was with his Academy Award-nominated Incendies which, in my opinion, is still his best film to date. I’ve followed his filmography from Polytechnique onwards and so far, none have been a disappointment. Enemy was a mixed bag with its intricate themes & complex structure at first but it only gets better on multiple viewings. Sicario was a tense, taut & competently crafted thriller that added another gem into his bag. But with Arrival, Denis Villeneuve may have finally announced himself as the next big thing, for his latest is also his best directorial effort since his 2010 haunting masterpiece.
A deeply meditative, philosophical & introspective science fiction that is much more interested in contemplating the human nature instead of concerning itself with the fantasy elements of its genre, Arrival is one of the most intelligent sci-fi films to surface in recent years, and arguably the most thematically dense in ages. Cleverly crafted, firmly grounded & deftly layered with intricate themes, the film may give the impression of a sci-fi blockbuster with an alien invasion concept but is actually a much better & far more intriguing cinema that has a lot to say about our own kind than the aliens present in it. And it does so by examining our behaviour in times of conflict while keeping its sci-fi ingredients to a bare minimum.
The story of Arrival follows Louise Banks, an expert linguist whose life changes when twelve extra-terrestrial spacecrafts mysteriously appear across the planet one day, causing widespread panic all over the globe. Recruited by the US military, Banks is brought to a military camp near one of the crafts where she is tasked with a mission that requires her to communicate with the extraterrestrials, decipher their language and determine if they come in peace or are a threat to humanity. Assisting her in her daunting operation is a theoretical physicist and although the two manage to get things moving to an extent, the patience amongst world leaders runs out sooner than expected, thus forcing Banks to take a drastic step that could decide humanity’s fate.
Helmed by Denis Villeneuve, Arrival finds the notable filmmaker in sublime form as he takes a minimalist approach with the story & setting, and turns what could have been a pretty straightforward narrative into a surreal, stimulative & sensory experience that constantly brims with an aura of mystery and brings our primordial instincts into play, especially our fear of the unknown. Villeneuve’s direction makes sure that there are no wasted shots or deviation from the main premise and keeps things taut & tense until the very end. Written by Eric Heisserer, the screenplay is dense with existential themes, throws subtle hints every now n then, and is wholly invested in our protagonist’s journey, but it comes at the expense of its supporting characters who are slightly neglected.
Production Design team makes sure that its grand set pieces are meticulously detailed in both form & function, and extensive care is taken to make those little details stand out. Be it the design of the aliens or their language vocabulary or the spacecraft itself, every element is properly weighed before they make its way into the final print. Camerawork is absolutely breathtaking, and encapsulates the entire picture with an ominous ambience while the overcast condition, cold colour palette & smart lighting further contributes to its mystifying vibe. Editing is steadily carried out, making sure that every sequence is relevant to the plot. And last but not the least is the brooding, enigmatic & stellar score from Jóhann Jóhannsson that’s fitting in every manner yet it is overshadowed by a melancholic track from Max Ritcher that bookends this tale on an ideal note.
Coming to the performances, Arrival features a brilliant cast in Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg & Tzi Ma, with Adams single-handedly stealing the show with an outstanding showcase that definitely ranks amongst her finest performances. Benefiting from her character’s fully fleshed arc in the script, Adams brings a wide range of emotions into play and expresses the requisite ones at any given time with such naturalness that Louise Banks may as well turn out to be her defining role in the years to come. Renner plays Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist who teams up with Banks to decipher the alien language and his rendition has a very down-to-earth quality about it while his chemistry with Adams only gets better with time. Whitaker is passable at best and same goes for the remaining cast, for all chip in with apt contributions.
On an overall scale, Arrival continues Denis Villeneuve’s seemingly unstoppable streak of quality filmmaking and is undeniably the most ambitious project he has worked on, so far. A bold undertaking for the nearly established auteur but then his willingness to experiment with different genres and readiness when it comes to risking failure in an effort to accomplish his own artistic ambitions is one reason why he is held in such high regard amongst his contemporaries. Presenting its notable filmmaker at the top of his game, Arrival is a masterwork of intricate plotting, nuanced storytelling, dense thematic depth, compelling narration & rich characterisation which is further uplifted by its first-rate production design, visually arresting camerawork, steady pace, smart editing, thrilling score & excellent lead performance from Amy Adams. Sophisticated in storytelling aspects and accomplished on all fronts, Arrival is a timely exploration of the human condition that simply asks for greater transparency in communication during times of bitter conflict. Strongly recommended.