Review: Arrival

Denis Villeneuve delivers a sci-fi masterpiece

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In the past two decades, only two directors –Alfonso Cuarón, who won for Gravity in 2013, and Avatar’s James Cameron in 2009 – have been nominated for the Best Director Oscar for sci-fi films. That both have come in the last seven years may, optimistically, point to a slight thawing in the Academy’s stance to the genre, but it’s small comfort to anyone who cares about such things.

Perhaps, with his latest effort Arrival, Denis Villeneuve will do what Christopher Nolan was unable to, what Ridley Scott was unable to, what the Wachowskis and Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones and Spike Jonze and Alex Garland were unable to. Perhaps he’ll join that illustrious and exclusive club.

More likely, Arrival’s Oscar chances will come in the expanded Best Picture category that has found room for The Martian, Her, Gravity, Inception, District 9 and Avatar since a rule change moved us beyond the five film cap to a glorious, nebulous world of between five and 10 nominees. Still, it speaks volumes about the Academy’s attitude that you have to go back to 1995’s Apollo 13 to find a science fiction film that made the cut under the old rules.

a cruelly-timed post-Trump cosmic joke, and a needed reminder of our species’ better angels

This is all rampant speculation at this point, of course, and speaks not at all to just how good Arrival is. And boy is it. It’s a stunningly well made, emotional, intelligent, challenging film. It’s also ultimately optimistic about humanity’s future, which is both a cruelly-timed post-Trump cosmic joke, and a needed reminder of our species’ better angels; of our potential for collaboration and understanding to work for the greatest good.

It’s also another remarkable chapter in the career of Villeneuve, and an exciting glimpse at what we might expect from Blade Runner 2049. What seemed like a dubious proposition is now genuinely exciting, even if it deprives us of another Villeneuve original for the time being.

Since 2009, when Incendies was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Villeneuve has established himself as one of the most electrifying directors around; capable of taking what would be ‘genre’ fare in most hands and elevating it beyond all reckoning. From Prisoners through Sicario and Arrival, it’s a rare and deceptively difficult skill, and positions him as something perhaps akin to a more emotional David Fincher.

Villeneuve has a knack for the haunting; scenes and sequences that stick with you years later, after only a single viewing. Think about how many car chases barely register a flicker, of the shootouts that induce a yawn, not a gasp, of the showdowns that prove less nerve-jangling denouement than flat third act let-downs. Contrast these underwhelming and extensive memories with the stressful final moments of Prisoners; Enemy’s spiders; the Bridge of the Americas shootout in Sicario. Villeneuve displays, again and again, an ability to summon tension and mystery in ways most simply can’t.

It makes the audience think ‘I could have done that’. They can’t. Few can.

Arrival manages this in spades, while, as all the best sci-fi does, giving the audience just enough to understand, and not an ounce more. It’s a tightrope; shift a little the wrong way and the whole thing plunges into confusion. Done right and it can be magical, as if the film couldn’t possibly have been other. It’s the Roger Federer feat of making supreme effort appear effortless. It makes the audience think ‘I could have done that’. They can’t. Few can.

Screenwriter Eric Heisserer has talked about his process of whittling down the story over dozens of drafts over many years, and of Villeneuve’s similarly ruthless dedication. It takes confidence and mastery to cut, to resist the urge towards exposition and hand-holding. Perhaps the pace at which Villeneuve works, with four films released in as many years and another already planned for 2018, the year after Blade Runner, prevents endless tinkering. Perhaps it’s more to do with where Villeneuve, 49, is in his career – though he may only have come to wider attention when he made the switch to English-language productions, Incendies was, in fact, his fourth Canadian feature. This is no prodigious 20-something, but a director in the prime of his career, building on years of work and getting the widespread appreciation he deserves.

Arrival’s relative success so far ($43.7 million over two weekends, on a $47 million budget) is the latest in a string of adult-skewing hits that includes Sully and The Girl on the Train. Though it feels like the internet breathes this sigh of relief every year, their collective performance can only be a good sign, and fears that TV might replace cinema-going for certain segments of the audience seem to be mercifully unfounded.

There’s much to be said, too, about Amy Adams, with five Oscar nominations since 2005 and an equally awards-worthy turn in Nocturnal Animals, but the Leonardo DiCaprio-esque sense that her moment is due should in no way take away from the quality of her performance here. The film rests on her shoulders, and she pulls it off with quietly expressive aplomb.

The year is not over yet, but it would take a monumental effort to shift Arrival from atop many best-of lists. Villeneuve and Heisserer have delivered a fascinating and unique take on the first contact story, a thrillingly action-less masterpiece, sci-fi or not.

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