Sicario Director Returns With Arrival

November 21, 2016

Ever since the release of 2010’s Oscar-nominated Incendies, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has been one of the most consistent filmmakers working today. From the unrelenting iciness of his serial-killer drama Prisoners to the edge-of-your seat thrills of last year’s Sicario, Villeneuve has brought a distinct cruelness to his films that only underscores their bite. With his latest, Arrival, he’s taken an intriguing departure, the sci-fi picture his most optimistic film to date and quite possibly his best.

Following a brief prologue, the film opens with its namesake: the arrival of an alien race. However, they don’t seem to come for battle, appearing not in the thousands or even the hundreds but with 12 egg-like ships hovering above 12 seemingly random locations across the world. It’s then that we meet Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics expert hired by the U.S. military to decipher the whale-like rumblings produced by the aliens. Tasked with discovering the beings’ (they’re known as heptapods) reason for coming to Earth, Banks is forced into a race against time, with outside forces including pressure from superiors (Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg) and foreign tensions encroaching on her mission.

Arrival is an important film. Not only is thoughtful sci-fi becoming increasingly hard to find, but it’s even rarer to discover a film rooted in language and its deep connection to humanity itself. For a film of such epic scale, Arrival feels strikingly grounded, concerned far less with explosions and action than it is with its questions of humanity, from our love to our divisions (let’s just say it’s a perfect film for these last few weeks).

That’s in large part thanks to Adams’ tour-de-force performance, bringing immeasurable nuance to a fascinating role. It’s career-best work from the veteran actress that will likely bring her deserved attention come awards time. She’s given solid support from Whitaker who delivers his best performance in years as the military head of the operation as well as an oddly reserved Jeremy Renner as the physicist assigned to aid Banks.

Arrival isn’t just beautiful inside though, the film ranking as one of the year’s most technically beautiful. Selma cinematographer Bradford Young forbidding lensing provides the picture with a sleek yet stark sheen while Sicario composer Johann Johannsson announces himself as one of the great working composers, his score not only unbelievably moving but also terrifying when necessary.

The true star of the film, however, is Villeneuve, ratcheting up the tension of the mystery expertly, never resorting to bombastics and savoring the script’s most human elements. It’s in the third act that he truly hits his stride though, the film’s final stretch reaching a level of unexpected profundity not seen in a science-fiction feature since 2006’s Children of Men. Managing to be both heartbreaking and eternally touching, it’s a hopeful conclusion that allows for its message to seep in without overpowering the film’s narrative.

The Verdict

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is one of the year’s best films, a deeply thoughtful sci-fi picture that provides some truly profound commentary not only on our current world but on the most timeless aspects of humanity as a whole. Featuring a career-best performance from Amy Adams, it only works to further confirm Villeneuve’s status as a living master.

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