Denis Villeneuve continues a remarkable streak of engaging dramas with this thoughtful, intelligent sci-fi.
From Gravity to Interstellar to The Martian, the month of November has become inseparably associated with smart Oscar-baiting sci-fi. Though it shares those films’ striking tone of realism, Denis Villeneuve’s alien invasion drama has more in common thematically with Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, which explored communication and manipulation of time in a similarly engaging manner.
Amy Adams, overdue an Oscar after five nominations (with at least one more expected this year), delivers one of her finest performances as Dr. Louise Banks, an expert linguist recruited to help translate the messages of visiting ETs. In an era overloaded with mindless man-vs-alien blockbusters (we’re looking at you, Independence Day Resurgence), Villeneuve’s film takes a refreshingly intellectual- and practical- approach to dealing with monsters. History, anthropology and literature play a role in Banks’ investigation into the alien dialogue– it’s optimistic to imagine the US government prioritising rational diplomacy over shooting the spacecraft out of the sky. Collaborating with Banks is physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a quiet but stoic character with underlying wit not dissimilar to that of the film itself, offering Renner his most appealing role since American Hustle (in which, of course, he co-starred with Amy Adams). Forest Whitaker and the always-terrific Michael Stuhlbarg are the only other significant characters: both excel. An air of nearly-painful suspense is built by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, accompanying Bradford Young’s stunning Montana vistas and intimate close-ups of Adams’ expression, until the film’s superbly-hidden mysteries spill out.
Villeneuve has made an extraordinary impact on Hollywood in an impressively short period; ascending to the highest level of reliable auteurs with audience favourite Prisoners and Sicario. Adding a fresh nuance, and an injection of remarkable scale, to their formula of rapid, learn-as-you-go situational exploration (Dr. Banks’ recruitment by the government is extremely similar to that of Emily Blunt’s Sicario character), Arrival is a sincerely affective drama which balances humanity and awe surprisingly well. Sorry, Roland Emmerich, but aliens belong to philosophers now.