To me, there is no better director working in Hollywood today than Canada’s Dennis Villeneuve. The director has yet to have a misstep in what is still a blossoming career. Beginning in 2009 with Polytechnique, Villeneuve has directed such masterpieces as Incendies (which was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar), Prisoners, Enemy and our pick for best film last year, Sicario. Villeneuve has become so respected that he was handpicked to direct the much anticipated Blade Runner sequel now in production.
Villeneuve brought his latest effort, Arrival, a science fiction thriller to the Toronto International Film Festival. Arrival stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks. Banks is a linguistics expert and is called into action when 12 separate alien spacecraft land around the world. Banks is equally qualified and terrified at the idea of establishing a communication link between mankind and the beings that piloted the crafts to earth.
Her first visit to the alien ship almost has Louise pass out with nerves. The ship opens its hatch every 18 hours and immediately upon arriving, Louise and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are paired together to meet and study the alien creatures that appear in a mist behind a glasslike wall. Shaking with excitement and fear, Louise quickly establishes a plan. Her approach is simplistic – learn and teach the basics of languages on both sides.
The aliens are eager to respond. But their language requires interpretation and the effort will require months of effort. Unfortunately, the militaries around the world where the crafts have settled do not have the patience of Louise and Ian. The aliens are seen as a threat. Even in their silence, their dominance in the sky leads to heightened nerves. So when the aliens respond to a question with the interpreted word for ‘weapon’, the leaders of the world are put on edge and are ready to act with military force.
Based on a short story by Ted Chiang and flushed out by screenwriter Eric Heisserer, Arrival is a smart science fiction film that takes no short cuts with its audience. This is not a mindless alien film. If you took the smartest plot developments from Levinson’s Sphere, Zemeckis’ Contact and Nolan’s Interstellar and put them in a more cohesive and confident film you have Arrival.
Adams is particularly strong and should garner some awards chatter for her central character role. So should Jóhann Jóhannsson who put together the haunting music that accompanies the visuals. Jóhannsson worked for Villeneuve on Sicario and equals his Academy Award nominated efforts with this follow-up.
There is a small sub-plot of a rogue army character who feels overly threatened by the aliens and attempts to take matters into his own hands which felt a little off from the overall theme and message of the film. But it’s such a small component of a complex film that it hardly registers as a blip on the map towards the overall goal of the filmmakers.
Arrival separates itself from other science fiction films thanks to a style and coolness that is all too left behind in a Hollywood that wants earth destroying aliens and complex creature effects that will eventually lead to lucrative toy lines. Arrival is not that film. It is a smart, meticulously paced thriller that will awe more than amaze all while providing audiences with a film that will surely stick with them long after the screening is over.