Having once referred to Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve as an excellent craftsman “capable of finding thrills, beauty and sometimes even profundity in ham-fisted sentiment and overbearing nihilism”—his previous features Incendies, Prisoners and Sicario having all in some way or another eventually collapsed under weak material or contradictory style– it wasn’t until the existential, high-concept web weaved in Enemy that he found the modicum of nuance (though, admittedly, still of the aggressively self-serious and masculine variety) that was sorely missing from his work. It brings me great pleasure to say that his latest, Arrival, is a refreshing return to high-concept existentialism, but this time in the unique form of Ted Chiang’s incredibly subtle and beautiful short story, Story of Your Life, a fascinating blend of hard sci-fi and deeply felt compassion.
Right from the opening image Villeneuve asks you to pay close attention, as he balances the profound sense of loss Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) feels with fleeting glimpses into memories of her late daughter with the overpowering yet quiet fear the world feels when mysterious floating spacecrafts start appearing all over the globe. Not long after, Banks, a very gifted and wiry linguist specialist, and the unpretentious physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to assist in the Americans’ first contact with whatever it is that waits for them inside.
Juxtaposing a clinical, Nolan-esque blockbuster realism milieu with Chiang’s powerful undercurrent of ephemeral humanity, Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer have truly constructed something uniquely powerful with Arrival. Though it will and already has seen its fair share of comparisons to other cerebral sci-fi ventures before it, like Close Encounters, Contact or Interstellar, ultimately it’s far more in line with the likes of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, sharing with them a deeply emotional core that finds not just value but optimism, and beauty, in the human condition.
Villeneuve and co. (including the immensely talented cinematographer Bradford Young) do tremendous work providing restrained, hard sci-fi thrills—the linguistic element, taking the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” to its logical sci-fi conclusion, is far more exciting and cinematic in their hands than it has any right to be—and slowly merging them with Louise’s emotional journey until they reach an effective, albeit kind of silly, unified climax that is bound to jerk some tears.
Its meticulous construction might come off cold and manipulative to some, but Jóhann Jóhannsson’s textured ambient soundtrack (including a lovely, if overused, bit of Max Richter to bookend the piece) and Adams’ subtly commanding performance feel like they’re practically bursting from the design, rewriting themselves in front of your eyes—something Chiang’s story implies but doesn’t quite capture in the same way—ultimately giving Arrival the final push it needs to become a truly beautiful ode to the way we react to tragedy and fear, both personally and collectively, and how the former might inform the latter. Timely, I’d say.