Man, Denis Villeneuve and I just are not on the same wavelength. He has made movies that the majority of people absolutely love. In his 2013 movie Enemy, he made a trippy mystery film that begs you to figure out its hidden meanings and visual symbolism. In his 2014 film Prisoners, Villeneuve attempts to make a thriller that is intense without the cliché kind of thrills being used. In his 2015, Sicario he creates a movie about the drug problem that tries to take on the issue head on without following normal story telling conventions. Every one of those films have incredible potential, but for some reason I have no connection to them. They are all well made, but for me there is something missing from them. In his most recent film, unfortunately, that criteria fits in with all the rest. Arrival is a well-made sci-fi film with large emotional climax that left me sort of empty when I left the theater.
In Villeneuve’s Arrival a national phenomenon occurs as twelve monumental black UFOs pop up all around the world. Our story focuses on Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistic professor that is visited by the army to get her expertise to help decipher an alien language. There she meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a fellow linguistic expert as they work hard to try and find a way to communicate with the foreign beings. All the other countries with UFO’s are attempting to communicate as well, others deciding whether or not to declare war with the beings.
The movie is incredible well made. The effects here are some of the best of the year. The UFO creations look astonishing along with the way the gravity works in the ship. The cinematography by Bradford Young is astounding. It looks like our world, just a little darker. It makes you feel uneasy which is what the world feels like with these mysterious figures that are now in our home turf. The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson also gives off the sense of dread felt in the first two thirds of the film. These aspects together made it feel like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 or any of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films.
What makes it a bit different from a Tarkovsky film is that the characters, and the acting, is really quite excellent. Renner does a really nice job and the film is filled with a great little performances. Amy Adams exceeds with her character. It always seems impossible to give a solid emotional performance in a movie that is more concerned with being strange, methodical and full of mystery. Adams and the screenplay by Eric Heisserer create something real in this spectacle. They know the audience needs someone to cling to in this story and with Adams performance, it is one of her best roles to date.
The details on the alien creatures are top notch. They look creepy, yet have familiar elements from the human body. Eventually, Adams makes a breakthrough and they start to study the creature’s alphabet (which is a simplified term for it. It is really more complicated than that). Their writing, which they shoot out with ink like stuff, looks really awesome. It is basically circles with a ton of specific details around it. It was clear that the crew spent a long time creating and deciphering the symbols for all the alien language. All these aspects should form what should be one of the best movies of the year, but sadly something is missing.
Villeneuve is a talented director, which is evident, and always has a great team behind him. This film, along with the others makes it clear that he is a fan of movies. I am never fully sure with other directors but with the genres he is exploring, like sci-fi, thriller, mystery and action it is clear that he has a passion for film. The problem may be that he loves movies that could be viewed as goofy so when he makes the action movie or melodramatic thriller he is going to have a sense of importance hammered into it. It seems like he feels the need to be taken seriously. It is like he cannot make a film with just having aliens or cool gun fights, he also must have an important message attached to it. Here during the film it is clear that world peace would solve a lot of problems. Every “good” character says that all countries should share information so they can figure out why these aliens came to earth. Also there are mysterious visions that Banks is having. We are not sure what they are and when they are revealed it is kind of cheesy. You have to be totally into the film for it to work emotionally. The movie is good, it wants to be great but it cannot until Villenuve stops aiming to impress and just makes a film for himself.