After Prisoners back in 2013, and last year’s hit Sicario, Denis Villeneuve became a director to follow closely. And just in time for Oscar season, he’s managed to conjure up another film. Does his new film sit with Sicario on a Best-Of list, or does only one year leave enough room for it?
Arrival stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whittaker and Tzi Ma and is directed by Denis Villeneuve. Based on the short story by Ted Chaing, the film follows linguist Louise (Adams) and scientist Ian (Renner) as they are called in by the US military to study a UFO landing in Montana, with the duo leading the charge to create formal contact between the species.
After her lacklustre acting in BvS, Amy Adams is back on form. The film starts with an almost silent five minute backstory, flashing at different moments in her life, filling us in on the important details. It reminded me a little of the opening from Up, an entirely visual way of learning who the character is without any need for exposition or dialogue. Jeremy Renner is also good as the other side of the research team. While it is a little funny to see a nerdy scientist have the body of Hawkeye, his interactions with Adams, as they decipher the alien’s language is interesting and intriguing to watch.
The cinematography is a great part of the film, easily standing up with the rest of Villeneuve’s work. The first time we see the alien spaceship, it’s a wide landscape shot. The film is set in Montana, so it’s open fields, mountains and immense clouds of fog rolling in. The helicopter comes out of the mist surrounding the UFO, the music swells and we have an excellent long take, with the helicopter moving in slow and steady. It’s easily one of the best shots of the year and will certainly nab a nomination.
The aliens are hardly seen in the film, and in my opinion that is a good thing. Most films would want to throw the aliens at the screen (Independence Day 2), but here it’s much more restrained. Again, just like the first time we see the spaceship, the first time we see the aliens is a long, tense shot. When they hove out of the mist, long spidery legs tapping on the floor, it’s breathtaking and unnerving. It’s a brilliant attempt at show-don’t-tell, with only vague silhouettes moving about in the distance.
Lastly, the music is a fantastic addition to the film. Johann Johannsson, who worked with Villeneuve before on Sicario, again brings a stellar accompaniment to the film. Using a mix of traditional instruments such as piano and strings, then mixing them with drones, loops and electronic beeps, the film has a weird mash-up of a grand, sweeping scale with undercurrents of technology and the future.
The one thing I had a problem with is the story. It’s not a problem in the usual sense, more of a caution if you are thinking of going to see the film. Arrival is a narrative-heavy story and I think it’s one of the best this year. It’s a film that has many revelations, some of them making you look at the first half of the film in a completely different light. It takes a while to get there though, the film is nearly two hours long but didn’t become the epic odyssey until the final twenty minutes. To get the most enjoyment out of it, you have to pay attention, I just wanted to make sure you knew that before you decide to go on a whim.
In the end, Arrival was a near-mind blowing experience. From the superb visuals and the hidden story elements throughout, it’s one that will be remembered in years to come.
Score: 9/10 Will have you wracking your brain for days after you watch it.