It is impossible not to applaud Denis Villeneuve. The Quebec-born director has experienced a remarkable rise to prominence in recent years, with the harrowing Prisoners and scintillating Sicario receiving universal acclaim for their stellar acting and cinematography. Following such success, Arrival represents, on the surface at least, an exploration into uncharted territory and an unexpected shift into science fiction. Villeneuve nevertheless delivers a deep and thought-provoking movie, one whose like is seen all too rarely from a genre burgeoning with creative potential.
From the very beginning, Arrival balances two separate plots. The first simulates the global reaction to an extra-terrestrial presence, exposing political and racial friction, while the other is pure science fiction mystery. Somehow this all fits together, wrapped around an emotional core that deals with some surprisingly heavy themes of loss and acceptance. If the film does nothing else, it uses the fiction of its universe here to fantastic effect.
In fact, the entirety of Arrival is soaked in great fiction. Its world is effortlessly well-realised, from a genuinely believable symbolic language to some of the most alien aliens seen in cinema. The movie seems desperate to share its knowledge; certainly the first half in particular can feel like a primer for a linguistics course. Clearly, an impressive amount of research went into creating a unique and quasi-realistic universe, an attention to detail that is worth the admission fee all on its own.
Much like Villeneuve’s previous work, Arrival isn’t pacey but it is excellently paced. Characters grow organically within a drama that takes precedence at all times, and though the mysteries of the alien presence are not revealed until late on, there is a steady drip feed of information supported by nail-biting political drama. For a medium that often seems starved of original ideas, these are the films that prove there are still some enchanting and timely stories to tell.
Both visually and audibly, the film is a treat. Much like the understated CGI that won 2015’s Ex Machina the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, it makes tasteful use of its budget, never falling back upon needless or showy effects. Equally, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is so unearthly that it is easy to mistake the music, at times more aggressively synthetic than melodic, for the aliens’ thrums and clicks. It all comes together as a fresh take on a science fiction soundtrack.
Despite its uninspiring title, Arrival dazzles with success across the board while representing a wider movement within filmmaking, one attempting to push the boundaries of dramatic storytelling across all genres. Accompanied by such exciting prospects as J. C. Chandor (Margin Call, A Most Violent Year) and Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: Episode VIII), movies like Arrival prove the future of cinema is in safe hands.
As for Villeneuve, his filmography is becoming unerringly consistent in its quality and style. On this basis, next year’s Blade Runner 2049 (with Jóhannsson again providing the score) seems destined to be worthy of its seminal predecessor. We can only hope.