Though Denis Villeneuve erupted onto the scene with the Academy Award nominated Incendies in 2010, his true claim to fame would come in 2013 when he released Prisoners and Enemy. Two years later he would come out with the phenomenal Sicario, only to then be pegged as the director for the long-awaited Blade Runner sequel. But before we get to that last one, Villeneuve gets his first real chance to dabble within the sci-fi genre with Arrival, a story about grief, life, communication and our planet coming together as a whole—and he does not disappoint.
When twelve mysterious UFOs, also known as “Shells,” land on Earth, there’s no knowing as to why they are here (in case you didn’t catch the posters and trailers). Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, gets called in by the military to try and translate the (literally) alien language so as to better understand why they are here.
Grappling with grief, Banks throws herself into the challenge along with a theoretical physicist played by Jeremy Renner, and the results are more along the lines with something like Contact rather than Independence Day. Yes, science and problem-solving are the weapons used here instead of laser guns and missiles, and it’s done so with tension and the sense that one mistake could lead to the destruction of the entire planet.
Delivering another stellar performance in a long line of such, Adams kills it as Louise. Her quiet, somberness comes off with a soft intensity that makes you think she just needs someone to talk to. Yet her resilience and ability to overcome any obstacle make her the perfect match for the impossible task. Backed up by a quippy Renner, the two make for one of the most beliavable sci-fi teammates in years, never quite falling for the silly tropes we’ve come to expect from the genre.
No, Villeneuve does much more than just get rid of the tropes: he tries to make this as realistic as possible—though many can argue the arrival of aliens is far from realistic. What he and screenwriter Eric Heisserer do is make the genre believable again; 24/7 news coverage, mass pilgrimages to the sites, and the complete shutdown of society to watch this happen. And it is entirely compelling, we watch in awe as the Shells appear looming over the vast landscape of Montana or over the ocean, wondering if it is a weapon or just a beacon.
With Villeneuve, there are always a twists, and here it is a game-changer. Out of nowhere, Villeneuve makes you feel, an odd feeling for most sci-fi films, at least on the level he gets to. It becomes real, poignant and devastating all at once.
When all is said and done, Arrival is one of the best sci-fi films of the decade. Not only does it make sci-fi real and scary again, but it puts math, science, and women in the forefront other than just another gung-ho super soldier hell bent on saving the day. Villeneuve has become one of my favorite working directors today, do yourself a favor and find out why.