Arrival – Denis Villeneuve’s attempt to announce his own entrance as a grand artist



With much acclaim and many calling it the film of the year, Getintothis’ Laurence Thompson explores Denis Villeneuve’s new Sci-Fi blockbuster Arrival.

With Arrival, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve attempts to announce his own entrance as a grand artist, a conveyor of the big visual idea in the tradition of David Lean, John Ford, and Akira Kurosawa.

Perhaps best known for DVD collection favourite Prisoners, an underpraised psychological thriller starring Terrence Howard and Hugh Jackman, Villeneuve’s oeuvre (try saying that after a few pints, or at all) has previously consisted of the intricate and esoteric; Enemy, based on the novel The Double by Jose Saramago, was an off-beat and brooding chiller, while last year’s Sicario was almost perversely intellectual for a CIA v the cartel movie. So Arrival, with its fifth-gear visuals and science fiction themes, represents a shift upwards in Villeneuve’s attentions.

To achieve this aesthetic ambition, Villeneuve has opted for cinematographer Bradford Young, who first gained attention for his work on David Lowery’s Malickian Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The results are immediately arresting: Young has cast his vision in a blue metallic “early morning” sheen, a kind of wintery chrome colour scheme that provokes emotional ambiguity. The central image of the 12 “shells”, the titanic obsidian spacecraft that appear over the planet, is rendered realistic for all its impossible hugeness. There may be an argument against verisimilitude for such subject matter, but this aesthetic choice survives on its own merit.

The photography adorns an intelligent screenplay, based on Ted Chiang’s tale Story of Your Life. For audiences unfamiliar with “first contact” fiction, lots of the ideas will seem new and refreshing, but the problem of how to speak to someone with whom you share no linguistic or cultural reference points is a well-trodden one for science fiction readers. So too the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the concept of linguistic relativity; arguably, Chip Delany was playing about with this in his early twenties with Babel-17 (1966). The last time it was this well done, though, was by Warren EllisOcean (2004), and if the optioned movie adaptation of that comic ever does see the light of day, it will do well not to look like a lesser imitator.

Although this is ostensibly an outer-space movie, the screenwriters extrapolate Sapir-Whorf towards the inner-space concerns of New Wave writers like J.G. Ballard, Ursula le Guin and Brian Aldiss; the result is not just true sci-fi but a piece of speculative linguistics not unlike AldissBarefoot in the Head or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.

Which brings us onto Kubrick, doesn’t it? Inevitably, Villeneuve’s big, mysterious, dark, space-faring, stone megaliths conveying gnosis on the human race were going to draw comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, as a big statement picture, the film suffers from that comparison: 2001 was abundant with incredible images, whereas Arrival only really has one. With Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) and Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), Villeneuve joins a cadre of directors who resemble Caravaggisti ably creating from the example of the master, but who haven’t the ability or originality to push his legacy to the next level. Is this their deficiency, or Hollywood’s?

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One is tempted to say this should have done for Chiang what Kubrick’s movie did for Arthur C. Clarke. But in focusing on earthy human grief rather than super-human concepts, Arrival’s real spiritual predecessor is Solaris, a movie of such psychological depth that Stanislaw Lem, the author of the original novel, complained it was “Dostoevsky in space.” Thankfully for casual audiences not intending to see a philosophically-meandering Soviet-era masterwork, Arrival has the heart of an airport weepy, and is nowhere near as ponderous or portentous – Jodi Picoult in space, if you like.

This is not the major work it aspires to be. But it’s a moving and impressive film nonetheless. Both authoritative and classy, Amy Adams continues to vie with Jessica Chastain for the title of the 21st century’s Katharine Hepburn. Forrest Whitaker shoulder-rolls the challenge of playing a gruff army general, making it look effortless. The less said about poor Jeremy Renner, who couldn’t act his way out of a wet paper bag, the better, but he is at least likeable and inoffensive attempting to play the socially awkward particle physicist. (And, amusingly enough considering that role, the cobra-thick bicep veins he’s developed as a by-product of his superhero turns in the Avengers and the Bourne Legacy are still on show.)

Jóhann Jóhannsson, who was called upon to turn Sicario into a mood horror piece, submits a less ostentatious soundtrack here, though occasionally his refrains and leitmotifs jar unexpectedly. Succeeding Vangelis, it will be interesting to listen to what he and Villeneuve have in store for us with the Blade Runner sequel. If they truly wish to be taken seriously as big artists of the big screen, that could be make or break.