When Canadian director Denis Villeneuve was announced as the director of the currently untitled Blade Runner 2, suddenly the idea of a replicant sequel didn’t seem like such a bad idea. After making the Oscar-nominated Incendies, he moved into English-language movies with Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario – all the sorts of films that people would have you believe don’t get made these days.
If he was already looking like a pretty safe pair of hands for the job, Arrival – which recently screened at the Toronto Film Festival 2016 ahead of its November release – proves that he can handle smart, subtle sci-fi, making more of an impact with ideas than Independence Day: Resurgence could manage with countless city-levelling explosions. Yep, Arrival has more tension and jaw-dropping power than any other sci-fi this year, and it might even make you feel more intelligent in the process (not a guarantee).
The story starts unlike most other alien invasion films, when linguistics professor Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has a lecture interrupted by students getting messages about bizarre, world-changing events goings-on outside. At 12 points around the globe, giant shell-like extraterrestrial spacecraft have appeared and are hovering hundreds of feet above the ground. At this point, the ships aren’t acting aggressively (they’re not even emitting any energy), but naturally people are freaked out because of course they are.
Banks is called in by Colonel Weber (a gruff Forest Whitaker) on a super top-secret mission to actually start communicating with the beings on board the ships – turns out the US government has already been sending hazmat-suited boffins onto the one floating above Montana, and governments the world over have been doing the same. Banks’s jobs isn’t as easy as a polite hello over a cup of tea, though: asking one ‘simple’ question is loaded with ambiguity and potential problems. Working with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, toning down the tough-guy schtick), Banks has to work out a translation system for the aliens’ own bizarre visual language, which is represented in inky circles drawn out with gas-like spores. Sounds like homework, right? But each new discovery feels fascinating, like solving a puzzle that the fate of the world depends on (it kinda does, did I mention that?).
As complex as it sometimes gets, Arrival always manages to make sense. It adheres to its own internal logic with enough confidence and smarts to make you feel like you know what it’s going on about. And Villeneuve has pieced the whole thing together like clockwork; as it unfolds, and various story threads come together, it’s satisfying in the way the best sci-fi is when you don’t have to make excuses in your head for the plot holes.
And I haven’t even mentioned the film’s emotional core yet. Cerebral it might be, but cold it ain’t. It’s no spoiler to say that at the very beginning of the film, we see Banks lose a child to a fatal illness, in heartbreaking, almost Up-like fashion. Rather than feeling like a tacked on bit of ‘Character Development 101’, it proves key to the storytelling, and, yes, will hit you right in the feels. Amy Adams is seriously overdue an Oscar, and this could well see her bagging another nom.
So… believable characters. Convincing sci-fi setup. Plotting that favours suspense over cheap thrills. Sounds like Villeneuve’s the perfect person for Blade Runner 2. Oh, and the icing on the cake? He’s bringing along composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who created the music for Prisoners and Sicario, and here delivers an unbelievably lush soundscape, running the gamut from yearning strings to stomach-churningly ominous drones. If anyone can follow Vangelis…
Arrrival opens in the UK and the US on 11 November, 2016.