Review: ‘Arrival’ Comes Close to Being Dennis Villeneuve’s Masterpiece

One day Dennis Villeneuve will make a masterpiece. Incendies (2010) came close as dammit. Prisoners (2013) started strong but twisted when it should have stuck. Enemy (2013) was far too esoteric (read pretentious). And Sicario (2015) was superbly crafted but just shy of world-shaking.

For its first 30 minutes this cerebral sci-fi, adapted by Eric (Lights Out) Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s Story Of Your Life, appears to be the answer. In fact, the opening montage, which delicately frames our hero – linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) – in domestic tragedy, might be the most moving since Up. Recalling Terence Malick in their painterly intensity, they’re so powerful they cast a sad shadow over what follows. As in Gravity, you can’t help feeling Banks would positively welcome an apocalypse.

But that’s not what happens. One day, announced by the anxious beep of her students’ cellphones, 12 alien vessels land at strategic points around the globe, and Forest Whitaker’s no-nonsense Colonel Weber asks Banks, along with scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to establish if these visitors really do come in peace. At this point the anticipation is tangible – thrilling, even – and there are moments of tactile tenderness, such as when Banks traces her finger along the bottom of the spacecraft, or our first glimpse of the aliens (recalling Gareth Edwards’ Monsters) appearing through fog. It’s beautiful, but the tension between what’s happening on the world stage, and within the characters, is poorly maintained in the stumbling second act.

It’s a pity, because throughout Johan Johannsson’s sonorous score is lovely; the performers spot on; and the philosophical concerns deep enough to confuse Christopher Nolan. Indeed, until Villeneuve makes another masterpiece – the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049 perhaps? – this will more than do…

‘Arrival’ Movie Times

Dennis Villeneuve films on Blu-ray, DVD and VOD: Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario