Denis Villeneuve’s grip is so tight, his touch so icy, that I wouldn’t blame captive audiences for feeling short on oxygen. His movies are as chilly as their icepick titles (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario). Cold without being cerebral, quick without necessarily being fun, gorgeous without being pretty, his movies feel as alive and human as a frozen steak. As a Canadian, Villeneuve’s sensibility is unusually mechanical, his compassion nearly imperceptible.
Under most circumstances, that kind of art-house nihilism sends me running, but I’m always drawn to a new Villeneuve movie despite the fact that I’ve never fully given myself over to anything he’s done. Sicario and Enemy came close, but I had less enthusiasm for the movies than their individual moments—most involving movement or its threat.
Arrival is something else. For its first half hour, it doesn’t move much at all. Picking up with Enemy’s elliptical editing but mostly disposing with its droning menace, the movie introduces Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) as a lonely research professor who specializes in language theory. Against Max Richter’s wintry strings, we glimpse Malick-esque snippets of some trauma that’s left poor Louise isolated and morose in a lakeside mansion that suggests Mies van der Rohe in design but is wholly Villeneuve-ian in temperature.
Louise’s doldrums and the movie’s gloom-wave groove are quickly interrupted by the titular event, and to reveal anything more would be imprudent. For three-quarters of its runtime, Arrival struts with the same quasi-heady, slow-burning, sustained dread Villeneuve has done and nailed before. (One jolt is lifted verbatim from an earlier effort). Pitched somewhere between the clipped spookiness of Enemy and the horror-show thrills of Sicario, Arrival is an engagingly inky question mark.
But then something happens. I saw Arrival on Monday night, and I expressed disappointment with the movie’s last-act veer into the maudlin, a treacly rejoinder for peace and harmony buoyed by a twist I saw coming even in rough translation. Not that genre science fiction should strive for conceptual consistency; mashups like Alien and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine managed to dodge intellectual responsibility by offering up irresistible thrills and were better movies for it. Arrival’s button is less contrived than, say, Interstellar’s, but it’s in the same wheelhouse—the cosmic made interior—and almost as hokey. (At least Arrival has the courtesy to thematically reconcile its melodrama.)
Just a few days ago, I suggested Arrival‘s ending threatened to retroactively blunt everything that comes before. Today, current events have retroactively blunted my cynicism. That isn’t to say the movie—or more specifically, its end—isn’t dumb, but now it feels gloriously, ecstatically dumb. Where I once thought the movie’s stylistic prowess elevated its dumb material, now it’s the reverse: the movie’s proudly mawkish celebration of pragmatism and cooperation elevates its magnetic style. Not that that opinion will stand much scrutiny; form and content seldom disunite. But in an unprecedentedly aberrant week, Arrival and its gooey iciness are welcome salves for broken hearts and minds.
Arrival. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Eric Heisserer. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. Opens in Kansas City November 11, 2016.