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Running the Maze: "Arrival" and the Cinema of Denis Villeneuve

The Oscar-nominated science fiction film is an unsettling crowd-pleaser and the saddest happy blockbuster of the year.
Duncan Gray
When we last saw Denis Villeneuve, with 2015's Sicario, Anthony Lane began his review for The New Yorker with a pair of blunt questions: "What does Denis Villeneuve do for fun? Does he know what fun is?" Lane's tone was more bemused than derisive, but he has a point: Villeneuve's cinematic world is grim, full of sickly color tints, sterile or impersonal settings, ominous silences broken by rattling gunfire, a pervasive atmosphere of doom, and protagonists who comport themselves like wide-eyed lambs on their way to the slaughter. After all, his are films where a lonely Emily Blunt can't meet a man at a bar and a bored Jake Gyllenhaal can't rent a movie without both turning into paranoid nightmares. "Sometimes it's best not to know," a weary witness tells the heroine of Villeneuve's Incendies (2010), a time-shifting French-Canadian mystery that picked up an Oscar nod for Best Foreign Film and pointed its Quebecois director toward the American market. And if there's a thread that connects Incendies to the three English-language films that followed—2013's one-two punch of Prisoners and Enemy, plus Sicario itself—it is heroes who set out in search of knowledge and experience great pain for doing so. A dark idea, definitely. But one possible answer to Anthony Lane's question about fun is that, in our post-Christopher Nolan multiplex, pessimism, fatalism, nihilism, gloomy aesthetics, an absence of moral certainty, and perverse plot twists qualify as a popcorn-munching pastime of their own.
If that all sounds like a contradiction, it is. But there are several contradictions to reconcile when it comes to Villeneuve's work, starting with the fact that even as he established a consistent voice in English-language cinema, it could be easy (and not entirely fair) to peg him as a talented but derivative director stuck in the shadow of others. When they both played at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, Prisoners looked like a thriller whose moral and literal shadows bowed down to David Fincher, while the doppelganger mind-fuck of Enemy was like a more accessible reworking of David Lynch's metaphysics for a time when Lynch himself seems to have all but lost interest in feature films. For that matter, you could place Villeneuve's austere school shooting drama Polytechnique (2009) side by side with Gus Van Sant's more avant-garde precursor Elephant (2003) to see how Villeneuve is a filmmaker who prefers to drag meaning closer to the surface. His films have addressed the world outside the theater—Middle East tensions in Incendies, pent-up anti-feminism in Polytechnique, borderland violence in Sicario—but social advocacy never replaces technocratic cinema as their chief appeal. The most cynical reading is that those films know that topical issues, much like color filters and sound design, are tools a filmmaker can use to turn the screws on the audience. But a better reading would be that those films use such ripped-from-the-headlines scenarios as an opportunity to zoom in on his quintessential subject: protagonists going through their own private hell of horrified disbelief. Contradictions upon contradictions. Yet as Villeneuve's latest film, Arrival (2016), rides high, its contradictions are the most compelling thing about it.
Depending on which yardstick you want to use, Arrival qualifies as Villeneuve's biggest success to date. It's by far his highest grossing, not to mention a high profile Oscar nominee up for Best Picture and Best Director this weekend. Villeneuve has worked with A-list casts already, but more than any of his previous films, Arrival fits that label of "blockbuster," complete with an alien invasion premise that's powered many before it. A series of spacecrafts have appeared, hovering menacingly over the Earth. The ships stay forebodingly inert, the creatures inside communicating only with extraterrestrial rumbling and circular glyphs squirted like squid ink. With the world on high alert, the U.S. government recruits world-class linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), along with physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to explore the ship that hangs over the American West to meet the visitors, attempt to learn their language, and find out what they want with our planet. Once again, the search for knowledge is paramount, and here, intercut with impressionistic glimpses of her dead daughter, Adams's search finds the aliens slowly starting to invade her mind.
Are we in War of the Worlds or Close Encounters of the Third Kind? To tell would be to give the game away. And make no mistake, whatever else it may be—a slice of hard sci-fi for the multiplexes, a timely parable about communication for a jittery and divided world—Arrival is very much a game, and one that's not afraid to cheat a little in the editing room to surprise you at the end. The film derives from Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life," a science fiction short story in the Michael Crichton vein, in which academics and scientists—not salt-of-the-earth heroes or soldiers with guns—are best equipped to face the unknown and save the day. But the Spielberg comparison is intriguing to consider, because the material initially seems suited to a more Spielbergian director than Villeneuve. Arrival is an inherently optimistic and sentimental film, one where saving the world and forming a family unit walk hand in hand, and one dotted with blockbuster tropes that, in the context of Villeneuve's formal trademarks, create a peculiar tension.
Consider the scene where Adams and Renner first enter the alien spacecraft. The craft hangs low over the Montana badlands, a pitch-black ovoid shape, only slightly less minimalist that the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey and eliciting a similar reaction: too geometrically perfect to be a product of nature, but stripped down to such uncanny facelessness that the audience can pour an interpretation of both wonder and fear into it. The entry way to the craft is nothing but a high vertical shaft that bends gravity sideways, so the camera will tilt and the human explorers will walk up the side of the wall to a bright light at the end. As he enters the ship and watches the laws of physics break themselves, Jeremy Renner quips, in deadpan, "Yeah...that just happened."
It's a laugh line, the sort of comically understated reaction that a lot of blockbuster humor is made of, and I daresay that there are more such laugh lines in Arrival than there are in Villeneuve's last five films combined. Yet Arrival is utterly uninterested in a mood of levity, or in creating an environment in which laughter could comfortably flower. The lasting impression of the entry sequence is Villeneuve's atmosphere: long shots with slow camera movements, an escalating drone on the soundtrack, more heavy breathing than dialogue, a limited color palette—black walls, white light, orange hazmat suits—and a drawn out use of time. All in all, their trip from the entrance of the hallway to the end of it lasts about three minutes of screen time. And if you find yourself squirming with suspense, you'll realize how Villeneuve is a director who can do a lot with very little. CGI aliens are a dime a dozen these days, and all we know at this point about the ones in Arrival is that the sight of them has driven some to madness. When we reach the light at the end of the hallway for our first glimpse at the creatures, all we get are indistinct, spindly black shapes floating in an eerie grey fog. And as payoffs go, it's enough.
Science fiction is a form of storytelling that faced its challenges in being taken seriously as art, but it opens up certain possibilities. First is a love for the "science" half of the equation, the way that a brain-tickling academic theory can inspire the "what if?" lynch-pin of a genre film. But not to be underestimated is the way that science fiction, free from having to hew close to the rules of the real world, can spin a mature allegory out of rules of its own. And once the dust and squid ink settle in Arrival, the allegory we're left with is a moral conundrum: would you bring a child into this world if you knew their life could only end badly? Or, to put it more simply, is the pleasure of being alive worth the pain? The answer Villeneuve's film finds is an unequivocal yes. There were codas of optimism or sentimentality in his French-language films like Polytechnique or Incendies, but there they felt more like desperation than reassurance, like a life raft his characters might cling to despite no land in sight. Yet Arrival,  as emotionally haunted as it is, also offers the biggest ray of sunshine to fall on a Villeneuve hero(ine). And the triumph of the film—what makes it one of Villeneuve's most thematically satisfying features, if far from the most airtight plot—is that the optimism and the darkness don't cancel each other out but find a aesthetic symbiosis. This is an unsettling crowd-pleaser, the saddest happy blockbuster in the Oscar spotlight, and a film that takes great relish in letting us wonder if a frightening creature (watch out for a fine jump-scare in a dream sequence) might be more benevolent than E.T.
Villeneuve's rise continues. With the upcoming Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and a rumored Dune reboot, he's been elevated to a Hollywood godhead of reviving not one but two franchises. It could be that moving to the multiplex is the best use of Villeneuve's considerable talent with actors and atmospherics. In his run of films this last decade, he has yet to make a bad movie—or a great one. That he came to Hollywood through the arthouse feels emblematic, even if it's a path that many have tread before. For Villeneuve's contradictions, a reversal of the old auteurist tenet may satisfy both his fans and those who still maintain he's a skilled mimic: scratch below the surface of the artist, and you'll find an excellent showman.


Denis VilleneuveLong Reads
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