Arrival

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An atypical sci-fi drama, eschewing awe and wonder for a far more cerebral angle, Arrival is the latest impressive film from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. When a dozen identical alien spacecraft appear in scattered locations around the globe, an accomplished linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by military head Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to a lead a team entering the craft in Montana in an attempt, against seemingly impossible odds, to unravel the aliens’ means of communication by breaking down the strange alien text into constituent, translatable parts. Banks is paired with somebody seen as having complementary skills in physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

Based on a short story by Ted Chiang and adapted by Eric Heisserer, Arrival (2016) is unique amongst alien-upon-Earth films in that the expected ‘invasion’ never actually eventuates. In fact, combat between interplanetary forces never comes enters the equation other than in military positing. Instead this is an intelligent, empathetic, deliberately paced but never less than riveting science puzzle of the film. Though the dogmatic approach and methodology used by the participants is beyond simple comprehension, there’s still an inclusive feel to how the drama plays out and draws us into its web of intrigue. We’re effectively enabled to feel the frustration and then the tantalising glimpses of elation as they boffins strike closer to some kind of breakthrough and remarkable clarity.

At the heart of this immersive is the cleverly manipulation Villeneuve uses to take advantage of its central mystery. The motivations of the aliens remain unclear until the final act when the pieces of the puzzle are finally laid out. Make no mistake, there’ll be plenty of talking points as the credits roll too with a couple of clever twists providing a surprising reinterpretation of events. Within the sci-fi context there are even powerful allusions to highly relevant themes like the misdirection of authority in the way ambiguities in language and translation are misappropriated to foster fear and distrust of people unlike us.

Arrival proves to be a far better showcase for Adams, one of American cinema’s finest current crop of actresses, than her concurrent appearance in Tom Ford’s limp Nocturnal Animals (2016). Here, she carries the burden of being both the film’s emotional and cerebral epicentre whilst bringing an impressive complexity to the role. Glimpses of an alternate existence in the very first scenes offer an intriguing introduction to Banks before being dispensed into the slipstream of the narrative in which no strand can be assumed to have taken on a linear form.

Renner’s Donnelly is a good match for Adams in what might be his most decent role since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008). It’s certainly the best film he’s been a part of since then. Even if the internal lives of Banks and Donnelly, beyond the struggle to decipher the language of the aliens, are referenced only in passing, there’s reason enough for the omission. All becomes clearer in the final moments. Johann Johannsson’s wonderfully probing dark score has eerie, atonal, almost alien qualities itself, whilst Villeneuve otherwise employs a couple of effective, tender Max Richter pieces to bookend the film.

Following his remarkable trio of English language films, Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013) and last year’s superb Sicario (2015), Villeneuve continues to affirm his status as one of the most promising directors around. His last French-Canadian film, Incendies (2010), may still be his masterpiece but he is an impressive talent who is yet to make a false step. His sense of pacing is spot on, whilst his liquid visual skills reflect a cinematic instinctiveness that’s pretty damn rare. As a lifelong disciple of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), I’ve long cringed at the thought of a sequel being entrusted to anyone. However, Villenueve, recently given the nod to helm Blade Runner 2049, is one of the few directors around who actually fills me with something other than dread at the prospect.

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Sicario

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The macabre opening to Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) establishes a grim, unsettling mood that will overwhelm the life of the young FBI agent leading the investigation. Still recoiling from the grisly find and images burned into her consciousness, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is specifically targeted for a new assignment under the care of task force leader Matt (Josh Brolin). Head still spinning she’s recruited to assist in the agency’s bloody, never ending battle with the Mexican drug cartels. Hovering close by at all times is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), his mostly silent, disconcerting presence barely acknowledged, and his status never qualified.

The world Kate becomes immersed in is confusing and disorienting. We see everything through her eyes and so must surrender to her distorted perspective through which motives are unspecified. She probes tentatively, intimidated by her junior status, but we share her sense of the truth being camouflaged behind the blurred lines of an indefinable moral code or method of operation. All her new cohorts are strangers – and male too, only exacerbating the alienation of her inclusion amongst their ranks.

Will the true nature Kate’s role resolve itself in tandem with clues to the bigger picture? Or is she merely a pawn in some strange, systematic manipulation from on high? For a long time Villenueve and his screenwriter Taylor Sheridan keep the horizon darkened with a range of potential outcomes. The set pieces are genuinely tense and superbly handled. In between, stillness is as vital a part of their storytelling means as chaotic motion. The suspense is stretched taut, creating a void of expectation, an immobility pregnant with possibilities.

The wavering figure in the margins, Alejandro, is an intimidating, mysterious figure whose past and present are being reconfigured in some vaguely illegitimate way it seems to Kate. Given half a chance to glower and speak without ever using words, Del Toro naturally exudes an impenetrability that can be as frustrating as it is magnetic. Blunt continues to bloom as an actress regardless of genre. This is a physically demanding role but full of grit and she makes Kate believable on every level. Brolin is strong too; Matt’s ambiguity makes him another fascinating figure, either a bastard conniving success to sweeten his own slice of the pie or a hard taskmaster protecting his taskforce’s most unlikely valuable asset. Another real asset is the animalistic menace of Johann Johannsson’s score which is used to brilliant effect in the set-pieces especially.

This is another superb addition to Villenueve’s impressive body of work. The French-Canadian director won international acclaim for his harrowing drama Incendies back in 2010. More recently he’s worked at an unflagging pace, delivering the gripping Prisoners (2013) and the equally compelling, creepily intimate Enemy (2013) in quick succession. With Sicario, his reputation as a meticulous craftsman is only enhanced. Though this is more about the truths between the lines and the machinations of a morally recast world of crime detection than deep characterisation, there’s genuine mastery in his handling of all the elements.

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