CANADIAN DIRECTOR DENIS VILLENEUVE ARRIVES ON THE BIG SCENE
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: PG-13; Grade: A
I remember where I was when Denis Villeneuve (whose “Incendies” garnered a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination back in 2011) started to loom large. The moment goes back to the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and his festival double feature of “Prisoners” and “Enemy.”
The hype machine was in full effect for “Prisoners,” which had the benefit of a star-studded cast (Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, and Jake Gyllenhaal) and a white-knuckle plot involving the case of a missing child and the hunt for a kidnapper that escalates beyond police and community efforts to something far more personal and obsessive, as one father deigns to take matters into his own hands. Everything about the film seemed to click, pushing our collective buttons.
Yet, “Enemy,” the more decidedly indie of the two, also starring Gyllenhaal, found a way to sneak under the skin, beneath our conscious understanding of how narratives work, reaching into the subconscious where fear becomes irrational and speculative. Gyllenhaal assumes a tricky and quite trippy double role, as a professor who spots his exact look-alike in a movie one night and embarks on a quest to track him down. The narrative, based on a novel by Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago, brings the existential crashing headlong into the reel.
And so, it seems Villeneuve is back again, staking a claim on more of this uncharted territory, with “Arrival,” another TIFF feature. Once again, he’s hooking up with a hot performer—this time it is Amy Adams whose icy presence in “Nocturnal Animals” made for a perfect hot/cold contrast of note—and peering into a dark and quite speculative place. For his “Close Encounter” with extraterrestrial life forms, he poses an argument rooted in communication and deciphering intention.
Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) is a linguistic expert in retreat, following a personal tragedy. Alone and in communication only with her own thoughts and emotions (with no meaningful exchange and movement forward), Banks drifts away from the alarming news of large mysterious pods that have settled over several global centers. Teams of specialists in each country with a looming pod tentatively share information from their individual efforts to figure out the purpose of these objects. A state of panic grips the world, but Banks watches, detached.
It takes the arrival of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), a gruff military man, ready to mobilize our forces for hostilities first, to stir Banks into action. Partnered with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), another scientist with the U.S. contingent, she overcomes an initial dizzying mental paralysis by removing all of the barriers imposed by the governmental onlookers, forging a fragile bond with the visitors, which allows a tentative understanding of sorts to develop.
As would likely be the case, time is not on the side of all the parties involved. Human distrust leads to an escalating sense that drastic actions must be taken—which of course means violence—and so a doomsday scenario, complete with the requisite ticking clock, could possibly derail the potential for true, shared discovery.
And yet, rather than rush into an “Independence Day” meets “Transformers” mash up of galactic CGI proportions, “Arrival” operates in the realm of genuine paranoia and plausible scientific wonder in the face of the unknown. While we are a long way beyond the quizzically hokey sci-fi dreams of The Twilight Zone television series or the original version of “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” that doesn’t mean we have all the answers. Villeneuve seizes this moment for himself, taking another giant step forward in his quest to define contemporary cinema as the realm for a thinking and supremely critical audience.
In his most recent release, “Sicario,” Villeneuve brought a female perspective into sharp relief, and here again, he presents Banks as a protagonist, able to temper things, to force us to think and feel our way through rising and complex conflict. This certainly bodes well for “Blade Runner 2049,” the long-sought after sequel to Ridley Scott’s legendary adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Next to nothing is known about the actual plot of the highly anticipated 2017 release, but if “Arrival” is any indication, the future, as envisioned by Villeneuve, will be hauntingly beautiful with a cinematic language all its own.