It took Arrival to make me realize why I like Dennis Villeneuve, beyond his just putting out good stuff. His movies are smart, but unlike Christopher Nolan's work, they don't feel the need to rub your face on how clever they think they are. It's cerebral, without being boring. It's engaging. It neither expects the viewer to be a beer-can-forehead-crushing baseline nor thumbs its nose up at those who don't worship at the shrine of Iain M. Banks.
If you like science fiction movies and know that means more than fighter planes going pew-pew at aliens, watch it.
The trailer below is safe. Others I've seen give away too much of the movie's structure if you have an eye for those things.
Arrival is one of those rare layered movies. Normally that would be film-wonk-speak for “more to it than meet the eye.” Arrival does one better, and truly has several strata that you eat through and appreciate, either as a whole or independently.
You can savor the spongy cake of the human drama, with characters attempting to deal with a stressful, drawn-out situation while wrestling with their own problems.
Then there's the crunchy science-fiction base. I'm not going to go into it, to avoid spoiling the themes that will come up, other to say that it's the first time I've seen the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis show up in a mainstream movie.
You can crack them open and taste the thin political coating in the middle, so slight that you might miss it, where scientists attempt to cooperate while their governments decide to puff their chests and act like gorillas playing the prisoners' dilemma.
Or you can take a spoonful of all three. Each layer empowers the others. The themes on its science-fiction foundation are not delved into too deeply on the barely-two-hours they have, but (if I can mix my metaphors) they are the bones and tendons that animate the drama's body. Without the drama providing a human face to it, all you'd be left with is an unsightly calcium structure prancing around, reading Wikipedia pages to you out loud. And without politicians being politicians, events would have no reason to unfold the way they do.
Villeneuve has turned out to be what I expected Christopher Nolan would become. That's not a dig on Nolan – I've done that enough. It's just straight-up praise for Villeneuve.
Published initially on my old blog