After an early-career spate of dramas in his native language, the French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has spent the past few years subverting seemingly every film genre he can get his hands on.
There was his spin on the child-abduction thriller ("Prisoners"). The new take on the Jekyll-and-Hyde trope ("Enemy"). A fresh look at the drug-cartel action flick (last year's "Sicario").
Villeneuve has most recently been seeking out a new world. Or, more accurately, a new universe.
The director's "Arrival," out from Paramount in November after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere Monday, finds him tackling the global alien-invasion thriller, but in the cerebral and intimate way fans have come to expect from what might be called Villeneuvalia.
"It's not about choosing a specific genre; that's not how I go about deciding what movies to make," the director said, with a kind of verbal shrug when asked why he was ripping through established categories like a 2019-era Spinner.
Then, as if reconsidering the role that factor might play, he added, "But nothing is more fun than breaking the rules."
"Arrival" welcomes those rules, indulges them and then casually leaves them behind. Written by Eric Heisserer from a short story by decorated sci-fi author Ted Chiang, the movie sets up a premise we've had close encounters with many times before: Beings from outer space landed on Earth and quickly prompt chaos with their unknown motives.
Into the picture comes Louise (Amy Adams), a skilled linguist dealing with the death of her daughter. She's called by the U.S. government to Montana, one of the dozen sites around the world where the galactic creatures have docked. (Well, sort-of-docked — they remain in their craft, just above the ground.) Joining her is a theoretical physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner), the two forming a kind of scientific yin-and-yang that will try to communicate with the aliens amid the larger military mobilization.
The aliens, it turns out, do speak — or at least communicate — with the help of a symbolic language. And that's where the film takes a detour from usual the genre stops. It infuses quiet moments of Louise and Ian trying to decode the aliens' hidden meanings into the larger global panic prompted by such ambiguities — "a beautiful dance that Louise gets to do between time and space," as Adams put it at a news conference here.
Though some of the more esoteric details will mainly reward fans of high-level linguistics, the questions resonate on a broader level too. What would we actually say to aliens if we could? And if they just sort of hovered, literally and figuratively, would we react with fear or hope?
"Arrival" is also interested in more personal arcs, particularly Louise's, for whom an ability to communicate has done little to help her connect with her fractured self.
"When we started we knew it was a profound, poetic story," Villeneuve said by phone from Hungary, where he's shooting the "Blade Runner" sequel. "It was a challenge to bring that to the screen because it was a science fiction movie we're not so used to seeing — the science fiction film that says something about reality."
The balance between sci-fi ambition and human feeling wasn't easy, he said. "It's a very delicate movie — you have to make sure the intellectual aspects do not block the emotional ones."
That more than anything may be the theme of Villeneuve's current career phase — the notion of raising political and psychological issues in an oblique and genre-packaged way. "Arrival" is really about societal response to fear, much the way "Prisoners" was essentially about the CIA-torture debate. "Arrival" also contains a premise given a more direct timeliness by the recent discovery of an unknown galactic signal, even if said signal was soon not what it seemed.
Renner said he was similarly moved by big ideas in making the film. "Thematically, it's about what unites us and what divides us," he said during a break at the festival. "Like religion, language does that more than almost anything else. That's what makes Denis who he is: He's asking these questions in this really entertaining story."
Since its premiere here Monday, "Arrival" has engendered comparisons to Christopher Nolan works — the movie conjures obvious reference points like "Interstellar" and "Insomnia" as well some less-expected ones. The film has also provoked discussion about its ending, which manages the tricky outcome of narrative satisfaction and feverish inquiry.
If "Arrival" will elicit an intense fan debate about its enigmas, the film is also a marketing puzzle for the studio. "Arrival" has an eminently sellable alien-invasion conceit, but its slower and more philosophical moments could confound a certain portion of the mainstream audience. In the days of "Contact" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" this would, of course, not be an issue; in the days of "Transformers and "The Avengers," it might.
Villeneuve said he believed his film could attract a wide audience, though he did call it an "experiment" for a major studio.
Then again, as a director who's next putting the man-vs.-machine subgenre in his sightlines, he's always been happy to fiddle.
"I know that some people are excited and some are angry," he said of the "Blade Runner" sequel. "It's like working off a novel. You try to keep the essence, you try to keep the poetry alive, which is what I'm trying to do with Ridley [Scott]. But it's also obvious to everyone that I'm a very different filmmaker."
He continued by offering a general philosophy, a lens through which one can view the career choices that took him to "Prisoners," "Sicario," "Arrival" and those films yet to come.
"I guess I like [the] notion of risk. That drives my activity. It's always been my spark, and it's maybe led me to create a little dangerously."