Denis Villeneuve goes from Sicario to sci-fi
“I AM VERY pleased with the reception,” says director Denis Villeneuve, on the phone to
Empire from Hungary. “I wasn’t able to leave my set, so I sent both my actors there alone. If the movie had been badly received I would have felt very bad for them.”
“There” is the Venice Film Festival. “The movie” is alien-visitation drama Arrival, which was unveiled in early September to rapturous applause. Starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, it sees a talented linguist (Adams) urgently trying to ascertain whether an alien vessel has come in peace. As for the film that prevented Villeneuve from blessing the Lido with his wry, Canadian presence, it’s a little project known as Blade
Runner 2, currently shooting in Budapest. With the likes of Sicario and Prisoners, the 48-year-old has forged a reputation for stylish, emotionally grave thrillers. So why the sudden shift into sci-fi?
Villeneuve laughs. “If you were to ask my friends, they would say, ‘How come you waited so long?’” He was raised on a diet of Philip K Dick, Arthur C Clarke and “a lot of Frank Herbert”. Not for him, B-movie blasters and warp drives; he has longed to grapple with the grand, philosophical themes of Kubrick and Tarkovsky. “I am making the sci-fi I like,” he says. “Not so much about war, but about mankind’s essential quest. It works as a metaphor for trying to understand reality.”
Based on the 1998 novella Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Arrival asks the question: if an alien species turned up, how could we hope to communicate? Where Close Encounters Of The
Third Kind used music to parley, Arrival attempts to decipher an airborne language like something exhaled from a Blade Runner chimney stack.
In Chiang’s tale, the aliens — or “heptapods” — are towering, multi-limbed creatures with no discernible front or back. Villeneuve wanted to convey a “presence” he compares to an elephant in the mist, but ultimately like nothing from Earth. “I wanted to feel a higher intelligence,” he explains. “The feeling not of awe, but of terror. They are the evocation of death.”
He’s now tackling an even mightier challenge: how to recreate the industrio-existentialist noir of Blade Runner. Set decades on, with LA spread out like corrosion, the sequel stars Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford, but the plot is still smogged in secrecy. “It’s a very intense trip,” Villeneuve offers. “Ryan Gosling is insanely good and I am very inspired, but that is a huge monster.” After Arrival, there’s little doubt he will do a man’s job,
as Blade Runner’s gruff cop Gaff would say...
Clockwise from main: The scientists take a bold step into alien territory; Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner attempt to crack the code; The team await a higher intelligence; a statuesque spacecraft hovers ominously above Earth.