The Canadian director has recently stepped into Hollywood with movies like “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival”, demonstrating his value and his unique directing style in relation to stunning imagery and storytelling.
After winning the Canadian Screen Award for Best Director four times, Denis Villeneuve has started working on psychological thrillers like “The Prisoners”, “Enemy” and “Sicario”. These three movies have a lot in common, as the director really tried to put on screen the existential crisis the characters are going through, and he does it perfectly, depicting human behavior and reactions to life-changing events, using light schemes and precise camera shots to give the audience a real feel of what’s going on in a particular scene.
But his best was yet to come out. After “Sicario” (2015), he switched to a totally different genre with “Arrival”, which arrived in theaters in 2016, and was well-received by both critics and audiences, earning him 8 Academy Award nominations and winning one for Sound Editing.
“Arrival” set a lot of records for the director. His dive into sci-fi was very much a surprise. The movies mentioned above are all set in a sort of real world where broken people are always looking for an answer. However, ”Arrival” changed that while still maintaining the essence of Villeneuve. There is still a broken character forced to deal with life-changing questions, but this is set in a world that, for the first time, has contact with aliens.
This movie is about Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistic expert recruited to interpret the language and communicate with aliens landed with gigantic spaceships on 12 different locations on earth. As global nations are on the brink of a global war, Banks and her team begin a race against time trying to find the best way to communicate with them, find out what their purpose on earth is and try to establish a connection. Villeneuve does a wonderful job portraying the meeting between our world and theirs and establishing a separation. He uses music and sounds to help the audience imagine the strangeness of such creatures even before we see them. When the movie begins, the music is a melancholy arrangement of stringed instruments. We’ve never heard this particular score before, but we recognize that it is of our world. It is familiar and human.
The next time we hear music, Dr. Banks approaches the alien craft in a long and beautiful aerial shot. This time, it is a kind of music that is not of our world. It’s a sort of hum with a melody that sounds almost like a whale song, but way more foreign and uncomfortable. So, before we even see a creature, we begin “to feel” them, simply by listening. The sounds get deeper and louder as the crew enters the spaceship, and reach its maximum when they arrive in front of the aliens, and we finally realize that the buzzing was actually the aliens’ way of talking.
But sound is not the only device Villeneuve uses in his works to reach his audience. In his latest movie, “Blade Runner 2049” he does a wonderful job mixing cinematography and production design to set up a futuristic world that transports the audience to a new world. This movie is set in 2049 and is a sequel to the world famous 1982 “Blade Runner”. The story is about “K”, a replicant who works for the L.A. Police Department, who uncovers a long-hidden secret that could start a war between humans and replicants. This leads him to meet Rick Deckard, a former blade runner (the one from the original movie) who’s been missing for 30 years.
Our first look at this world is a series of aerial shots of what we assume is an agricultural region. We see a gigantic solar farm and now we know that, in this future, solar energy is a dominant resource. Later, “K” (Ryan Gosling) flies to Los Angeles. This is our first introduction to the city. The first three shots show us a sea of gray and claustrophobic urban sprawl. The buildings are lifeless and indistinguishable. There are no lights or colors anywhere. In the next few shots, we begin to see a small variety with small bursts of distant neon lights. We also get to see the first few skyscrapers, breaking up the vertical ground. The city begins to take shape until we see the tilt of the camera that finally shows us this version of Los Angeles, a huge hive of civilization and technology. This happens in the first 15 minutes, but the movie is full of shots like this. Every single location presented to us has its own characteristic personality that surrounds the narrative, as you can see below.
Good storytelling in movies like these usually comes from a perfect cooperation between the director and the production designers, and in Blade Runner 2049 we can see a perfect example of this.