What the Rise of Denis Villeneuve Could Mean for Genre Movies

As the director charts a path from 'Arrival' to 'Blade Runner' to 'Dune' — are audiences and executives looking for filmmakers instead of franchises to lead the way once again?
Paramount Pictures
'Arrival'

There has, for years now, been a tendency to look at filmmakers or creators as figureheads for the genre movement. It can likely be traced back to George Lucas and the fandom surrounding Star Wars, but in 2005, that mantle was handed to Joss Whedon, and from there, arguably, to J.J. Abrams via his success with Lost, Cloverfield, Star Trek and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

With the news that Arrival director Denis Villeneuve is in talks to helm the reboot of Dune, fresh off the debut of the first trailer for his Blade Runner sequel, it feels as if the crown is about to be passed once again — but in a way that suggests something is shifting inside larger genre culture.

It's clear that Villeneuve's star is on the rise. Arrival was a critical hit that demonstrated the director's ability to work with genre material after movies such as Sicario and Prisoners, and although he's followed it up with more franchise-centric fare — Blade Runner 2049 is, after all, a sequel and Dune, should it happen, the first movie in a projected franchise that will include movies and TV shows — both projects feel more individual and creator-driven than, say, Star Wars or the Marvel movies.

(Of course, that's the case right now; should Legendary announce a "Dune creative committee" within the next few days, all bets are off. Blade Runner, like the Alien franchise, meanwhile, feels very much like a property where anything goes as long as it pleases Ridley Scott.)

This feels notable, somehow. Following projects like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Black Panther or Suicide Squad, it had started to feel as if the expected trajectory for up-and-coming directors was one that ended with them being plugged into a massive, multiple-movie property where they'd have to interact with other projects and toe the line in terms of narrative needs, if not visual flair. Villeneuve's next few projects seem set to sidestep this career path while still working on projects that are just as high-profile, if not arguably more so.

It's tempting to herald this as a signifier that genre movies are ready to shift away from the multi-movie franchises of the last few years, but that might simply be personal desire influencing a reading of the facts. After all, it's not as if this year avoided stand-alone works that allowed directors to play, but just as audiences embraced Arrival, Passengers doesn't look to fare as well, despite the presence of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in lead roles.

Nonetheless, there's something thrilling about the prospect that the most high-profile director in genre cinema is one who isn't attached to a monolithic "cinematic universe" that exists inside a continuum of movies and properties announced years in advance, built around multimedia franchises with no end in sight. Perhaps it means that audiences — and, maybe, possibly, movie executives — are looking for new (old) ways to approach the genre outside of the dominant Marvel Studios model, after close to a decade.

Let's look to Villeneuve's next few years as a trial balloon to prove that there's a way to approach franchise properties in a manner that manages to be unique, individual and additive to the greater whole at the same time. Let's hope that Blade Runner 2049 and Dune prove to be successes that are recognized as good stand-alone movies as much as centerpieces for larger expansions of intellectual property — and that the lesson learned will be to ease up on the homogeny of franchises and cinematic universe going forward. And, finally, let's cross our fingers that Villeneuve doesn't decide against rebooting Dune in favor of directing Doctor Strange 2 anytime soon.

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