5 Trademarks of Denis Villeneuve Movies

You know you’re watching a Denis Villeneuve movie when…
by Ken Miyamoto on March 6, 2024

The journey of Denis Villeneuve from Canadian short film director to one of the most respected figures in contemporary cinema is a testament to his vision and skill as a filmmaker. His Montreal-based features shaped his vision and style into what we know today. 

Villeneuve's move to Hollywood saw him bringing his distinctive style to a much broader audience. The underrated Prisoners (2013) is a gripping thriller exploring themes of morality and desperation. Villeneuve followed that film with the enigmatic Enemy (2013), a film creatively delving into identity and duality. Sicario (2015), a tense crime thriller set on the US-Mexico border, really put the filmmaker on the map.

Villeneuve's foray into science fiction is what brought even greater acclaim. Arrival (2016), a thought-provoking exploration of language and time, received widespread critical acclaim. He followed that film with Blade Runner 2049 (2017), a visually stunning and philosophically rich sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott classic.

Villeneuve then shifted to another science fiction mainstay, Dune (2021), showcasing his ability to adapt complex source material into a visually spectacular and narratively engaging film, with a sequel on its way. 

But what is it about Denis Villeneuve that stands apart from his peers? What are some of the trademarks of Villeneuve’s movies that have come to represent his unique style? 

Here, we explore five of his cinematic trademarks and common themes in the filmmaker's resume. 

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) standing in front of the alien's in 'Arrival'

'Arrival' (2016)

Denis Villeneuve Tackles Iconic Science Fiction IP

Denis Villeneuve’s most notable trademark as of late is his handling of iconic science fiction intellectual property (IP). 

With Blade Runner 2049, he revisited a classic science fiction film directed by iconic director Ridley Scott. The original Blade Runner was a notable box office bomb but has since been recognized as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time.

Ironically, Villeneuve’s direct sequel, Blade Runner 2049, was also considered a box-office failure, grossing “just” $267 million worldwide off of a $150 million budget. Regardless, the sequel has gone on to be recognized as a contemporary classic in the genre. Time will tell if it reaches the iconic status of the original, but there’s no escaping the fact that he took the story to a whole new level. 

K (Ryan Gosling) with a bandage over his nose while looking at a hologram in 'Blade Runner 2049,' 5 Trademarks of Denis Villeneuve Movies

'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

Despite tackling one of his favorite beloved classics, and seeing the film fail to draw the box office numbers the studio had hoped for, Villeneuve couldn’t resist taking on an even more difficult project—Dune.

The original 1983 David Lynch adaptation does have a cult following, but the film failed to reach the heights of Star Wars (1977). The production team struggled through a challenging production and post-production process, resulting in a film version that was occasionally confusing and other times simply weird and disjointed. For decades, people have often labeled the novel "unshootable" due to its difficult themes and overly expansive narratives.

But that didn’t scare Villeneuve away. He created a vibrant, epic, and masterful adaptation of the source material that will continue in its sequel, Dune: Part Two (2024). 

It goes without question that his greatest and most recognizable trademark is the handling of two beloved science fiction properties. His updates were masterful. 

Read More: The Screenwriting Dos and Don'ts of Intellectual Property

Answer-Seeking Protagonists

Each of Denis Villeneuve’s films presents answer-seeking protagonists thrust into unfamiliar worlds. So much so that it has become a trademark of his cinematic stories. 


Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a desperate father, faces the unfamiliar world of crime and moral compromise as he searches for his missing daughter. His quest for answers drives him to take extreme measures.


The film features a protagonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) who encounters his exact look-alike, propelling him into a surreal and unfamiliar psychological landscape. He seeks to understand the nature of his own identity.


FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is drawn into the morally complex and dangerous world of the drug war at the U.S.-Mexico border. 


Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is thrust into the unfamiliar world of extraterrestrial communication. She seeks to understand the aliens' language and their purpose on Earth, navigating a landscape of global tension and uncertainty.

Blade Runner 2049

K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant blade runner, finds himself on a journey that questions his own identity and existence. He is thrust into a world where he seeks the truth about his origins and the larger mystery surrounding replicants.


Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) finds himself transported to the unfamiliar and dangerous world of Arrakis. He seeks to understand his place in the complex political and environmental landscape of this new world, navigating prophecy, power struggles, and his emerging abilities.

Villeneuve's protagonists not only physically transport into new environments but also face intellectual and moral challenges, leading them on profound journeys of discovery.

The Cinematography in Denis Villeneuve's Movies

You know it’s a Denis Villeneuve movie when the cinematography is stunning. Five of the last six Denis Villeneuve films have received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

  • Prisoners, Cinematography by Roger Deakins: This film's dark and atmospheric visual style earned Deakins an Oscar nomination.
  • Sicario, Cinematography by Roger Deakins: The film was nominated for its stark landscapes and intense, shadowy interiors.
  • Arrival, Cinematography by Bradford Young: Young's work, known for its soft, natural lighting and muted color palette, contributed significantly to the film's atmospheric mood, earning him an Oscar nomination.
  • Blade Runner 2049, Cinematography by Roger Deakins: Deakins won his first Academy Award for Best Cinematography for this film, which was lauded for its stunning visuals, including the use of color, lighting, and composition.
  • Dune, Cinematography by Greig Fraser: Fraser's breathtaking portrayal of the vast deserts and intricate environments of Arrakis earned him an Oscar nomination.

In each of his films, the cinematography is not just a visual tool but an integral part of storytelling, enhancing the mood, tone, and thematic depth. It immerses the audience in Villeneuve's meticulously crafted worlds.

There's a coherent stylistic thread in Villeneuve's work that combines meticulous composition, atmospheric use of color and light, and a focus on both the expansive settings and the intimate character moments.

The cinematography often reflects the themes of each of his films. The disorienting and surreal visuals in Enemy mirror the protagonist's psychological turmoil, while the vast, hostile landscapes in Dune underscore themes of survival and destiny.

Denis Villeneuve's Signature Use of Music and Sound

Denis Villeneuve masterfully uses music and sound to shape the narrative and emotional landscape of his cinematic worlds, distinguishing his films. The soundtracks and sound designs are as meticulously crafted as the visuals in his films. They almost become characters in their own right.

PrisonersSicario, and Arrival were scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson. His minimalist approach in Prisoners creates a tense and somber mood. The subtle soundscapes and the strategic use of silence and ambient sounds create an atmosphere filled with unease and foreboding, amplifying the narrative's emotional intensity.

For Sicario, Jóhannsson created a pulsating, rhythmic score that mirrors the film's escalating tension and moral ambiguity. The use of low-frequency sounds, in particular, heightens the unsettling atmosphere, underlining the film's intense and suspenseful storyline.

Four agents walking into a house in 'Sicario'

'Sicario' (2015)

In Arrival, the music is integral to the film's unique atmosphere. The blend of orchestral elements with experimental sounds, including human voices and otherworldly tones, beautifully reflects the film’s themes of communication and the concept of time. 

Blade Runner 2049 and Dune were scored by Hans Zimmer (Benjamin Wallfisch contributed to the latter). The Blade Runner 2049 score pays homage to the original Blade Runner soundtrack while introducing new, atmospheric elements. The synth-heavy score perfectly complements the film's neo-noir, futuristic setting.

Hans Zimmer's score for Dune stands out for its epic scale and otherworldly quality. Zimmer's use of unconventional instruments and digital manipulations creates a unique soundscape that is grand and immersive, matching the vastness and alien nature of Arrakis. The meticulous sound design, capturing the nuances of the desert environment, the advanced technology, and the aliens, is instrumental in realizing the fully fleshed-out world of Dune that Villeneuve has created. 

Villeneuve draws the audience deeper into the narrative with the sound design and score of each of his films. In particular, his science fiction films—ArrivalBlade Runner 2049, and Dune—have immersive sound designs and scores that sound otherworldly (or futuristic). All three films received Oscar nominations for their score or sound design. Dune was nominated for both. 

Yes, when you hear a Denis Villeneuve, you know it’s one of his. 

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) looking at each other with concern in 'Arrival'

'Arrival' (2016)

Denis Villeneuve Crafts Complex Narratives

A Denis Villeneuve film is never a by-the-numbers predictable cinematic story. Every film he has brought to the big screen has multiple twists and turns that play against viewers' expectations.

Even the adaptation of a successful and iconic novel like Dune manages to create twists and turns that we didn’t see coming. And Villeneuve’s attachment to Dune was a perfect storm of complex narratives. As mentioned before, filmmakers deemed the original novel unfilmable due to the complexity of the story and world created by the author.

With Villenneuve’s already complex narrative trademark in his films leading up to Dune, he was the perfect director to take on the challenge of such a difficult adaptation. 

Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and Chani (Zendaya) looking longingly at each other in 'Dune: Part Two)

'Dune: Part Two' (2024)


We won’t go into detail about the complex narratives and many twists and turns found in his movies. We’ll save that for your viewing pleasure. However, it’s a true Denis Villeneuve trademark that you’ll see a trend throughout his films. 

Read More: Pitfalls of Epic Adaptation: Why 'Dune' Was So Hard to Get Right Onscreen


ScreenCraft Preparation Notes

Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies and Instagram @KenMovies76

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