Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Arrival Review

I remember a time growing up when science fiction almost felt like shameful, dirty words, with any interest in them reflecting a person's level of uncool. Of course this was at a time when wearing a shirt with a superhero on it would have gotten someone beat up or mercilessly mocked, and these days the trendy stores with an adolescent target audience can't keep them on the shelves, so things change. When I was 15 years old a friend and I skipped school to wait outside all day for tickets to see Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, and it was a day I may never forget, yet when I returned to class the following morning I lied about what I had done the day prior. Had to. After all, the cute girls were sitting nearby and I wouldn't want to kill my (nonexistent) chances with them drowning in my nerd truth. I can't help but wonder if kids are lying about their interest in Star Wars now. I doubt it.

The funny thing about growing up embarrassed to be a fan of science fiction is just how broad of a genre it is and never having the balls to point this out. Only nerds like Sci-Fi, says the bully who went to see The Matrix four times in theaters. From fun, silly escapism to deep space travel to intensely personal, human stories, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Jurassic Park to The Hunger Games, the odds are strong at some point all of you have fallen in love with science fiction storytelling. For me, when the genre is at its absolute best, it taps into something deeper inside the audience, something moving and profound and perhaps even thematically polarizing. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is considered a science fiction film, but in reality it's a rich metaphor for coping with overwhelming, crippling grief. I can't even think about certain scenes in that picture without feeling the sudden urge to weep, but tears are not required for a Sci-Fi movie to resonate. Make me angry, make me hurt, inspire me or scare the living shit out of me, I don't care. I just want to feel something.

Why does it not surprise me that the best of the genre from 2016 would come from Denis Villeneuve, a filmmaker who has consistently delivered incredible cinema on a nearly annual basis since 2009 when Polytechnique was released, his dramatization of the massacre that took place at a school in Montreal in 1989. After that it was Incendies, the story of two twins honoring their mother's final wishes to travel to the Middle East to discover the roots of their ancestry. Next was the bone chilling child kidnapping story Prisoners, probably my favorite of all his extraordinary work, followed by Enemy, a surreal mystery thriller about a man trying to find his exact double that he spots in the background of a movie frame. Last year Villeneuve unleashed Sicario, a gritty and brutal look at the violence along the U.S. - Mexico border involving the drug cartels as the FBI tries to bring them down.

This brings us to his 2016 Oscar contender Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer and based on the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. The film is smart, gorgeous, intimate and fascinating, with a screenplay that never allows itself to be dumbed-down in order to sort itself out with simplicity for the audience. Villeneuve and crew, notably Heisserer, director of photography Bradford Young and composer Jóhann Jóhannson, have created something that simultaneously feels current and important for today and yet a work that could have found its audience decades ago, a movie that should be celebrated for its originality while still demonstrating that it found inspiration in the work of Tarkovsky, Kubrick and more recently Zemekis with Contact, which was of course based on the writing of Carl Sagan.

Arrival tells the story of linguist Louise Banks, played brilliantly by the outstanding and perfectly cast Amy Adams, and the opening shots of the movie tread in some familiar and some would say fatigued trope territory, but fear not, for this film has quite the surprise in store for the audience in the end. We see Louise and her daughter Hannah, a short montage of images of their relationship ending in Hannah's death from cancer while still in adolescence. Next we see Louise arriving to give a college lecture with everyone around her distracted by television sets broadcasting images of the incredible breaking news, the sudden arrival of twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft spread out randomly across the world. At this point I fully admit I was one of those concerned about the tired nature of where this would inevitably end, immediately questioning if the aliens would provide her some sort of afterlife connection to her daughter as a less than shocking emotional conclusion. I should have trusted the talent involved here to dig deeper and give me more, and they certainly did.

Louise finds herself involved in making first contact with the alien visitors after Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) asks her to join the team in order to try to understand their form of language in hopes for answers as to why they have come. Working alongside Louise is physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and the sequences involving their direct communication with the two seven-limbed creatures, or "heptapods", instantly feel like top-tier cinema thanks to a pitch-perfect performance from Adams and stunning imagery. If you are waiting for violence, explosions and war, for revelations of weapon technology that the aliens plan to use for human annihilation, you have come to the wrong place with Arrival. Sure, the concept of defense due to the unknown motivations of these creatures is always in play, as well it should be when the military is involved in protecting humanity against a threat, but the point of this story is far more cerebral and heavy and essential than it devolving into such obvious and redundant territory.

Arrival serves as a reminder of the importance of intellect, communication and kindness at a time when it feels like our world wants to shoot first and ask questions later. There is a scene during the film when the different countries from around the globe decide to stop cooperating with each other, to break contact and instead focus on the threat solely directed at their own land and I couldn't help but think of numerous issues currently making headlines, from refugees needing a place to go for safety yet facing threats of closed borders to a universal pact on trying to reverse the negative effects of climate change while a newly elected ignoramus threatens to turn his back on the deal. We need intelligence. We need to communicate. We need to speak to each other with understanding and compassion in order to see the whole picture through clear eyes.

I cannot and would not go into detail regarding the end of this film, as I try to always remain spoiler free, but it is certainly something that will spark a lot of internal and external questioning while exiting the theater. Arrival is utterly spellbinding science fiction, one of the best films of 2016.



  1. Arrival is such a great movie, and I think it's Denis' best made film. My personal favorite would have to be Enemy, but I feel like Arrival will be a film where I'll love it more and more the more I rewatch it. Such a smart screenplay, and great acting from everyone. The special effects were wonderful and done better than most blockbusters. This is definitely going on my top 10 of the year list.

    1. It's funny Cody, Prisoners is probably my favorite of his yet I do agree, Arrival is the most complete, well made of them all. I was never bothered at his previous stuff getting mostly ignored by the Oscars, outside of cinematography for Prisoners and screenplay I believe for Sicario, but Arrival is the first one that truly feels like it should be at least nominated for Picture.

    2. Ha, take that Robert Langdon!