Saturday, December 24, 2016

All in on "Arrival"

I rarely tear up during the opening scenes of a film, but it happened during "Arrival." Maybe it was the use of Max Richter's stirring "On the Nature of Daylight," which bookends the rest of the score. Maybe it was the opening shot, a slow, steady tilt that brings us into an empty house and the inner life of our heroine. Maybe it was the opening monologue by Amy Adams, playing Dr. Louise Banks, calmly telling her daughter about the day she was born and then the day she died, tragically, while still a teenager. Maybe it was because director Denis Villeneuve decided to start his film about aliens arriving on earth here, with moments of deeply intimate joy and grief.

And don't doubt that "Arrival" is primarily about those aliens, who appear one day aboard a dozen massive spaceships, in random spots around the world. Immediately, their presence inspires fear and distrust, and everyone wants answers immediately. However, those answers are very slow in coming. Louise and her fellow scientists not only have to puzzle out the intentions of the aliens, but do it in a climate of increasing paranoia and global unrest. I don't want to say much more about the plot, because so much of the fun of "Arrival" is the wonderful in the way that it slowly reveals information about the aliens, from news reports of alien ships around the globe, to Louise being recruited by US Army Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) to aid in translation efforts, to actually making contact alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

It has been a long time since I've seen a film about trying to communicate with a mysterious alien race that went about it in such levelheaded, believable terms. I love science-fiction mysteries and I love procedurals, so I found it immensely gratifying to see Louise, a linguist, walking the other characters through the basic steps of learning to communicate with the aliens, who are eventually dubbed "heptapods" because they walk on seven legs. Having read the Ted Chiang story that the film was based on, "The Story of Your Life," I'm more mixed about the addition of the geopolitical elements, especially the actions of a Chinese general (Tzi Ma), who escalates tensions in the last act. "Arrival" is already being widely compared to "Contact," which also took a more measured, thoughtful approach to a first contact scenario. However, "Arrival" strikes me a the more standard genre film, since it acts like a typical thriller more often than I think was necessary.

That said, "Arrival" is not a typical thriller, but a talky, conceptually high-minded science fiction film with some real ambitions. At the same time, it's not afraid to be nakedly sentimental and humane in a way that few films of this type are. I'm thankful that Amy Adams' performance and her character's personal journey remain at the center of the story. The narrative is a challenging one, and she does an excellent job of giving Louise a strong emotional core in the midst of a fantastic situation. "Arrival" leans as heavily on emotional elements as is does on the cerebral ones, ultimately, marrying its big cosmic ideas to existential human melodrama in a very appealing way. So while I think that the writing could have been better, and there are a few too many concessions to ensure mass appeal, "Arrival" succeeds at being thought-provoking, and deeply moving cinema through and through.

Denis Villeneuve has been a director I've found very hit or miss, and I worried after "Sicario" whether he was determined to make bleakly nihilistic films for the rest of his career. "Arrival," however, reveals a softer, more hopeful side that I'd like to see more of in his upcoming "Blade Runner" film. Technically, his work here is fantastic. The budget was modest, but the visuals are so beautifully conceived, thematically echoing each other in creative ways. The aliens' communications are especially fascinating, rendered in a detailed system of circular symbols that were invented specifically for the film. And cinematographer Bradford Young makes sure you can't take your eyes off the impossible alien ships.

I should add a final caveat here that I didn't see "Arrival" under the best conditions, and being familiar with the story beforehand meant I already knew most of the film's best secrets. That's probably why I don't love the film as much as I was hoping too. However, I still found much of it remarkable to experience, and can certainly appreciate all the effort and the daring it took to bring it to the screen.


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