Sunday, November 27, 2016

Review: Arrival (2016)

Arrival (2016)

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language

Score: 4 out of 5

In the last several years, Denis Villeneuve has quietly become one of my favorite filmmakers working today, making outstanding thrillers like Prisoners and Sicario of a sort that are of an increasingly rare breed in modern Hollywood: the mid-budget films between the indies and the blockbusters. There's something old-fashioned about his films, the sort of movies that were a dime a dozen in the '80s and '90s but are an endangered species nowadays, lacking the budget for bombastic special effects and instead focusing more on plot, characters, and ideas to compensate. His latest film, Arrival, sees him taking on science fiction with a story that's more Ex Machina than Transformers, about the arrival of aliens on Earth and the attempts of the world's nations to communicate with them. The visuals are sparse, there's only one explosion in the whole film, and the story revolves around stopping the world's militaries from trying to blow the aliens out of the sky. It's a film that, now more than ever, we need more of, an intelligent science fiction story that (without spoiling anything) reminded me of classic Twilight Zone episodes in all the right ways.

The setup is that twelve mysterious alien spaceships have arrived on Earth, landing at seemingly random sites all over the planet. With uncertainty about their intentions causing panic, the world's governments initiate attempts to communicate with the visitors. The US enlists linguist and professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) for its team led by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to enter the ship that landed in Montana, where they find a pair of cephalopod-like creatures, dubbed "Abbott" and "Costello" by the humans, whose means of communication are as utterly alien as their physiology. These aren't little green men who politely ask us to take them to our leader -- merely figuring out what, if anything, they're saying is a challenge, let alone what they want. The job is made even more difficult by the fact that Louise is working through the grief of having recently lost her daughter to an incurable disease... or so it seems, as Louise starts having visions of her daughter that eerily reflect the progress of her current work.

And I am going to stop right there, because to say anything more would be to give away too much. This is a film that's built around a twist, and I can scarcely even discuss the themes of this film without revealing it. It's a twist that's not given to us all at once, but is insinuated and slowly unfurled over the course of the film, making it as much about the journey as it is the final destination. All I can say is that the short story this film was based on was titled "Story of Your Life", and that that is a very appropriate title given what is revealed about both the aliens and Louise. It is a feature-length Twilight Zone episode of a sort that Rod Serling would have been proud of, one that hearkens back to the '60s/'70s "new wave" of science fiction, as well as Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.

Just name-dropping that specific title may be enough to spoil the twist, so I guess here is where I stop talking about the writing altogether and move on to the direction. Denis Villeneuve seems to have taken a break here from the darkness of his past films, as while the visuals are often sparse and washed-out, the vistas on display are still magnificent. Montana's big sky country looks vast and imposing, and the ships look eerie, mysterious, and truly alien, bearing the faintest resemblance to a flying saucer but otherwise looking unlike anything humans could possibly make. Even though the film mostly takes place at the military base from Louise's point of view, Villeneuve does a great job communicating the growing uncertainty that is going on elsewhere in the world, through news reports, a ranting political talk show host, communications with the other teams trying to communicate with their spaceships, and a great opening scene at Louise's university that reminded me of the fear and uncertainty that filled the air after 9/11. This film may be light on action and special effects, but it still had a vast, epic feel to it. Amy Adams is phenomenal as Louise, a brilliant yet traumatized person whose job and personal life turn out to be more connected than she or the audience believes, as is Jeremy Renner as the head of the research team and Forest Whitaker as the military officer in charge (inexplicable Boston accent aside). The only weak link in the entire film, in my opinion, was Adams and Renner's romance. While it plays a major role in the end, I found that the two actors, while great on their own, didn't really have a whole lot of chemistry together, which took some of the impact out of it. (Then again, the fact that the reclining seats at the theater I went to seemed designed to put me to sleep, and not only on this occasion, meant that I may have missed the subtleties of their relationship. I really need to see this movie again.)

The Bottom Line:

Yeah, not really a whole lot I can say without spoiling it. What I will say is this: if you're looking for a smart, slow-burn science fiction movie that's more about big ideas than explosions, don't miss this.

No comments:

Post a Comment