Checking in, with a new film to chit-chat about.
What did we see this week?
Arrival is the new film from Denis Villeneuve, who is on something of a roll these days. Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario – he’s been making films that are always engaging, always well-performed, and both slickly entertaining and weighty when needs be. He’s one of the few directors today that brings a mood with him – an atmosphere that pervades his work but never overpowers them. This follows to Arrival.
The film follows Louise Banks, a language professor played by Amy Adams, who suffers a horrific tragedy as the film opens – we see her lose a cherished loved one in the classic “Motivational Dead Family Member” way that would be horribly cloying and clichéd except for the fact that Amy Adams is pretty much the next Meryl Streep and can actually do no wrong. She sells this. She sells everything.
Woman’s got range, is what I’m saying.
As she lectures one morning to an empty classroom, phones beep and laptops alert and ALIENS have arrived (get it, it’s the name of the film).
12 alien ships, to be exact, in locations that cannot be explained by Earth Scienticians. What do they want? Why are they here? Questions abound, and only one person can answer them… apparently.
In short order, Adams is recruited by Forest Whitaker to help to translate the aliens’ language.
She is also introduced to Ian Scientist-Man, who is an astrophysics nerd (sorry, Scientist) and is played by Jeremy Renner.
Together, they must decipher the language of the aliens, but only by meeting them in person at Adams’ insistence.
This early stretch of the film is a wonderful, gradual build of tension. Every facet of the makeshift facility – long tunnels, health check-ins, big orange suits, ominous screens, Michael Stuhlbarg, suggest that disaster (or an ambiguous tornado perhaps representing repressed masculinity) is just around the corner.
The alien ship looms in the distance, looking a little like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange segment.
They enter via a cherry-picker until the point where gravity stops working and they walk up the shagging wall to meet the aliens.
The extraterrestrials in Arrival are very well designed and deployed in the modestly budgeted (50 Million!) film – looming like underwater squids in their fog-filled partition. I did think early on that two (who are nicknamed Abbott and Costello by the human crew) were the hands of one giant creature – which would have been fitting, considering the film is about language, and understanding and the creation of connections. However, they are definitely individual aliens.
Their language is the crux of the entire film. Emitting a living gaseous cloud, the aliens write like me after a couple of bottles of wine.
And here is where the film makes a mild mis-step for me, or so I thought. Just as things get interesting, with Louise and Ian introducing themselves to the aliens and about to make serious progress, we skip ahead via a montage.
“What?” I thought to myself. “I thought the film was about this. First contact. Building links. Negotiating with other countries in the their efforts. Uniting humanity!” Isn’t it?
Throughout the film, we get Nolan-esque flashbacks to Adams’ Motivational Dead Family Member when she has moments of introspection, or crises, or conflicts that can always be solved by a personal item or connection from the Batman’s Dad’s Stethoscope Wheelhouse….
and I gradually grew more and more frustrated with Arrival until…
It suddenly reveals that it is possibly a work of genius.
But to explain how would spoil it for you, and for once, I don’t think spoiling the film is what’s called for here.
Arrival uses the language of cinema itself against its audience. It represents an act of deception that is built around our own understanding of story beats, tropes and construction and actively uses that knowledge against you as a viewer.
Problems and issues that I thought were clichéd and cloying in fact turn out to be purposefully and carefully subverted, reversed, and repurposed in an extended close that had me picking my jaw up off the floor initially, and afterwards, and ever since. The more I think about the film, the more I realise that it is an exceptionally intelligent piece of work, on several different levels. Any gripes (and there are a few) I can think of are actually answered, or at least attended to, by the script if you think about them for long enough. For that alone, it deserves a huge amount of credit.
Whether you go along with Arrival‘s final twists will really depend on your feelings toward something that looks like hard sci-fi pulling back it’s curtain to reveal a human drama that is both incredibly personal, and wonderfully played, and also wide-ranging in the questions bubbling just under it’s surface.
It out-Nolan’s Nolan in the final stretch, and as something of a sucker for that man’s indulgences (Yes, even parts of Rises are OK by me), I was caught off-guard and completely beguiled by it.
Denis Villeneuve is directing the sequel to Blade Runner, my favourite film of all time.
So, uh…. Sign me up, I guess.