02 December 2016

First Impressions: Arrival

Almost everyone has had a pretty rough 2016 - at least everyone who prefers social justice and stable government. But there's a time and a place for that. 2016's sheer awfulness has bled into the cinema as well, with the current slate of Oscar contenders being one of the most disengaged with popular opinion in quite some time. Sure a lot of these are good movies, but very few of them have any mainstream appeal at all. That's not totally a bad thing, of course, but usually good Oscar films are still widely seen. Everything seems under the radar this year, which feels bait-y in all kinds of the worst way, contrary for many years now where the winner was actually a relatively unlikely nominee.

This is all a conversation to mostly have in January and February. For now, we can talk Arrival (2016), which feels like it should have mass appeal with its blatant sci-fi nature, but also holds enough cinematic integrity and a story based enough in humanity to render it relevant. It hasn't done crazily well, but at a current $65 million domestic it trails only Sully (2016) amongst major contenders.

I certainly enjoyed the flick, but it wasn't without its problems, either. If anything, it certainly proves that director Denis Villeneuve can handle just about any genre, from thrillers to psychological dramas to science fiction. Actually, Enemy (2014) was probably sci-fi. Right? Perhaps it's better to say that whatever genre he tackles turns into a Villeneuve film, which usually comes out pretty bleak, at least in cinematic tone.

That brings me to my first gripe - I'm not sure Villeneuve's choices here fit the story he was trying to tell. There is tremendous palpable tension constantly, and a dreadful, dreary colour palette throughout, which contrasts with an ultimately hopeful movie and message. There well be a solid amount of SPOILERS here on out for the endings of...well, let's say all of his films, so be warned for the next paragraph. SPOILERS for Arrival throughout the rest of this essay for sure.

Prisoners (2013) was an incredibly depressing movie that ultimately ended hopeful, depending on if you believe that Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) found Hugh Jackman under that car or not. But ultimately, even though the characters are pushed to their most desperate limits, everyone is saved in the end. There's hope through the despair. Enemy ends with...I don't really know what to make of that ending. It's such a non sequitor that doesn't necessarily clash with the rest of the film but certainly with any sense of logic or reality. That's kind of the point, though, and to read into Jake Gyllenhaal's (again) reaction as one of more demusement than shock at seeing a giant spider in his room (for the ininitiated, that's giant as in 7 feet tall) makes the ending more neutral than anything depressing. Sicario (2015) gets points for having a completely irredeemable ending. There's nothing good coming out of there but pain, blood, and personal and professional failure. And that's one of the brightest coloured Villeneuve flicks!

Arrival ends extremely positively, with the world returning from the brink of destruction through the efforts of Amy Adam's ability to foster communication where there previously was none. There's a glimmer of bitterness in her foreseen painful life, but her choice to go through it anyway is ultimately one of more hope for the good times than fear of the bad times. We need to unpack all this stuff in a bit, but for now, it's fair to say that Arrival ends pretty positively, although it lacks any kind of saccarhine tone, which is fantastically refreshing.

So why is Villeneuve this tonal flip-flopper? His cinematic efforts do not necessarily match up with his thematic efforts. Even though there is some ending incongruence that we just illustrated, I'm not sure that held back any of his previous efforts, but there is a mismatched sense of dread that permeates this story. Sure there's a lot of fear of the unknown here, and aliens are scary, but the creepy mist, jet-black halls, and score full of strings seemed to push this film in a direction that was ultimately unwarranted.

Other bits of Villeneuve's direction really annoyed me. There were a crazy amount of extreme close-up shots, mostly of Amy Adams, along with many shots with out of focus midgrounds or backgrounds that persisted for a long time. All of this of course worked to center us on Amy Adams' story, which is brilliant in its own way. From the opening flashback (which turns into a flash forward! More on that later), through her first class lecture, we are constantly centered around her perspective. It's telling that in a Roland Emmerich film, we'd be introduced to a dozen characters in fast cuts across the globe. Villeneuve centers us on Adams, and we read more into her facial reactions and learn more about how this invasion affects her (or doesn't - she seems jaded enough to never really lose a step when the whole world around her is falling apart), which counter-intuitively places us more into the crisis than we would if we were bouncing around with more information.

This all builds to the single greatest shot in the film - the ol' foggy hills of Montana as she approaches the mysterious object. Her first view is our first view, and it's a great way to stay true to her experience for as long as possible. I'm still annoyed by all those close-ups, though. Still, Amy Adams does great work here, although it's constantly subtle rather than loud and showy, and I'd guess that this isn't what she wins an Oscar for. Instead, she will walk home empty handed for the...sixth time?! She's always at the ceremony, isn't she? But this isn't really better than The Fighter (2010) or American Hustle (2013), and certainly not The Muppets (2011). There's also a healthy amount of competition this year, although no other real contemporary nominee is as as integral to her film as Adams is here. Well, Portman in Jackie (2016) for sure. Who knows, this is all prognostication that really belongs in January.

Everyone else here is pretty solid. Jeremy Renner is a kind of bro scientist that does good supporting work and offers levity without being cheeky. Forest Whitaker is a grouch, but ultimately pretty supportive. The only villain per se is Michael Stuhlbarg's CIA chief or whatever, but he's pragmatic rather than insane or manipulative. There's also the evil menace General Shang....who is actually a cool reasonable dude that this movie placates through compassion and understanding rather than force or violence.

That's really where Arrival bucks against most of 2016. This isn't a superhero film where we're just biding our time through all the crappy dialogue waiting for our heroes to duke it out. This isn't an abject failure of CGI gone insane like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016) or Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016). It's much more measured, contemplative, logical, and based on solving problems through science (or rather, linguistics - even better!) rather than explosions. In fact, the one explosion we get here nearly derails the whole experience.

It's all about timing I suppose, since that part (and the other ostensible villains) is relatively contemporary. You can all but picture a TRUMP '16 bumper sticker on the humvee of the handful of rebellious troops that decide to detonate a stack of C4 on our pour helpless heptapods based on the slow infection of paranoid right wing rhetoric that favors preemptive action over logical understanding. The pacifist message of not only clear communication, but true understanding is smattered all over this flick.

The aliens themselves are weird, and although I still think they're probably too arbitrarily creepy to fit this film's ultimate message, they do serve their purpose of being wholly and completely alien to our pour protagonists. Even their writing and language seems undecipherable at first, which serves the film's thought experiment logline of "What would linguists do in order to understand and communicate with an alien species?" Similar to every sci-fi film ever, the parable here is also clear - how can we better understand people of our own species? Or further, people of our own race and country, who certainly these days feel as if they're speaking a different language. It's a tough concept to wrestle with, and even though I really trashed Villeneuve earlier, I'm torn here because Arrival does a fantastic job (at least in a movie-sort of way) of demonstrating this thought experiment.

In general, I really liked how this film turned a lot of those alien tropes on their head. From their first steps, the gravity switches, indicating that everything here is not really expected. It's the inverse. When it seems like the ships are going to attack, the long vertical ovals turn on their side and become super-reminsicent of a normal alien saucer, here most blatantly, Independence Day (1996). You've got to picture the ship's gravity suddenly normalizing, as if he film is flirting with becoming a standard alien invasion thriller. This inverse of expectations runs through Arrival, which is most evident in its huge rug-pulling moment:

Throughout the film, especially in its UP (2009)-like super-sad opening montage, we get what we've been conditioned to expect are flashbacks of Amy Adams' earlier life with her daughter who got cancer and croaked. These are kind of forced and dumb, lacking a lot of true emotional impact. We're also embedded to think that this is the kind of person Adams is as she sleepwalks through her professional life. This is of course not the case as we slowly learn that through the magic of Sapir-Whorf (the hypothesis that if you learn to speak Klingon, you'll one day behave like one! Not really, and that's not even how it works, but read), by learning Heptapod, Adams is able to view her life all at once, or at least interact with future and present versions of herself, basically turning her into Dr. Manhattan. Thus, her flashbacks are actually flash-forwards, which does a lot to explain why she looks so damn young after having a teenager in her life already. Of course, Amy Adams is like 42 and could easily have a teenager, but her big "fuck you" to aging prevents that.

Thus Arrival suddenly opens up all these concepts of free will and determinism in addition to its comments about communication. It still rings true to the core concept of understanding though - through essentially a form of precognition we're able to further increase our understanding of the world and the people we deal with, as if we have hindsight as we're committing atrocities against each other. The core dilemma she receives is then her choice whether not to live the life she foresees (it's probably her choice. It's never really clear if she's seeing a definitive future version of her life or just one possible version. Like Prisoners, that's probably a good test of our optimism whether or not you think that her choosing to live her life anyway is a jail sentence or a chance at real happiness, which is now a counter to her earlier depression rather than its source). Her gaining knowledge in real time is pretty cool, as if memories are made as she realizes she needs to make them. It's got kind of a Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) "Let's go back in time and hide the key to our jail cells here!" sort of vibe, but it works.

Arrival is largely great despite my gripes, and beyond the extreme close-ups and maudlin desaturated cinematography it also looks great. There's never actually a lost sense of geography despite focusing on so many faces, which is an impressive achievement. Thematically the film is also outstanding with what I'm sure is a lot to unpack for years to come. It's also a surprisingly grounded sci-fi film, concerned more with if not science, then an intelligent, academic, logical procedure to dealing with it's unknowns than "shoot it!" There's a constant sense of the unexpected here and a true development of ideas that's all the more rare in modern filmmaking. Does it have any Oscar chances? Sure, but it's got a lot of typical drama bait crap to blow out first.

1 comment:

  1. Good review - captured Arrival very well. Yes, Amy Adams is defying aging - all those close-ups!!


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