Friday, November 18, 2016

Review: Arrival

by Rob DiCristino
“Why do I have to talk to him?”

Minor spoilers for Arrival ahead:

The best science fiction compels us to consider the world we know with an alteration or two, to ask “what if?” What if our defense systems became self-aware and turned on us? What if our reality was actually a computer simulation created by blood-sucking robots? What if someone forgot to lock all the dinosaur cages? It was only a matter of time before director Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Sicario) started asking those questions. His new film Arrival (based on the short “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang) is far broader and more ambitious than any of his work to date. In many ways, though, it’s a continuation of themes his fans will be familiar with: authority, social structures, and (pun absolutely intended) alienation. It’s a film about the constructs and connective tissues that make up a civilization on both a macro level (nations, governments) and a micro level (brain chemistry, phonetics). Most importantly, it’s about the way we communicate with each other and the chaos that arises when that communication breaks down.
Sometime in the near future, twelve alien ships touch down in various regions around the world. They hover silently upright and bear no visible weaponry or clear plan of attack. Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited by the U.S. military to make meaningful contact with the beings inside the “shell” that hangs above rural Montana. Their goal is to determine what these creatures are, how they got here, and what they intend to do. They join scientists and mathematicians from every world government, each of them using a variety of techniques (everything from binary code to advanced calculus) to establish some kind of dialogue with the alien visitors. Their first breakthrough comes when Louise discovers the squid-like Heptapods’ written language, a series of inky blotches that seem to hold a hidden message. She and the others must decipher that message before itchy trigger fingers around the world start an intergalactic war.

Arrival’s marketing has been largely spoiler-free, but there’s very little about the film to be gleaned from a few minutes of out-of-context footage, anyway; it’s really only comprehensible in the moment. Its visuals are stunning and bizarre: the Heptapods, a mix of H.G. Wells and H.R. Giger, float ominously in a murky fog behind a glass-like barrier. It’s a design that demands willing suspension of disbelief; we’re never going to suss out how their warp drives work or what their toilets look like. They’re more symbolic than anything else, faceless and ethereal. Seeing them isn’t the exciting or interesting part; it’s all about feeling their influence over Louise as the film progresses. At one point, she and Ian discuss the way learning a foreign language can rewire a person’s brain, meaning that the language we speak largely influences the patterns and pathways we use to think and make meaning. The more Louise learns about the Heptapods, the more her (and by extension, our) pathways change. She learns to think multi-directionally (“Imagine trying to write a sentence with two hands, each starting on either end of the page”), which changes our entire perception of the events that have happened and those which are to come.
That’s right: Arrival doesn’t just teach its protagonist to Think Different. It also plays with the very nature of cinematic language. Louise learns to write with both hands while we learn to feel time and space in new ways. We learn to reconsider the nature of what we saw before just as the film pivots toward introducing something new. Flashbacks become flash-forwards. Exposition becomes subtext. The very shape of the film changes. While Villeneuve clearly has a ton to say about cooperation, empathy, and the nuances of international diplomacy, the most successful parts of Arrival are in the audience’s experience. It gets us in lockstep with its rhythm so that we can recognize the narrative summersaults and subversions of expectation when they come later on. They don’t all work, but they do build to an epiphany moment that your friends will all lie and say they saw coming. It’s a remarkable achievement in storytelling that we’re going to be unraveling for years to come.

It’s also a stunning audio/visual exercise: Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young create stark lighting contrasts and barriers between characters within the frame that develop the theme of communication in an elegant way. We’re constantly looking at video screens or through glass panels, contrasting an odd sense of claustrophobia with the film’s otherwise sweeping visual landscapes. The shell’s design (as you’ve seen on the poster) is familiar enough that it doesn’t distract and yet unique enough to still be interesting. Villeneuve regular Jóhann Jóhannsson composes the kind of thumping, droning score that seems to be a staple of prestige science fiction, but he manages to walk a blurry line between diagetic and non-diagetic elements that leaves us wondering where one ends and the other begins. It may be trite at this point to say that a film must be seen in a theater, but Arrival is the kind of movie that wants to wash over you. You would do well to see it as big and loud as possible.
Arrival is likely to draw favorable comparisons to a film like Interstellar, another science fiction epic about the nature of choice and destiny. They share similar problems (not the least of which is an overwrought, plodding ending that feels like a bad studio note), but Arrival’s vision is much clearer and more satisfying. Some will complain that the characters are not fleshed-out enough, that the emotional stakes are underdeveloped. A second viewing might reveal that the film quietly builds its emotional stakes from the first frames; we just weren’t looking for them until they were right in front of us. It’s been said in other places that Arrival could not be a better antidote to the post-apocalyptic political landscape the U.S. currently finds itself trudging though, and that’s true. It is a hopeful film. It is a loving film. It’s about trust and acceptance and understanding. It’s not only one of 2016’s best, but (excuse the hyperbole) one of the most unique and ambitious science fiction films of the 21st Century.

17 comments:

  1. "They don’t all work, but they do build to an epiphany moment that your friends will all lie and say they saw coming."

    I felt like the movie actually did tip its hand fairly early on (well before they spell it out). That's not a criticism of the movie or a claim that I'm smart for figuring it out ahead of the reveal. To me it seemed like they intentionally gave the audience a lot of the pieces early on to the point where it seems superfluous later when they show how every single bit fits together. It does feel like studio notes.

    It's a movie I enjoyed quite a bit intellectually but that never quite hit me emotionally. It might not be one of my favorites of the year, but it's the kind of movie I really appreciate studios making.

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    1. That's fair. I think it just depends what you're looking for while you're watching. I guess you were just looking for the right stuff!

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    2. i did see the twist coming a mile away, but it's not against the movie. i watch 500+ movies a year, so i'm more warare i guess.

      coming out of it i struggled with it. in the end i had issues with details in the form of the movie and not the message

      so yeah, great sci-fi

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    3. There were three bits of dialogue that really sealed it for me which I won't go into because a lot of people still haven't seen the movie.

      Somewhat interestingly to me though was that part of what tipped me off was the ways in which the movie didn't follow the structure of a Hollywood screenplay. The opening sequence was disconnected from the stuff that followed to an extent that was unusual for a movie from a major studio. When the military guy comes to recruit Amy Adams I was expecting him to bring it up in the way a lot of movies do: "You have to move on with your life" or "I know you've never recovered from ______". When that moment didn't come at any point in the conversation it actually felt weird to me. Between that and the opening monologue, it had me watching things closely.

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    4. I felt the same way, Ross, that the ending was kind of superfluous, like a weird melding of the director's style with big-budget movie style. But I will take this kind of movie any day over most of the other major releases.

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  2. Agree here. The emotional stuff was kind of derivative of Interstellar IMO, which isn't a bad thing. Where Arrival failed emotionally for me it flew very high in logic and direction and everything else. I like the twist and it works perfectly for the story, but the violin montage and voiceover def feels like notes.

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  3. I have a question though


    ----------SPOILERS AHEAHD-----------







    Why is she depressed at the beginning if the kid part happen only in the future?

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    1. HA! I saw this movie quite a while ago - and I've been saying that too. So I guess she's just a lonely BORING sad sack from the get-go. I certainly wouldn't want to be friends with her! I love this movie, though!

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  4. oh, and i don't know if this goes to mr. bromley of mr. dicristino, but you screwed the tag

    it's not 'denis villanueve'

    it's 'denis villeneuve'

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  5. I agree with you, Rob. I thought Arrival was a fantastic sci-fi movie. I feel like it could have been terrible in so many different ways but it pulled through. This is the type of sci-fi movie Hollywood should be focused on making.

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  6. I really liked Arrival, and I agree it had many of the problems of Intersteller, however, where that film was ham-fisted and pompous, Arrival was intelligent and nuanced (aside from a few admittedly bad lines).

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  7. I could not agree more. Saw this movie a few days ago and I am still thinking about it. Almost any movie is worth your time that causes you to sit through the credits in awe and anxious to discuss it with others who have experienced it. Great review.

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  8. Hm. You're a beautiful writer, I love reading your reviews. And finally I've seen a movie you wrote about.

    I wasn't crazy about it in the theater because I thought it was mostly emotionally flat, and trying to tackle "time" seems lofty, but I guess you're right - it is about trust, acceptance and understanding. It was hopeful and beautiful when Louise went out on a limb to trust the aliens with her first communications. I need to see it again. I wanted to like it but I got too caught up in evaluating the trick of the ending. Maybe it needs to be watched a little differently.

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    1. Thank you! I definitely understand a lot of the criticism in this thread, especially about the emotional stakes. I always look for stakes to build as a narrative progresses because I'm big on story and structure, and they felt flat to me for a lot of the film, as well.

      SPOILERS

      But as I unpacked the ending, I realized that the character stuff has to be fluid because we're discovering it along with Louise. She's learning about a journey she's GOING to take and why she's going to take it. I think it's important that we feel detached until her "ah ha" moment. Learning to see the future is essentially presented as learning to speak another language, which fits in nicely with the larger themes. Looking forward to a second viewing!

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  9. Terrific review, Rob. As a huge fan of sci-fi as a genre, and as someone who loves language and has studied linguistics, I couldn't wait to see this and for me, it really delivered.
    I particularly love your comments about how the movie works with, and challenges, our experience of the language of film. Poets sometimes say that a poem must "teach the reader how to read it" as it moves, and Arrival does that so beautifully for its audience, in a way that completely supports its own themes and discoveries. It really is remarkable.
    I completely agree -- we are meant to learn along with Louise. I believe this is key to connecting to her character. I do understand the comment above asking why she is sad...

    SPOILERS


    ...at the beginning of the film, as we learn only later the "true" (i.e., time-constrained) order of events. What's interesting about that is, really, where is it shown that she's sad? She has a lovely home, a study she's passionate about, a career she excels in, and she is highly regarded. We don't see her in a corner weeping, do we? We make assumptions about the character based on what we *think* has happened to her, what we *expect* a "happy" woman to act like.
    There's a whiff of a sort of retro "she should smile more" attitude about her as a woman. But gradually the film reveals that, in fact, she is one of the bravest, smartest movie heroes I've seen in a long time. Yes, she's so terrified before entering the shell that she nearly passes out... but she does enter (which takes more courage than it would for someone who doesn't so deeply feel the danger.) She is the first to remove her mask -- not rashly (she checks the bird first!) but because she feels it will aid understanding. And these are just the setup to help us, as an audience, better understand her most courageous act: to look into the future. She weighs her terrible loss against her profound joy, and is willing to face the former in order to live the latter. That just blows me away. And when we as an audience get to experience that "a-ha moment" with her, we realize that, to a greater or lesser extent, that tension defines the human condition. The fact that she makes this choice is so hopeful, brave, and strong.
    I think bringing the audience along *with* Louise also helps us connect to the aliens -- as we, along with her, come to see that they've done the same thing. They surely must have known the negative consequences of their visit, but they visit anyway. The movie strongly suggests that humans wouldn't last another 3000 years without their intervention -- that in fact, the heptapods probably waited as long as they could (given our hostility) before arriving. Arrival suggests that, whether we humans know it or not, we're on the brink -- but there is hope if we're brave enough to look into our future.

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    1. Thanks so much, Jan! Couldn't agree more. I think you've really hit on what makes Louise such a great character. Glad you enjoyed the movie!

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