Monday, 21 November 2016
Arrival (Film Review)
Science fiction has always had something of an unfortunate image stuck with it. Since the late 60s, the genre as a whole has always carried the image of schlock raygun fights, space battles and simple storytelling. This is wrong of course, in the same way that anime is hardly limited to unfortunately placed tentacles and Super Saiyans, but even in this supposed new golden age it's an image which still sticks. Over the last few years though, it seems that big budget cinema has seriously been pushing to finally cast off this old limitation, with Arrival being its latest effort.
This is a story adapted from the short tale Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Focusing upon the first contact between species, but perhaps not in the way you would imagine. While it plays with a few of the usual tropes and ideas, often they are pushed into the background in favour of a single question - How do you communicate with something which lacks any and all cultural context or understanding? How do you come to an understanding with a creature which does not even have vocal chords?
Arriving out of nowhere, seemingly at random across the globe, multiple UFOs begin landing and waiting for humanity to make contact. Uncertain of what to do at first, each nation begins trying to comprehend the alien visitors in their own way, and determine whether or not they are a threat. Doctor Louise Banks and Ian Donnelly are tasked by the United States with determining things from their end, but they begin to question if they are even approaching the aliens in the right way.
Perhaps the most striking thing you will notice immediately once the credits finish rolling is how Arrival is unsettling. There's something oddly skin crawling about its presentation, and even an oddly clinically lifeless quality to the most human of scenes, such as a University classroom. Yet, there is method to this madness. It's not simply one of these situations where it's screwed up by a bad director, but instead crafted by a great one. From the very shot composition to the music and atmosphere of the piece, everything Denis Villeneuve puts onto the screen is intent upon keeping you on-edge. You know something is wrong even without seeing it being wholly out of place, and this only increases as the film pushes well into the second act.
The intent here is apparently to make the audience truly feel out of place and caught up in events, so that the immensity of the situation comes crushing down atop of them. While most directors would have gone for the most absolute obvious route, what we have here instead something which relies almost entirely on atmosphere to convey this idea. Through little more than news reports, sound effects, shots and performances, the film manages to give the sense of the ground being tugged out from under the world. At first the wrongness stems from the more expected sights for such a film - notably jets hurtling over cities to help quarantine these UFOs, but it continues to build from there until you see the vessels themselves.
The cinematography itself is utterly beautiful throughout the film, despite this intentionally off-putting thematic quality. From the first shots of the UFOs to the more human moments inside the confines of the small camp helping to study the new arrivals, the setting and structure is near perfect. While you won't notice it at first, the sheer number of long takes and extended shots helps to offer a more grounded feel to the film which helps cement the idea of this being a point for point depiction of how the world would react to such an arrival.
However, what's truly inspired stems from the way the script adapts the themes of the book. Almost the entire film is spent first building up the aliens - almost Lovecraftian creatures who in any other film might have been a horrifying monster - before focusing upon the building blocks of how to tackle the problems. Making noises more akin to whales than any structured human speech, it goes step by step through the problems of trying to translate even the bare basics of such a language, and then even basic structure or communication. While it doesn't talk down to the audience, the script enters the themes at a slow enough of a speed for everyone to keep pace and comprehend the monumental difficulty of the task before them.
Much of the direct acting weight here falls upon the shoulders of Amy Adams, who is required to not only face the stressful and almost impossible task, but deal with a far greater problem in her life. Exactly what it is only becomes clear in the final act, with the revelation of the film's very structure and staging being a bait-and-switch, but the very nature of this abrupt twist turns the character into something of a cipher. In the hands of a lesser actress, half of Banks' scenes might have seemed lifeless or emotionless, yet Adams manages to add slights shades and subtleties to it. Small alterations and shifts help to continually make her seem all the more human and likable, even when the script itself is focused more upon the core theme and problem over the more human element. For all that Villeneuve accomplishes here, it's no exaggeration to say that without her talent Arrival could have easily been crushed under the weight of its own ambition.
This is hardly to say that the other cast members put in poor performances, of course. Each of them adds slight touches and changes to ensure they remain both reasonable and avoid the usual tropes we would expect. For example, Forest Whitaker is playing the expected hard-ass of a military officer, but his demands are hardly unreasonable and for all his pushing he is never looking for an excuse to start a war with someone. The same goes for Jeremy Renner, who is set up to be the usual self-superior smart scientist, but the man's natural likability and reasoning helps turn the character into a figure an audience is willing to support rather than hate.
However, while much of the film is a definite success until the very end, the final act is likely to leave many people questioning the viability of certain twists and the story. For all its efforts to avoid certain tropes, there's a big one which hits the film hard and a few ideas seem to be too cleanly resolved. There are difficulties to be sure, but everything is pushed together or closed off with a surprising speed until it's all finished. For something which was so strong at the start, there's a good chance at least one major bit will leave you asking "Wait, that's all it took?"
In addition to this, while much of the initial science and logic behind the gradual progression of the story was strong throughout, the twist might be odd to say the least. It near perfectly hinges upon how language can be used as a keystone in understanding others, or cultures in question; not to mention completely changing the audience's perspective of past scenes and how they played out. Yet, despite this, the way it affects Banks' character can be a difficult pill to swallow to say the least, and the idea of it can seem very out of place even in a film such as this. It's one of those things you would expect there would be much more of a story to, and much more effort behind, and yet it's suddenly just there.
While it's not as perfect as some might be claiming, Arrival is nevertheless one of the best films of 2016. Honestly, even if alien visitation/invasion films are almost total anathema to your tastes, this is definitely one you should stop and watch. It's intelligent, slow burning and very detailed, with ideas which will likely spawn articles and essays alike for years to come. It's a major push away from the 'splosions approach to big budget science fiction, and one that definitely works. If Villeneuve can continue to keep up this cinematic winning streak, Blade Runner 2 is in very good hands.