Skip to main content

Coffee with some aliens.

Arrival
(2016)

(SPOILERS) I haven’t been nearly as wowed as most by director Denis Villeneuve’s previous pictures. Enemy, I’ll grant you, is an effective little piece, albeit one that feels like an extended episode of an anthology series rather than a fully-engineered movie in its own right, but Prisoners is a ridiculously overwrought piece of manipulative, melodramatic nonsense that somehow swayed critics. Likewise, Sicario; magnificently directed, but in terms of content not much more than B-grade pulp. Indeed, Villeneuve’s choices make him seem, unfortunately, a wholly suitable inheritor of the Blade Runner legacy from Sir Ridders, another director with a negligible eye for a robust screenplay. To an extent, Arrival exhibits this problem too. But, while the script from Eric Heisserer isn’t clear of its fair share of flaws, they’re mostly thrown into relief by the movie’s persuasive emotional core, and the conviction of Amy Adams’ performance.


It took me a while to come on board, though. There is, like Enemy, a feeling that this is a beefed up short story with a twist (which it is), and in terms of the latter aspect, I wonder how satisfying it will be to revisit. The first contact scenario, which leads the movie, has been well-wrung over the years, and cryptic aliens inviting mankind to rise to the challenge of bettering themselves goes at least as far back as The Day the Earth Stood Still.


Add to that several rather crude subplots (of course there are military guys who want to sabotage matters, you can tell from the first moment you see Mark O’Brien’s character; of course the Chinese are the most belligerent bunch, as it would have to be either them or the Russkies; and of course there’s tension between the different impulses of science, military and – purity ahoy – the creative, communicative, feminine linguistic arts), and the rather fundamental question of why they didn’t first try communicating with the aliens through basic, common images rather than laborious language (answer: because then the aliens wouldn’t be able to deliver their oh-so-clever puzzle gift, and consequently this would be considerably shorter and far less tear-jerking), and I had the feeling Villeneuve was set to deliver something as ultimately dissatisfying as Sicario (which promised a perceptive insight into the policing of the war on drugs but devolved into Death Wish ninja ex-lawyer on the rampage in the final reel).


I also had waverings over the some of the stylistic choices. The general comportment of the aliens, towering away in a fog-shrouded environment separated by glass, is highly reminiscent of Torchwood’s one decent (really good, even, until the finale) outing, Children of Earth. In contrast to that story, where the threat is pervasive, here there’s a question mark over the alien’s motives that never really feels sustained; we know they essentially mean well because of the overbearing military, the inter-nation bickering, and the honest heart of our Amy, able to see what’s what (as linguist Louise Banks). Villeneuve brings on the ominous with his cavernous, hewn, anti-sci-fi spaceship interiors, accompanied by composer Jóhan Jóhannson’s unsettling Zimmer horns, and contrasts it so entirely with the Malick-esque handheld of (what turn out to be) Louise’s magic hour future reminiscences, complete with by Jóhan Jóhannson’s achingly sensitive strings, that it looked as if he would be inflating a whole bag of style over content.


And yet, I didn’t come away feeling short-changed. Once you get past wondering why Louise can’t just show an image for our planet as a starting point for putting together the question “Why have you come to Earth?”, the portrayal of linguistics is engrossing and dramatically propulsive, with thought clearly having gone into how to express a completely alien language.


And the causal paradox that enables Louise to prevent a potentially very nasty altercation (although, equally, the aliens could probably just brush off any paltry human firepower, given the failed sabotage attempt) ought to be a complete turn-off, as a variant seems to be regurgitated in every other sci-fi scenario these days. It gets ridiculously overused, and writers bewilderingly seem to think the crux of its impossibility is in some way clever; all it really does is show an unwillingness to wrestle with the loose ends of the entangled logic strands they’ve chosen to play with (Heisserer has such dubious credits to his name as the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, and The Thing prequel remake, so the jury’s still out on his potential). Star witness for the prosecution is the tired, habitually glib use of such paradoxes by Steven Moffat, rigging the deck in any given Doctor Who script he can’t be arsed to think through (put another way: this kind of thing was thoroughly exposed, rather cleverly, as not really very clever at all by Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and should have encouraged writers to be very wary of going there).


But, while future General Shang (Tzi Ma) whispering his wife’s dying words to Louise in her future vision, a future vision that enables her present self to whisper Shang’s wife’s dying words to prevent present Shang attacking his craft, is rather pat, Villeneuve manages to deliver it in a manner that feels almost earned, and the explanation for the aliens’ perception of time (writing a sentence from both ends to meet in the middle) has the sketchy appeal of a satisfying concept (that said, I don’t think the picture is ultimately any different to its peers, as it  is using exactly the same devices and architecture).


More than that, the twist of the grief-stricken Louise, who is actually trying to cope with these future memories, doesn’t feel like a cheat, or a cheap trick, thanks to the manner in which the director enables Adams’ performance to breathe, and more so by virtue of the dramatic heft of Louise’s decision to go ahead and have the daughter she knows is destined to die (and so to enter into a relationship with the man she knows will leave her, in response to keeping that knowledge from him).


This element is almost the antithesis to the equivalent Moffat timey-wimey bullshit. Where that progressively removed all resonance and consequence from actions with a magic wave of a wand/sonic screwdriver, Arrival suggests that complete awareness of what will be leads to a kind of deterministic acceptance, a recognition of the inevitability of all experience, good and bad, and the futility of attempting to separate the perceived negative from the totality. It appears this was the explicit intent of Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life, on which the screenplay is based, in which free will derives from the very act of accepting what is fated to be (quite how this meshes with the very act of awareness surely influencing the events on the “repeats”, or “rehearsals” I don’t know; certainly, that’s the major issue I had with Time Crimes).


Having said that, I can see why the Entertainment Weekly reviewer felt dissatisfied that the picture fell back on a life-affirming message, since it wasn’t the film he wanted to see, but trying to suggest Sunshine as a better option isn’t going to really help his cause (partly, the writer over-emphasises the heroic act of Louise here, since that aspect comes across very much as a nuts-and-bolts third act galvaniser, so is neither here nor there in terms of the choices relating to all that is closest to her).


Also of note is that Arrival is implicitly anti-eugenics as it relates to abortion (and by the same token casts the scientist as the one who clinically advocates such an attitude). On another level, one might draw parallels between Louise’s awareness and decision to experience the pleasure and the pain of a life foretold with proponents of reincarnation who suggest it involves a “viewing” of likely key experiences in the life to come prior to taking the plunge again.


Such trains of thought do rather suggest questions the film – perhaps rightly, since its designed to provoke rumination rather than lay everything out on a plate – avoids, such as: does the mere fact of perceiving time as the aliens and Louise do inevitably lead to this state of stoicism, or can one reject a future foreseen if one so desires? And what would the consequences be for someone who sought only to pursue the tangibly positive experience? And what is this gift’s impact on, say, the military-industrial complex that figures so heavily? We see Louise back teaching, passing on her knowledge, but wouldn’t the uniforms demand first dibs on envisioning the future deeds of their potential enemies, and draft her to provide exclusive training?


Without Villenueve and Heisserier putting full stops after it, one is left to infer the former is the case, that the understanding of their language leads to an entirely different state of consciousness and as such acceptance; the aliens’ gift is one of perception, such that humanity is brought together by something externally intangible, rather than, say, corporate greed masquerading under a banner of globalism, which is quite apposite.


In general, I think the biggest compliment I can pay Villeneuve is that he breathes life into a screenplay that could easily leave one feeling underserved, that the shortcomings of its causal complications could have overwhelmed it. Instead, you’re left with the melancholy of Louise’s choice, and her recognition that it was the only choice she could make.


The other performances are fine enough, from Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg to Jeremy Renner, as curiously cast as an astrophysicist as Denise Richards was a nuclear one in The Word is Not Enough (credit to him for keeping a straight face with his last line, however, extolling the importance of Louise to him in the cornball manner of a Richard Curtis screenplay), but this Adams’ show all the way, so it’s no wonder she’s putting her Oscar hopes on it, rather than Nocturnal Animals.


Owen Gilberman wrote a mystifying piece in Variety (at his editor’s behest, no doubt) suggesting alien movies had had their day on account of the lowly takings of Arrival, little more than 24 hours before another piece in the same rag noted how its first weekend’s box office had exceeded expectations. Which just shows journos will come up with any old guff for a quick buck. This opened on the strength of its trailers, but it just isn’t styled as a crowd-pleaser. Consequently, Gilberman should really have noted that there’s still an enormous appetite for alien movies, such that the public will even show up to those that don’t offer blockbuster thrills.


Where does this leave Blade Runner 2049? Well, Jóhannson’s a fine composer, so I’m less sad than I might be that Vangelis isn’t returning. But mainly, Hampton Fancher’s script needs to be mightily impressive, if Villeneuve isn’t going to leave us feeling slightly empty; his dishes are well cooked, but they don’t tend to have all the necessary ingredients. There’s a co-ordinating impersonal quality to his facility as a director that is very much of an ilk to latter-day Scott (although in terms of composition, atmosphere and performance, Villeneuve consistently outshines him), when what is needed is that charged, scrupulous dedication to getting the very most from the material, and the consequent yen for discovery, that made Alien and Blade Runner so stunning.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

If this is not a place for a priest, Miles, then this is exactly where the Lord wants me.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes a movie comes along where you instantly know you’re safe in the hands of a master of the craft, someone who knows exactly the story they want to tell and precisely how to achieve it. All you have to do is sit back and exult in the joyful dexterity on display. Bad Times at the El Royale is such a movie, and Drew Goddard has outdone himself. From the first scene, set ten years prior to the main action, he has constructed a dizzyingly deft piece of work, stuffed with indelible characters portrayed by perfectly chosen performers, delirious twists and game-changing flashbacks, the package sealed by an accompanying frequently diegetic soundtrack, playing in as it does to the essential plot beats of the whole. If there's a better movie this year, it will be a pretty damn good one.

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

It is the greatest movie never released, you know.

They'll Love Me When I'm Dead (2018)
(SPOILERS) They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, Morgan Neville's documentary on the making of Orson Welles' long-gestating The Other Side of the Wind, is much more interesting than the finally finished article itself, but to be fair to Welles, he foresaw as much as a possibility. Welles' semi-improvised faux-doc approach may not seem nearly as innovative nearly fifty years on – indeed, in the intervening period there's a slew of baggage of boundary-blurring works, mockumentaries and the whole found footage genre – but he was striving for something different, even if that "different" was a reaction to the hole he'd dug himself in terms of bankability. On the evidence of the completed film, he never quite found the necessary rhythm or mode, but the struggle to achieve it, as told here, is fascinating.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

Have you ever looked into a goat's eyes?

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
(SPOILERS) There was probably an insightful, sensitive movie to be made about the World War II experiences of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, but Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge isn’t it. It’s unsurprising that a number of reviewers have independently indulged the wordplay Hackneyed Ridge, an effective summation of the ridiculously over-the-top, emotionally shameless theatrics Mel indulges, turning a story that already fell into the “You wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t true” camp into “You won’t believe it anyway, because it’s been turned up to 11” (and that’s with Gibson omitting incidents he perceived to be “too much”, such as Doss being shot by a sniper after he was wounded, having given up his stretcher to another wounded man; certainly, as wrung through Mel’s tonal wringer, that would have been the case).

Perhaps Mel should stick to making subtitled features, the language barrier diluting the excruciating lack of nuance or subtlety in his treatment of subject m…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

Oh man, they wronged you. Why they gotta be like that? You exude a cosmic darkness.

Mandy (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes you're left scratching your head over a movie, wondering what it was about it that had others rapturously raving while you were left shrugging. I at least saw the cult appeal of Panos Cosmatos’ previous picture, Beyond the Black Rainbow, which inexorably drew the viewer in with a clinically psychedelic allure before going unceremoniously off the boil with a botched slasher third act. Mandy, though, has been pronounced one of the best of the year, with a great unhinged Nic Cage performance front and centre – I can half agree with the latter point – but it's further evidence of a talented filmmaker slave to a disconcertingly unfulfilling obsession with retro-fashioning early '80s horror iconography.