Thursday, December 1, 2016

Universal Language

Year: 2016
Director: Denis Villenueve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker 
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I don’t even know how Denis Villenueve found time to direct Arrival, between Sicario and his commitment to Blade Runner 2049. In the context of his career, it feels like a bonus film. Honestly, that’s also kind of how it feels in the sci-fi genre, too. It’s an intelligent, easy to like film that will completely alienate general audiences. But while it’s a terrific one-time watch, I don’t feel the need to ever revisit it. So, a bonus. A brief, ephemeral respite from this year’s cavalcade of horrors.

For our troubles, 2017 owes us the f**king best movie year since the form was invented.

In Arrival, 12 massive alien pods descend form the sky and hover over scattered regions of the Earth. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is conscripted by the U.S. military to learn the aliens’ language and figure out why they’re here, as the rest of the world panics. Together, she and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) attempt to reign in the military’s itchy trigger fingers while finding a way to connect with a life form and culture they know literally nothing about.

Like teen movie directors, only sci-fi-ier.

Arrival is a spectacularly dry sci-fi film. It’s more mood piece than actioner, which is what I was anticipating, but it even defied my expectations by being less of a linguistic procedural and more a polemic against our current state of international affairs. And that’s fine, but it devolves into a bit of sci-fi mysticism that could have been meaningful, but mostly smoothes over plot holes and teaches a lesson that seems like should be attached to some other movie.

This is another one of those films that, like Moonlight, are more fun to dissect than sit through. Its shades of Slaughterhouse-Five are intellectually stimulating, but they lack the wit and verve of Vonnegut’s masterpiece. In fact, most of its attempts to wring any sort of emotion from the audience fall flat, from the Up-esque opening that attempts to make us weep for a character we’ve never been properly introduced to, to the vague kinship between Renner and Adams that has the chemistry of a second grade science set.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re both fine actors and they do a great job (especially Adams, who holds the entire thing together and lands some comic relief that just shouldn’t work), but these two characters aren’t human beings. They’re science-spouting automatons, mere conduits for the larger themes of Arrival. There’s next to no human connection between them, and any time a scene hinges on that it misses the mark. Arrival is too cold for that.

The only heartwarming going on here is the result of alien experiments.

Other than that, though, Arrival is a pretty great movie. A chilly human element is totally fine when you’re presenting such sci-fi marvels as the gravity-defying entryway to the alien pod, a simple but stunning piece of design that never fails to wow. And while the design of the aliens themselves is intentionally obscured for the most part, the appearance of their written language is a stunning bit of truly inhuman creation that emphasizes the massive challenge our heroes are facing.

Arrival is a monument to genre aesthetic, highlighting the alien in everyday life Villenueve’s direction is slick and stylish, making frequently bizarre choices that feel organic yet extremely odd at the same time. One shot in particular, a silhouette that makes Dr. Banks’ profile look like one of the mythical Greys of alien lore, is just plain marvelous, visually underscoring the film’s themes.

You wouldn’t think that visual metaphor should be a marvel in the cinematic medium, but you haven’t seen as many slasher films as I have.

It’s a good thing the good stuff here is great, because there’s actually a lot of sneaky little elements that kinda suck. We’ve already covered the useless human element, but there’s also a bizarre scene jammed sideways into the middle of the movie, in which Jeremy Renner narrates a montage (despite the fact that his character is nowhere near important enough to break the fourth wall like that), skipping over months of plot that would have actually been very interesting in a bizarre clip show that feels like a commercial for some sort of alien liberal arts university. This scene is never mentioned or replicated again, which is for the best.

Then there’s Jóhan Jóhansson’s score, which is mostly adequate but occasionally slips into twee a cappella that feels like a direct lift from Swiss Army Man. That score was terrific, but it fits with the tone of Arrival like a rusty knife. But, hey. I found it interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Sometimes a movie exists just for aesthetic reasons and sometimes that’s good enough.

TL;DR: Arrival is an aesthetically and intellectually pleasing sci-fi movie, but it's still an ephemeral lark.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 832

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