“Arrival” Review

arrival_movie_posterDenis Villenueve’s science fiction tale of peacefully bridging linguistic and cultural gaps could hardly come at a more appropriate societal moment, with financially dominant blockbusters struggling to outdo each other in excesses of quick-witted violence, and a political climate that reached a boiling point a couple of years ago and hasn’t paused to take a breath. Arrival slams the breaks on our all-consuming societal paranoia, forcing audiences to reckon with a slow, deliberate story of bridging inter-species divides and resisting the human urge to violence. Though its final act can’t quite narratively deliver on the near flawless setup, the first half of Arrival is an astonishing feat of visual and sonic immersion; a master-class of tension-building and question-prompting.

Arrival can’t be easily summed up, (nor would it be fair to a reader to attempt to) other than to say that Amy Adams plays linguist Louise Banks, a professor introduced through a brief, touching character sketch built around grief and tragic loss, who is then recruited by a colonel in the US Army (Forest Whitaker) to assist physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in translating for extra-terrestrial visitors that have appeared over middle-America, along with eleven other places around the globe.

In its slow-moving introduction to characters both human and alien, Arrival feels most akin to a particular subgenre of science fiction that deals in transcendent, quasi-religious narratives of first contact: 2001: A Space OdysseyClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and even Interstellar. Each film posits an ideal human who functions as much as an archetype as a person: Kubrick’s Nieztschean astronaut who subdues humanity’s rebelling technology, Spielberg’s St. Paul-esque convert who follows his bliss, Nolan’s humanist savior of intense paternal love, and now Villenueve’s teacher who fights for empathetic understanding and communication across linguistic gulfs. As in preceding contributions to this generic conversation, Villenueve (paired with cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson) crafts sequences that envelopes the audience in sensation, both aural and visual, anchored with cinematic composition that is both precise and beautiful.

Villenueve balks at deception in his set-pieces (rejecting filmmaking built on quick-cutting and shaky-cam to create the illusion of excitement that too often disguises the nonsensical nature of the action), instead guiding his camera in slow, smooth, and deliberate motion that allows the human eye and imagination to engage with every part of what is portrayed onscreen. He worked wonders with this methodology in Sicario to create a near unmatched and pervading sense of tension, and in Arrival he challenges the audience to participate in the work of bridging the gaps between them and the aliens themselves. Most notable is a gorgeous sequence depicting Louise’s arrival at the base camp just beyond the alien ship via helicopter, as the camera slowly swings over a perimeter packed with people desperate to catch a glimpse, through mist, and then into a lush valley, where bleak military tents sit before the cocoon-like vessel as clouds billow in over a ridge like a waterfall and Jóhannsson’s experimental score drifts and echoes alongside. The successive encounters with the alien visitors stand out as unique cinematic achievements, playing with the audience’s expectations, sending one’s mind scrambling to dissect and interpret every piece of aural and visual stimulation. It goes without saying that Villenueve has very quickly asserted himself as a master of atmosphere.

It comes as a bit of a disappointment, then, that the final act of Arrival ties the story up in a way that, while tidy and resonant on an individual level, is derivative of previous science fiction films and doesn’t pack quite the bewildering punch that 2001, Close Encounters, or Interstellar do. Perhaps it’s a bit of a high standard to apply, but Arrival clearly aspires to be considered alongside these giants of science fiction (the first encounter here contains a subtle nod to the irreversible moment of touching the monolith in 2001). It may succeed more on the aesthetic front than the narrative front, but that still leaves Arrival a high point of the cinematic year, chocked full of sounds and images that will haunt you long after leaving the theater.

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Napoleon of Notting Hill

 The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton is a powerful book. I recently finished reading it yet again, and it again did not fail to shock, inspire, and awe me. This valiant work bites off far more than anyone ought to be able to chew, but with fierce and bold masticationpulls off so much more than expected. The book dwells on the human soul, the value of emotion, and the beauty of meaning. Please allow me to indulge in some quotation. 

“As the tree falleth, so shall it lie,” said Wayne’s voice out of the darkness, and it had the same sweet and yet horrible air that it had throughout, of coming from a great distance, from before or after the event. Even when he was struggling like an eel or battering like a madman, he spoke like a spectator. “As the tree falleth, so shall it lie,” he said. “Men have called that a gloomy text. It is the essence of all exultation. I am doing now what I have done all my life, what is the only happiness, what is the only universality. I am clinging to something. Let it fall, and there let it lie. Fools, you go about and see the kingdoms of the earth, and are liberal and wise and cosmopolitan, which is all that the devil can give you—all that he could offer to Christ, only to be spurned away. I am doing what the truly wise do. When a child goes out into the garden and takes hold of a tree, saying, ‘Let this tree be all I have,’ that moment its roots take hold on hell and its branches on the stars. The joy I have is what the lover knows when a woman is everything. It is what a savage knows when his idol is everything. It is what I know when Notting Hill is everything. I have a city. Let it stand or fall.”

“If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power—the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean—an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great—a great war or a love-story. And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire—of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no skeptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshiper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.”