“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.


A Treatise on Storytelling, III: Tearing Down the Anti-Hero

“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane, quite insane, with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have left at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.” So speaks Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Doing what’s right is not a matter of waiting until the moral question is severe. Morality comes from resolving beforehand to do what is right. Without discipline, right action is not forthcoming. Doing what’s right takes practice.

IronMan_Still_H5_LTony Stark seems to live in defiance of this reality. Marvel’s armored hero is licentious, a drunkard, disrespectful to all around him, and seems only to be outraged when people tell him to temper his tongue. Despite his complete lack of moral practice, he still manages to sacrifice himself time after time for the world. It seems that for Tony Stark, when it comes to small problems in life, morality can be disregarded, but when large problems (like alien invasion) present themselves he will be able to pick up his morality where he left it, saving the world with selfless honor. The same goes for Peter Quill of Guardians of the Galaxy. Undisciplined, unprincipled, and promiscuous, he runs around the galaxy committing small crimes until a real threat surfaces. When Ronan the Accuser rears his wicked head, Quill suddenly doffs his morally dubious coat and acts with enormous courage and self-discipline. This act continues until he selflessly sacrifices himself for the lives of others. After this he reassumes his criminal self and flies around the galaxy having learned something about friendship but little else. While both of their actions end up commendable, I cannot help but scratch my head at how they got there. After displaying a rampant lack of discipline in life I would expect and restar-lord-actor-chris-pratt-settles-super-bowl-bet_fsf5.1920ality would demand that Stark or Quill would be nowhere near capable of the discipline required to put their own necks on the chopping block. Stalwart and righteous people have faced great difficulty conquering themselves enough to make the sacrifice that these protagonists somehow stumble into. Stark and Quill’s sacrifices are the most unbelievable parts of the Marvel universe, a universe sporting a talking raccoon.

The anti-hero has been a part of literature for a long time. Characters displaying characteristics not heroic or admirable can create good stories, but these stories will fail to portray truth if vices do not act as vices. In what seems to be an attempt to make characters seem more “real,” writers have created strange combinations of cowardice and heroism, lust and honor, discipline and addiction. They have created righteous heroes without the moral strength of a righteous hero. Marvel doesn’t have a monopoly on these inconsistent anti-heroes. Films, particularly ones sporting strong male leads, tell the stories of protagonists living lives of immorality and vice in all matters except for matters of great sacrifice.

Bond_-_Sean_Connery_-_ProfileThe unrepentant anti-hero is often billed as “real”; a hero with vices and virtues like a normal human. But when these vices in no way affect the character, (Peter Quill’s womanizing is shockingly irrelevant to the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy) they become an embarrassing example of wish fulfillment played out in a massively budgeted way. James Bond is cynical, disrespectful, has all of the sex he desires, and butchers the people he comes in contact with all while being heroic, brave, and disciplined. He isn’t a character; he is the daydream of an adolescent boy longing for sex, power, and heroism while maintaining his reputation. We need to ask more of our characters. Wicked actions have wicked results. While crude quips and anti-social behavior can be pleasurable momentarily, they will have consequences on how you act and are treated. Righteousness takes work. Characters who instantly become righteous after a life of iniquity are portraying a faulty understanding of morality.

The unrepentant anti-hero has clear exceptions in film. One contemporary example is Interstellar’s Cooper. This character demonstrates a consistent and hard-won care for humanity, particularly his daughter. His care is a firm theme in the film and figures significantly in the development and exposition of Cooper’s character. His righteousness is upheld as hard-won and proven. It is this very love that ends up saving humanity. I do not want to see virtue that comes from the general innate goodness of undisciplined humanity. Show me virtue weathered from experience, rising out of countless trials and hardships.

LawrenceHeroes like Cooper do not sport the flaws of the anti-hero, but there are well developed and created heroes who exhibit deep flaws. What separates these characters from the unrepentant anti-hero is that the flaws act as flaws. They either deeply harm and torture the hero or give the hero an internal villain. Overcoming flaws requires the flaws to be recognized as vices. In perhaps one of the greatest films ever made, Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence relentlessly battles his sadism, a difficult prospect when in the middle of a warzone. His internal struggle creates conflict that is impactful and meaningful. His sadism is by no means brushed aside or regarded simply as a part of his character, but is a demon he must fight. Dorian Gray’s carnal lusts lead him to horrid ends in The Picture of Dorian Gray, presenting a real and raw picture of the danger of uncontrolled vice. Han Solo must learn to overcome his desire for money and freedom in order to properly protect and support his friends. There are many heroes who overcome or are overcome by vices in good literature, but in these examples vices are realistically portrayed as inhibiting, tempting, and painful.

People overcome by their carnal lusts, the fleshly Quills, Bonds, and Starks of the world, do not rise up and sacrifice themselves for humanity. Untested morality, corroded by vice and lack of discipline, creates not a stalwart hero but a flaky wretch. The true anti-hero is vividly seen in Tuco (or, “the Ugly”) from The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Tuco holds the same licentious, drunkardly, cowardly traits that plague our contemporary macho-men, but these vices manifest themselves more realistically. When the time comes to act honorably, the unweathered morality of Tuco gives way to his looming desire to satisfy his own appetites. Tuco is a mess. Tuco is what every unrepentant anti-hero is.Tuco

But why do we suffer this kind of character? Where does our unrepentant anti-hero spring from? Perhaps we create this hero because we have recognized our own vice and lack of discipline, and want to reassure ourselves that when push comes to shove, we will be good. Maybe we have looked down into our soul and been terrified by the prospect that the coward we see peering back at us will assume control when great things are on the line. Perhaps we do not make these characters because we find them attractive, but because we are afraid. But these characters will not change the reality that vice begets vice. Our addictions and lack of discipline will torment and tear at our moral fabric. Art is formative, and art that caters to moral cowardice allows us to rationalize our flaws as we sink away from the righteous and into the animal. When the hour of decision comes and we are faced with a great sacrifice, will we be able to look at our art and see moral strength or weakness? Will our heroes stand with us in moral discipline and courage? Or will they run away, dragging us after the carnal?