“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 Journey to the Stars: Coming Full Circle

space-645x250Half of the enjoyment of a good story, whether it be in literature or film, is often derived from the setting. Stories take us to places we may never go physically, but through our imaginations and with the guidance of those telling the story, we can travel there nonetheless. And perhaps that is why science fiction can hold such tremendous appeal. With this conclusion to our series, we bring ourselves full circle back to the most wondrous aspect of the genre, its setting: space. Space that is full of stars, planets, galaxies and vast mysteries.

In other genres of storytelling, people often look to the stars, dots of light, symbols of hope. Magnificent and haunting specters over our world, the beauty and majesty of the stars have both inspired and frightened generations of humanity. Some have made them the dwelling place of the divine, others have claimed that they are simply balls of light and fire, thousands of light-years away. Debates have been waged over their true nature, their origins and locations in relation to Earth going so far as to provoke charges of heresy and divide the scientific and religious communities. The stars, though apparently having very little influence over our day to day lives, somehow have proven themselves to be far more significant to us than simply points in the sky.

Now I ask you, in what other modern genre are visitors from those stars prominently featured? They may be hostile invaders, as in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and Steven Spielberg’s Falling Skies, or perhaps simply misunderstood, as in Timothy Zahn’s Conquerors Trilogy or Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. Perhaps they are truly friendly at heart, as Spielberg’s E.T. portrays them.

But what if, what if we ourselves could journey across the stars? That is the beauty of Star Wars and Star Trek, the dream of science fiction fans everywhere. What if we could participate in the fantastic? What if we went to Mars and found it filled with wondrous creatures, good and powerful heroes as well as cunning and villainous men. What if on Mars we found love? That is the question that Edgar Rice Burroughs tries to answer for us through John Carter of Mars. What if a young farm boy dreamed of being more than a simple crop-duster, inspired by the powerful image of the binary sunset over Tatooine? That is the question George Lucas poses and answers through Star Wars. What if men and women put the galactic-wide good of human civilization above themselves? That is the question posed by Isaac Asimov in the Foundation Series. What if man could rise above the mundane and the normal?

The stars call us, they call us to grand and greater things. They call us also to participate in those same things, those things bright and beautiful. “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,” the Psalmist says of the Lord God, “the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?” (Psalm 8:3-4 NKJV). There is a reason that the majesty and beauty of space calls to man, calls to grandeur in his thoughts, arouses a sense of longing in his heart to travel amongst the stars. It is because they speak to that Higher Being, the Lord of all that created the heavens and the Earth, and has expressed Himself through His creation, through space, to draw us to recognize Him and His will. Science fiction, as we have seen during this series, at its heart is an attempt to better humanity by looking to and journeying amongst the stars, and that would appear to be exactly how the Lord intended it.