Monday, November 28, 2016

Brief thoughts on Arrival.

What would first contact be like for us? If aliens exist, what would they think of us? How would they react? Would they invade us, or seek to co-exist with us? Would we even want them? Would we learn from them? Would we fear them? We never really know how humanity would react to a situation like that unless we were actually facing it, but along comes Denis Villeneuve, with his fourth English language film Arrival, to try his hands at addressing all of these issues posed before us, and much more. Taking great influences from films such as Close Encounters and Contact, as well as being Villeneuve's answer to Spielberg, Arrival is not just a fantastic film, but I dare say a film that we absolutely needed at this moment.

Arrival is a very significant departure for Villeneuve, who's more well known for much more bleak and brutal films such as Prisoners and Sicario, both films that were very focused on gritty and harsh worlds full of moral grayness and corruption. Funnily enough, you may not have even guessed that the films even shared the same director were it not for the ending credits, as well as the presence of his usual composer Johann Johannson. Which is not to discredit either of Villeneuve's previous films, but Arrival sees the man working to the peak of his abilities. You can tell he's gone to great lengths to ensure the film is a spectacle in every sense of the word, and it certainly always looks like every single cent is on the screen. Fittingly for a film all about interpretation and language, the man shows a great adherence to "show, don't tell" representation, often allowing story to form through cleverly placed details and sound, all captured beautifully through the lens of DP Bradford Young.

I prefer to keep as secretive about Arrival as possible, as I feel its key to go into the film fresh without any pre-conceived expectations, but as for how well the actual content works out, Arrival is very much a film about literal and figurative barriers dividing us. Villeneuve's film almost feels prophetic in a sense, as you no doubt are aware of just how crazily the world has started to swing out of balance, and captures the current mood of the planet with unflinching detail. The entire planet has grown uneasy over the arrival of the aliens, driven to a growing state of fear, uncertainty, and gradually rising violence. With a total of a dozen ships scattered across the planet, it becomes very clear that each country dealing with a ship is very reluctant to share information with the others, with some countries wanting to continue peacefully analyzing the situation, while others are on the verge of full scale assault. With the film centered so heavily around language, there's also great focus on the topic of misinterpretation, as the topic of how to even decrypt the complex language of the aliens is a conundrum all on its own, but when their intentions become a bit hard to read, and those already jumpy and fearful people jump to conclusions, it isn't long before panic becomes more widespread, with the stakes of one wrong move potentially spelling disaster.

This is even further heightened by Villeneuve's examination of media manipulation, intentionally spinning stories into the most hyperbolic and eye-catching headlines as possible, instilling panic and paranoia out of something much more peaceful. The film even throws jabs at this when Amy Adams' Louise is having a phone conversation with her mother, and Louise tells her to ignore the wild headlines showcased on a certain news channel, that they have no idea what they're talking about. Take a wild guess who this unnamed channel is? But above all, all of this showcases how mankind have progressively began to view the future as something to be feared and dreaded, both on a global scale, and personal scale, as national divides and growing skepticism continue to grow more prominent, and even making a powerful confrontation of our own personal grief, as we often prefer and choose to ignore the tragedy of a situation, or close ourselves off to avoid heartbreak.

Villeneuve's film is many things: Critical, unflinching in showcasing the human condition, and heavily thematic, but beyond all of this, what makes the film all the more refreshing is its lack of cynicism. Yes, Villeneuve may not have kind words in regards to the barriers we've set up, but at his roots, he still manages to create a very hopeful and emotional experience that treats all of its central subjects with sensitivity. We're still a young species, a diverse, crazy, but powerful melting-pot collection of people with just as many similarities as there are differences between us. It isn't easy for us to unite, something Villeneuve still manages to acknowledge, but the importance of setting aside petty differences to reach a satisfying conclusion is still executed beautifully. It's also nice to see a film manage to wring an incredible feeling of suspense and stakes without so much as a single action scene, valuing the power of intelligent communication over violent force.

Villeneuve has also always been a great actor's director, and here he proves no less capable, particularly in regards to Amy Adams. In one of her finest performances to date, Adams is very much the emotional anchor of the film, with the film and the character of Lou often requiring her to do a great deal of heavy lifting, all of which she is more than capable of handling. It's an objective, as well as optimistic and layered performance with a great deal of depth beneath the surface, as the warm Adams continually wraps the viewer into the emotional atmosphere of the film, and creates a fully defined and empathetic character with her own baggage, trying her hardest to explain and rationalize a situation she herself doesn't completely understand, and learning to come to grips with whatever her own future may entail. The supporting cast may not be quite as complex or realized, but each of them - particularly Jeremy Renner as a snarky and reserved theoretical physicist that makes a great companion for Adams - still leave high marks.

I could go on about everything else that makes Arrival such a fantastic film, but for all intents and purposes, I'll stop here, and simply tell you to go out and see it right now. You will not regret it.

***** / *****

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