Friday, November 11, 2016

"Arrival" Review: Thought Provoking Science Fiction That Challenges The Mind And Stirs The Soul


Science Fiction is often used in film as a way of escapist fantasy and usually associated with spaceships, light/warp speeds, teleporting, laser beams and almost always some form of alien life that is either hostile or benign with little middle ground. While those are always fun to partake in it is when a film takes the genre and uses it as a way of reflecting itself upon us the viewers, making us...no, inviting us to take a journey into a different way of thinking and/or a different way of perceiving the universe the way we know it. The new film Arrival from director Denis Villeneuve is not only thought provoking but also delivers a film going experience that is beyond anything you can imagine. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D 4K Digital
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  1 hr 50 min
Studio: Paramount
Release Date: November 11, 2016

Biases:  
Loves:  Science Fiction that challenges your mind, Contact (1997)
Likes: The entire cast, aliens and linguistics (who knew?)
Neutral: The mood and atmosphere may be a bit too foreboding for some
Hates: Absolutely nothing
Similar to...?: The Robert Zemeckis directed Jodie Foster starring film Contact.

The film is almost always a joy to look at.

When a series of alien spacecraft land all around the world touching down in very specific but unrelated regions, the population of Earth is taken aback by their sudden arrival. As each world power deals with these alien visitors in their own way we are introduced to Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a college professor and linguist who is called upon by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to work with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in an effort to help decipher the alien's language in the hopes of learning their intents. Together, Louise and Ian must crack the alien language code in order to discover what their purpose is before the other more fearful countries of the world decide to take action against this potentially powerful unknown alien threat.

Arrival is not going to be everyones cup of tea. Science Fiction is a fical beast as most cannot appreciate the more subtle and realistic approaches to the genre in favor of the bigger spectacle driven films we get on too regular a basis. In laymans terms, you are either an action guy or you are a science guy and rarely do those two categories crossover and this particular film is not going to change that. Anyone looking for landmarks across the globe get blown up by huge death rays are not going to find any solace here. Arrival is strictly a film for those looking for a much more cerebral experience, for anyone who likes to be challenged on a mental level as opposed to just turning off your brain.

This chamber is the only place the aliens are able to interact with humans.

Director Villeneuve sets the tone immediately as we are introduced to Louise and bare witness to her having to cope with a tragic moment in her life. The color palette is this decidedly lifeless kaleidoscope of greys, muted greens and dark shades of white which is compounded by the magnificent score from composer Johan Johanson whose imposing melodies haunt us just as much as they intrigue us. This somber setting is carried through the majority of the film with nary a moment of levity which some might use as a tool to label it as a somewhat joyless exercise if not for the immense amount of joy infused into every single moment we spend with Louise and Ian as they begin their attempts to communicate with the aliens.

Every breakthrough and every new discovery is like finding that piece of a puzzle you have been searching for relentlessly. It helps that the audience is kept in the loop on these moments through some very clever writing and editing choices which if they were to go over our heads it would suck all of the emotional investment we build with these characters over the course of their journey. Whenever Louise steps up and takes a chance it is almost impossible to not feel a sudden surge of excitement as both we and the characters wait with a childlike glee at what new piece of information they have just unlocked which is echoed by those rare moments of astonishment seen in their eyes. Make no mistake about it, this is one of the most finely tuned and nuanced film going experiences of the year that will have anyone willing to give themselves over to its reality completely enraptured from beginning to end.

Louise is determined to learn the alien language in hopes of learning why they are here.

There are of course of number of secrets that are revealed over the course of the film that if I were to mention them here would do a huge disservice to the amount of work and care put into how they are presented when actually watching the film. What I can say without risk of ruining any of the film's more pleasant and inspired surprises is that audiences should be prepared for something that is intent on breaking the mold of what kind of stories can be told using Science Fiction. Where Louise's journey ultimately takes her is masterfully woven into this tapestry filled with familiar themes and topics that we see the entire time but never truly understand how they all connect until the exact moment it wants us to which is a testament to the tightly wound script based off the short story "Story of Your Life" and how fantastic the casting is.

Speaking of the actors, they cannot be glossed over here either with everyone putting in A class work here. Jeremy Renner is always a solid performer and he is no less solid here providing a good counter balance to Louise's growing confusion. Likewise with Forest Whitaker and even a very mousy Michael Stuhlbarg who have the thankless roles as the government stooges but no less have very integral roles in how well this story unfolds. Then there is Amy Adams whose subtle and reserved performance makes her the unsung hero of the film. It is one of those performances that feels so effortless that it is easy to miss all the little nuances such as her ability to relay to the audience her mixed emotions about what is happening to her without saying a word and the way she commands a room even when she is the softest voice present. This is an award worthy performance from Adams that will hopefully be recognized come Oscar time next year.

The military is ready to engage with the aliens if need be.

Probably the most surprising element of the film that worked way better than it should have was its procedural approach in how Louise and Ian forge a communication bridge with the aliens. A large portion of the film is devoted to a series of sessions with them visiting the alien ship where they begin the building blocks to learn the alien language. While that doesn't sound all that exciting on the surface these moments are actually prove to be the most exhilarating in the whole film. Part of that has to do with the chilling atmosphere constructed by cinematographer Bradford Young but it is mostly due to the staggering attention to detail in the process used to deconstruct the alien language into something that not only the characters understand but we do as well. Now, you won't be leaving the theater speaking alien or anything but you do begin to see the alien language in a way that at the very least makes it plausible enough for the audience to believe that Louise is able to process and understand it.

Are there any problems though? While watching the film there wasn't anything that really jumped out and screamed problem. That being said though in hindsight there may be some that might take issue with the aliens themselves as their design and even their voices are very similar to elements from other popular Sci-fi stories such as Alien and War of the Worlds. But with the primary focus being on communication and learning the art of linguistics it isn't so much a problem as it might seem at first glance. If the whole film were actually about the aliens themselves (which it is not) then this could be seen as a potential problem but just like all the other elements it all eventually fits in nicely with the many surprises that await at every unsuspecting corner turned.

Louise and Ian begin to understand they are running out of time.

Arrival is one of the best Sci-fi films released in at least the past 5 years and may very well be one of the most pivotal examples of the genre ever made. High praise indeed but I challenge anyone to come away from the film and NOT find themselves looking the universe in a whole new way. Isn't that what makes the Science Fiction genre so appealing though? The way it changes our perceived notion of how things work and forces us to look at everything with a fresh perspective? Arrival does that and does it better than most every other example in the genre. Mixing an endlessly intriguing story, plenty of visual delights, characters we grow to care for and a cast that is beyond perfect, Arrival is without a doubt one of the best films of the year and something that should be experienced by everyone.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

It is somewhat frustrating when trying to explain all the intricacies that make Arrival such a fantastic movie going experience without actually explaining what makes it such a landmark film in the genre, but there is no other way to do it without exposing all its secrets. If you love Science Fiction and are more prone to enjoy films in the genre that deal with the complexities of how we perceive the world around us as opposed to seeing the White House get blown up, then Arrival is the film you have been waiting for. See it immediately.

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