Monday, 28 November 2016

Movie Review: Arrival (2016)



This might have the single weirdest initial expectation of any film I’ve covered on this blog so far, based purely on the people behind the scenes. On one hand, you got director Denis Villeneuve, one of the greatest filmmakers working today who specializes in digging deep into the murky guts of humanity to create genuine works of art. On the other, you have writer Eric Heisserer who, aside from penning the woefully unnecessary Nightmare On Elm Street remake, also wrote this year’s winner for “No, I’m still not over this piece of shit” Lights Out. Conflicting opinions is putting it mildly. Then again, the big failing with Lights Out wasn’t exactly the writing, but more the director’s unwillingness to accept the far darker aspects of the themes involved. Anyone who has sat through Villeneuve’s recent works like Prisoners and Sicario will know that he can do no such thing. To make matters even weirder, what really makes this film stand out ultimately has nothing to do with explorations of morality or even getting into properly dark territory. Why did I bring it up then? Because sometimes, even if we want to argue otherwise, expectations don’t mean a damn thing. This is Arrival.

The plot: On twelve seemingly random points on Earth, mysterious alien crafts have arrived. In an effort to establish some form of communication, Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) enlists linguistics expert Louise (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner) to help their first contacts efforts at the U.S. landing site. However, as Louise and Ian begin to understand more about the aliens, their language and why they are here in the first place, it seems that the rest of the world may not be ready for the end result… nor do they seem particularly interested in waiting for said result.

Villeneuve might be one of the few filmmakers that I’ve encountered that uses the traditional “moving pictures” style of direction in a way that doesn’t immediately turn me away. I say that because, as I’ve discussed before, he has a real knack for making sure that every single frame that we see actually means something to the overall product. He may be rather meditative in his approach, something that I have also shown little interest for in the past, but that is easily overridden by how much clear-cut effort is visible on screen. From the literal first frame of the film onwards, it is clear that while he may like to take his time in letting a story blossom forth, he certainly isn’t spinning his wheels in order to make that happen. Whether it’s establishing a very (for lack of a better term) alienating atmosphere, establishing emotional and almost instinctual drive within the characters or just providing a general overview of the world at large in light of the film’s events, there is nary a fault to be found in how Villeneuve brings it out onto the screen.

Even if I don’t entirely blame Heisserer for the failings of Lights Out, that doesn’t mean that I am blind when it comes to how incessantly blunt the script for that was. I highlight this because, unless told otherwise, I would never have guessed that this was written by the same person. Adapted from a pre-existing text, sure, but you can clearly tell that this is a story that the guy felt very passionate about keeping faithful to while translating it to the visual realm. The way this film manages to present all these different facets concerning the written word and language as a whole is staggering in how deft it is. It manages to communicate key components of everyday speech that honestly make you take a step back and ponder how complicated even the most rudimentary forms of communique can be. Not only that, it conveys these points in a way that shows a real understanding of how much the audience, a forthcoming audience at least, is capable of processing. No statements are crammed into the audience’s collective heads with undue force, nor does it feel like anything ends up flying over them. The film comments on communication between cultures, with varying degrees of so-called "civility" amongst them, communication within cultures, even down to mass communication in the form of news and gossip in general; all with the same startling amount of awareness and point-blank humanity.

At the end of the day, this is a film all about communication as we humans understand it, using numerous historical precedents like the Australian Aborigines to show that even speaking to our own species can be a difficult task, let alone one from another planet entirely. However, more so than the language of the script itself, it’s the way it is presented to us that really makes it known that this is a labour of love on all fronts. The direction helmed by Villeneuve shows a real understanding of visual language and how powerful a single image can be versus a block of text, while the script shows a heightened knowledge of written communication that shows the many facets of the words we use every day. But once it enters into the realms of cinematic language, specifically in the final act, it transcends the medium to highlight one of the most deceptively common uses of said language in one of the most awe-inspiring ways I’ve yet seen. Editing has long been a tool of manipulating how audiences perceive events since the very creation of cinema, but never have I seen it, let alone in such a mainstream offering, highlighted and used to such tremendous ends.

All in all… okay, I’m going to lay this out as best I can. I have been somewhat seriously watching films for about 6-7 years now, listing films by year for 5 of them and reviewing them here for a little over 2. In that time, I have seen my fair share of cinema, ranging from the good to the outright depressing and everything in between. This one film, without a shadow of a doubt, is the single greatest film I have seen in all that time. Its technical aspects, its fantastic acting, its heavily-laboured-over script, all combined with an all-encompassing look at what we define as the act of communication and the use of language, all come together to create something that I have no doubt will be studied and lauded over for generations to come. Rarely if ever am I this confident in my opinion on a film, but quite frankly, rarely does a film this confidently show such unquestionable skill in literally every regard.

So, with that in mind, why does this film only rank in between Hail, Caesar! and Ouija: Origin Of Evil, making it only the fifth best I’ve seen this year? Well, that just comes down to a matter of personal preference. Objectively, I have to give this film every form of props that it so rightly deserves, but I still feel a stronger connection to other films I’ve seen in the last several months. I’m not as giddy thinking back on it as I am with Ouija, nor as astounded as I was with Sausage Party, nor as humbled as I was with Our Kind Of Traitor, nor as thankful as I was with Kubo & The Two Strings. Personal and subjective emotional connection is literally the only thing holding this film back in terms of my own opinion of the work. However, in one of the only times I’ll submit to the forces of objectivity, do not for a second think that that factors into how I view the film overall. This film deserves to be seen, and if you haven’t seen it already, do yourself the grandest of favours and do so immediately.

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