Arrival (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Arrival (2016)

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Louise Banks is in a fog.  She’s so distracted by her past, and single-minded in her work as a college professor of linguistics, that she misses news altering the course of history.  Twelve spacecraft have landed on Earth, open to visitors every eighteen hours, and communicate in a series of circular patterns which have driven others insane.  Summoned by Colonel G.T. Weber, and accompanied by Ian Donnelly, the United States government hopes Louise’s depth of knowledge in translation will help humanity communicate with the aliens before someone makes a fatal error.  Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve, with the screenplay written by Eric Heisserer, and stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker.

One of my favorite creatures comes from science fiction, Rama II and its sequels, penned by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee.  The octospiders are bulbous things, black as oil with limbs that allow travel across many surfaces, and their beauty emerges when they speak.  From the small slots on their main bulb, colors emerge in different sections of length and brightness, going from the slots to the tips of their arms.  The regimented color bars of their language is part of their analytic mindset and prove most adept at figuring out the scientific circumstances behind the journey which baffles the human protagonists.

The first act or two of Arrival was wondrous catnip for me as I felt the joy of its plot like I was reading descriptions of the octospiders for the first time.  Not only are we introduced to the heptapods early in the film, the crux of Arrival hinges on whether we can reach a mutual understanding with the unusual creatures.  So often science fiction stories dissolve into a series of barely understood messages from a species that doesn’t seem confident in our ability to understand.  Arrival assumes the best of humanity through the heptapods, with their motionless ships and patient creation of symbols, to tell us all, “We’re here. We’re speaking. Now what will you do?”

You could take each statement and question from the heptapods as a threat, or as the promise of something grander.  Denis Villeneuve directs with his usual hesitancy to label any plot thread as a plus or minus.  This works to his strengths greatly, as he began his career examining the obstacles in front of mutual understanding with REW-FFWD and Maelstrom, and his tendency to mix wildly varying tones in his early years has lent itself to a mystifying grasp of genre in his recent work.

I'm a person who searches for ways to reach understanding by seeking out common vocabulary and go from there. So the ethical appeal of Arrival works just as well as its science fiction elements.

Together with one of my favorite cinematographers, Bradford Young, he creates a mood of heavily blanketed uncertainty.  Louise Banks (Amy Adams) works in a fog both literal, as the grey of the heptapod’s containment within their vessel spills out into her day-to-day life, and metaphorical, as the deep blues of her early extraction by the military betray their code of silent hostility toward the heptapods.  There are moments of brightness in Arrival, primarily centered on Lousie’s wonder, with memories of her daughter brightly delighting and reassuring her in blurry moments, or when every bit of Adams’ face lights up in the presence of the heptapods.

The emotional complexity around Adams’ performance as Louise, combined with the wondrous hostility of Young’s cinematography, gives Arrival its greatest moments.  In Villeneuve fashion of balancing threat and optimism, it’s Adams’ borderline mania in stripping down before the heptapods that questions if she is in the right mindset to be tasked with deciphering the heptapods’ language. But Adams also plays soft with some of the effects the heptapods are having on her, such as her growing struggles with regular human-to-human communication as she comes closer to understanding the circular alien language.  Her fumbling while speaking grounds the brightest moments as she remembers her daughter or makes progress in deciphering the language.  Adams embodies humankind's collective pessimism in her stumbles or moments of panic, but also our optimism in her willingness to return and again immerse herself in the half-understood circles.

What issues persist with Arrival lie in two sources, the screenplay by Eric Heisserer and Jeremy Renner’s performance as the physicist Ian Donnelly.  To the former, the revelations of Arrival – particularly with respect to Louise’s plot beats – are steeped in the kind of insidious sexism that weighs down a lot of science fiction.  Women have to be mothers, daughters, or otherwise suffering family members in almost all science fiction, and Arrival is no different in this regard.  Working with editor Joe Walker, Villeneuve salvages this pigeonholing of women into family roles with some ingenious structuring of the big twists, but it still left me wishing more science fiction would explore the lives of women outside their obligations to family.

Jeremy Renner - strong performer when acting out masculine fantasy, less powerful when having to work in a primarily nuanced space.

But my issues with the script may have more to do with the source material, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, than Heisserer’s work.  Less charity goes toward Renner’s performance.  Renner functions well in situations where he’s asked to be the uber-male on the edge, as his work in The Hurt Locker and The Town shows.  Here he’s indulging in the kind of snarky semi-aware performance that sabotages any effect he could have.  Even when he’s in awe, he’s stepping outside the story to bring in a sly smile to his voice that nearly kills some of the better scenes in Arrival, and when the emotional circuits are completing in the last moments he sounds thoroughly unconvincing in his desires.

To the extent the insincerity of his performance is due to the script, as the events unfold from Lousie’s perspective, it again shows the tendency of science fiction to force women into nurturing family related roles.  More interesting are the scenes with Forest Whitaker’s Colonel G.T. Weber.  Whitaker’s tendency to find the warmth and humor in sometimes monstrous characters is shelved for something more uncertain here.  His scenes with Adams are great in how he plays a man struggling to keep his uncertainty in check while he dutifully carries out orders, yet can’t help but respond with some hesitation to Louise keeping her emotions open for everyone.  In a better world, Renner and Whitaker might have switched roles to better play with one another’s strengths.

Arrival is the kind of movie I wish I could silence my outside experiences for and simply enjoy as is.  I might have found the screenplay less troubling and Renner’s performance satisfactory.  But then I wouldn’t be the guy who was able to relive the uncertain joy of being eleven and picturing alien worlds for most of Arrival.  I’m happy to take the bad with the good, and miring my mind in the past for complex reasons is Arrival’s most potent strength.

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Arrival (2016)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Screenplay written by Eric Heisserer.
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker.

Posted by Andrew

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