Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review: "Arrival" is a Smart and Timely Film About More Than Aliens

Scene from Arrival
It is difficult to watch director Denis Villeneuve's latest Arrival and not think about the real world. This is in part because of the film's theatrical release being a few days after the 2016 American presidential election; itself a motive that feels intentional the further along the film goes. With the results leading to controversy and outrage, there's questions as to whether the world can truly come together and understand differences. This is a central piece to Arrival: a film that contradicts the alien invasion story by focusing on a more intellectual debate. Unlike this past summer's Independence Day: Resurgence, Arrival wants to better humanity. It is the perfect film for the moment as well as further proof that Villeneuve is one of modern cinema's most challenging, engaging mainstream voices. 

The plot begins with Louise (Amy Adams) experiencing a montage of her life with a child. She watches in ecstasy as the events play their horrible dance. Many have compared its effectiveness to the Pixar film Up, which was overwrought with emotions in a matter of minutes. Upon first viewing, it's merely a beautiful scene that ends in tragedy. In a larger context, the innocence takes on a deeper and more powerful meaning about Louise's life and future. This is before we're introduced to the aliens, referred to here as Heptapods. This is before the world is thrown into chaos, concerned over why they have landed on this planet. Louise's linguist skills tie her into a mission to understand their foreign language, made up of circular shapes etched with different meanings. 

The mystery isn't just "Why are they here?" It may be the main drive of the plot, but for Louise there is another question: Why do we care about her daughter? She enters the film almost as a red herring, never quite making sense to the bigger picture beyond occasional glimpses into mundane conversations. These two sides reflect a mystery that may seem unrelated at first, but uncover something deeper. While the Heptapods look like a cross between Villeneuve's version of spiders in Enemy, and a hand; they are surprisingly key to understanding something deeper about Louise as a character. The message to an extent is that despite not looking the same, they are connected on a desire to better humanity in the face of potential (and sometimes international) oppression. 

Most of the film's proverbial twists come in the third act, where Arrival better explores the impact of language. Suddenly Louise isn't just dissecting ways to better understand, she is understanding their deeper core. Much like a Steven Spielberg alien film in the 1980's, the film goes into a compassionate route that is big on supernatural elements as well as spiritual subtext. The real villain isn't the Heptapods who wish to understand humans, but the men who fear them. With plenty of espionage elements tacked on and an interwoven thread of complexity that reflects Villeneuve's capabilities as a director, the film becomes a journey that is fit for this weekend, and possibly for all time. Arrival wants everyone to be more welcoming to new cultures instead of planning potential attacks. It may seem like a simple, overplayed message, but Arrival does the execution with a unique and powerful take.

It does help that Villeneuve's got an eye for set designs. Along with the Heptapods, their spaceship has a curious look. Its curvature may seem striking, especially when compared to the classic flying saucers, but could be perceived as a contact lens for which the audience looks through. Inside is almost like a TV room where Louise and her crew study their new friends. With a booming Johan Johansson score, it's an unnerving atmosphere that fills the gaps with mystery. The new language, at least as presented, is so intricately designed that it would make Stanley Kubrick proud. Everything about the look is so specific and full of metaphor that further viewings won't only help the plot to resonate more, but also give further appreciation for the striking imagery at hand.

Arrival may be a little difficult for those expecting more thriller than sci-fi in their alien film, but the message and appearance are enough to make the film one of the most assured titles of 2016. Considering that Villeneuve has been effectively making intertwining puzzles that have made his cinema an anticipated event every year, it is nice to know that his high concepts still can reach the blissful highs of genre cinema. With an excellent performance from Adams, this is a film that is sure to provide a lot of thought in the viewer. This isn't just true of its rich text, but also in its convenient release, which ties into a tumultuous period in American history. Maybe Arrival won't solve the issues, but hopefully they will help to start conversation that will get us there.

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