Saturday, November 12, 2016

So now when the aliens come, they're going to talk to Donald Trump, and maybe you should just think about that for five seconds if you didn't vote for Clinton on Tuesday, you stupid, useless fuck


Well, you can't say it doesn't try, and there are wonders to be found here.  It's impossible to fault Arrival for its ambition, only for its execution; but, God, that execution sure does turn into something lousy in the end.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Eric Heisserer (based on the short story "The Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang)
With Amy Adams (Dr. Louise Palmer), Jeremy Renner (Dr. Ian Donnelly), and Forest Whittaker (Col. Weber)

Spoiler alert: moderate

And once again, for reasons that seem to defy easy explanation, we found ourselves waiting with some small amount of anticipation for the new picture from director Denis Villeneuve—the prolific Quebecois filmmaker who had not previously managed to join his rather obvious talents with an English-language screenplay worth filming in the first place.  His Anglophone filmography has been a rough ride: it includes the watchably-bad kidnapping thriller Prisoners, the awful existentialist art film Enemy, and the solidly-mounted and impressively-dull narco-noir Sicario.  Now, it includes Arrival, the dry-boned alien first contact procedural to beat them all.

And, like a broken record, I'm still playing the same song, except now my feelings are cast in the immutable mold of outright prejudice.  For whatever reason—a near-complete lack of insight into the material he works on, I think—Villeneuve's films simply will not live up to his potential.  He will never, ever make a great movie, because even when he comes close, something will go horribly, horribly wrong.

So, yeah.  That Blade Runner sequel ought to be a real treat.  (ETA: Well, I certainly was wrong about that, as Blade Runner 2049 was an amazing treat.)

But, hold on: there are palpable stabs at honest greatness in Arrival; and, truly, they outdo anything I've ever seen from Villeneuve before.  For the first hour and a half, Arrival promises a certain brand of arid, sterile, uncompromising greatness, all while plying the tale of what might easily be the single most cold-blooded first contact procedural anybody has ever dared to make.

It might be the leanest of them all, too.  There are 90-minute 1950s sci-fi programmers that start slower than Arrival.  It gets its protagonist's tragic backstory (hmph, backstory) out of the way completely, in one blistering-quick montage, before turning, almost immediately, to its plot.  That plot, as we'll see, revolves around the most important thing that's ever happened to our hero, Dr. Louise Palmer—not coincidentally, it's also the most important thing that's ever happened to the human race—the sudden, unexpected appearance of twelve alien spaceships at twelve random points across the Earth.

Louise, a linguist of great esteem, is soon drafted into the government's contact team, and sent out to Montana alongside a physicist, Ian Donnelly.  There, the two are expected to turn the unintelligible whalesong-like vocalizations of the alien travelers into human words we can comprehend.  What they actually discover within the starship's gravity-defying anteroom, however, is a written language, and one of stunning, impossible elegance, at that: circular sentences with neither past nor future to be found within them, enscribed upon the mist of the aliens' enclosure in jet-black, squid-ink vapor.

Months of labor ensue, along with endless meetings with the aliens, and Louise and Ian grope at the meaning these so-called "Heptapods" are trying to convey, approaching the day where they can, at last, ask the aliens what their government sponsors very badly need them to ask, the deceptively-simple question that all of us in the audience are asking, too: "What is your purpose on Earth?"  Meanwhile, at eleven other sites around the globe, similar men and women pursue the same goal.  In China, they may have the edge.  It's an edge that gets them right up to the point where they manage to translate the aliens' cryptic reference to a weapon—and, upon this revelation, the Chinese disconnect themselves from the rest of the world while everyone else jumps to the (seemingly-correct) conclusion that an interstellar war might already have begun.

Arrival trafficks in the primordial appeal of an alien movie, soaking in the twin senses of paranoia and awe that would naturally result from being confronted with such emissaries of the unknown, who are almost totally opaque in their motivations, yet whose mere ability to travel here in the first place presupposes the power to annihilate the entire human race on a whim.  The mood-setting of Villeneueve's direction is very close to outright perfect: those lingering shots; the focus on human smallness and inadequacy in the face of a great cosmic mystery; and that abrasive soundscape by Villeneuve's sound designers (and by Villneueve's most frequent sonic collaborator, composer Johann Johannson) which splits the difference eloquently between the avant-garde and the cliche, in part because when it comes to riffs on 2001, the avant-garde is cliche.

There is a reaction shot, early on, of Amy Adams staring into the camera as she is confronted with the news of the arrival.  It's held for as long as any director would risk; Adams underplays the emotion of it as fiercely as any actor could risk; the dim television light paints Adams' blue eyes black as she empties out into something akin to a state of catatonic shock; and while I don't imagine that it'll possibly stand in anyone's memories as the signature image of a movie that also features a thunderstrruck first look at those 1500 foot tall hovering spaceships (not to mention the giant seven-fingered hand puppets who reside inside them), it simply must be its most flawless visual gesture.  (Meanwhile, I'd guess that the film's actual signature images all involve the canary—think "a canary in a coal mine"—which the scientists and their military escorts have brought into the alien visitors' anteroom.  Its panicky movements underscore, better than any line of dialogue could, our heroes' own barely-concealed nausea and fear.)

So this is the best of Arrival: the intersection of its determinedly uncanny audiovisual presentation with a rather commonsense, step-by-step approach to the aliens as a scientific problem that can (and will) eventually be solved.

And, if Arrival also sees fit to add a race against time, in order to help its offering of unpalatable nuts and bolts go down the pipe more smoothly, we cannot hold that too much against it.  Indeed, there's something to be said about an American movie made in 2016 that is actually willing, however tenuously, to let the People's Republic of China be anything like an antagonist.  (But then, it's not like we come off looking the slightest bit better; as late as this time last week, I might've rolled my eyes at the undernourished subplot that turns a talk radio-poisoned American soldier into the alien-hating Gavrilo Princip who failed to grasp the most salient lesson of The Day the Earth Stood Still, namely, "Don't try to kill the omnipotent space gods."  Today, obviously, it strikes me as far more believable—even if it is also rather clear, from the context, that this scene exists mainly because a similar scene exists in Contact.  Naturally, it might've been a better scene if the filmmakers had noticed that Contact actually possessed the scope to deal with the issue, beyond the level of a plot device.)

In any event, despite some familiarity, what we've gotten so far really is a pretty great movie.  I should definitely mention somewhere that, no matter what caveats I might have about the design of the Heptapods—um, where are their eyes?—and, especially, the design of their language, I sure as hell wouldn't trade Arrival's own weird, very cool, and (yes) kind-of-goofy-looking extraterrestrials for anything—certainly not for anything less biologically concrete.  There's something to be applauded about any descendant of 2001 that doesn't give into the (sometimes lazy) temptation to make its aliens so completely "unknowable" that they simply get thrown offscreen.

Then there's that last half-hour, which does what many fine alien encounter procedurals have done before it, attempting to take the uncanny mundane beyond the infinite.  Arrival, in fairness, isn't coy about its intentions.  Hell, the film starts with a voiceover, by Adams, that pretty plainly tells you where we're going to end up.  The past-and-future-tenseless grammar of the Heptapods ought to take you the rest of the way there.

And yet, even with all of that accepted as a foregone conclusion, this movie's structure is psychotically fucked up.  It lies, viciously and promiscuously, about some very important things regarding its plot; and Adams can make no sense out of the lies she and the film tells, though (in fairness) there's no reason on Earth why she should be able to.  But, in this case, the lies are not even the irrevocable fracture—because while Arrival all but demands a second viewing to be completely understood, it also seems to be engaged in an active campaign of dissuading you from ever giving it another chance again.

In the midst of burrowing through its pair of poorly-joined thematic and narrative layers, Arrival tears itself to pieces, revealing the maudlin thing that, apparently, it's been the entire time.  It wants to be trippy, and it manages that part pretty effortlessly; but it also wants to be moving, and it manages that not well at all.  It's the kind of film that elicits a visceral scowl from you, as you watch it death-ride into the conclusion.

Essentially, Arrival is two wholly different, almost completely incompatible films—and the sleek, chilly surfaces of Villeneuve's direction reveal themselves to be only that, surfaces.  (But don't think this lets master screenwriter Eric Heisserer off the hook, for there is no excuse whatsoever for a script that seeks to grapple with such heady emotions to also be this cliched, or this shiftlessly impressionistic, let alone this outright fucking lame.  But then, the man who wrote Lights Out really would know from the cliched, the shiftless, and the lame, wouldn't he?)

And so the denouement of Arrival comes as a monstrous slap in the face.  It is a confession that the movie you had been watching (and, presumably, enjoying) didn't matter.  It comes alongside an admission that the movie that takes its place, the one that does matter, isn't one its makers cared about enough to spend more than five minutes of sub-Malickian montage on it.  Arrival isn't even a short film at 116 minutes long, but as it grinds through its climax it becomes beyond clear that it needed to be longer, even significantly longer, in order to deal with the massively-difficult themes and concepts it decides to throw into its mix, no sooner than twenty minutes before the credits roll.

When Arrival takes this massive turn into the sentimental—and your soul flattens from the inertia—the film tries to bully its way into your emotions so hard that it could plausibly make Spielberg himself vomit.  (To take just the most overt example, Johansson's score all but demands you hand over your lunch money.)  But it feels like a life insurance commercial.  It has about the same lasting impact.  The only way it could be more graceless is if it were actually Interstellar—and, clearly, Arrival tacks much too close to that film for comfort.  Yet even Interstellar's emotional wedgies still seemed to come from a more honest and heartfelt place than this one's.

Ultimately, Arrival depends upon a catharsis that it doesn't earn—not to mention a moral message that, even when you consider it in the best light possible, is still kind of trite and idiotic.  (Whereas, when seen in any light dimmer than that, it's legitimately horrifying.)  That could explain the biggest problem with this story, its lifeless brevity; after all, Arrival rushes through its iffy conclusion with the speed of a director who was embarrassed by the material he had to work with.  I'd even credit that embarrassment, if I could bring myself to believe it were a remotely accurate read.  Instead, four self-sabotaged films into his American career, I frankly doubt that Villeneuve actually is capable of shame.

But what the ending does not do, thank God, is manage to wipe away all the cerebral pleasures the film has showcased up till now.  True, it's not entirely perfect, even in this regard—Louise's teaching tools are suspect, bordering on the magical—but it's nevertheless something special to have any movie that manages to engage this completely with the hard parts of a first contact, rather than just the yearnings and fears that define the genre almost everywhere else.  Arrival is, to my mind, still a worthwhile endeavor, for all that it does right, despite the several things that it does (very) wrong.

And let's be clear: there even remains the scantest possibility that, on a second go 'round, Arrival really does somehow cohere into something majestic.  I'm just not counting on it.

Score:  7/10, barely


  1. I was really digging this movie, even though I found the premise of being able to see forward and backwards in time by learning a new language to be silly. But I kind of wonder if she was morally right to marry Hawkeye and have his daughter, given that she knows that he does not consent. He specifially said that she made the wrong choice. Overall, I was satisfied with this film, although less so than the other half of the double feature I saw, Dr. Strange.

    1. I think to the moral question is "absolutely not." I mean, we're all born to die, but "I'm gonna have a kid I know perishes of cancer at age thirteen, because life is life" isn't an argument that's going to find much traction with me. I didn't even get around to thinking about Bourne Lite until you mentioned him, but that really is a good point. The dude wasted over a decade without knowing it would end in heartache, and it was presumably preventable. (Although I guess almost every ouroboros tends to fall apart if you look at it too closely.)

      The Dr. Manhattan trip needed sooo much more to really land. And, of course, it really shouldn't go unremarked that Alan Moore made Doc Manhattan's atypical perceptions work through the expedient of rendering Manhattan a hollow, almost-soulless shell of a man as a result of his ability to see through time--whereas Arrival presents Louise's emotional journey as something close to the opposite of that.

      One thing I forgot to point out, however: it's still way better than Prometheus, the other big movie in this subgenre of recent years. (It is not better than Europa Report, one of the littler ones--but, then, I guess most alien contact procedurals actually aren't.)