Movie Review – Arrival

We are nearly at the end of 2016, and thank God for that. This year has been a supremely tough one, both on a personal level, and because the world as a whole is clearly going to the dogs. Hence the extremely infrequent and erratic writing, despite the best of intentions.

When the going gets tough, I can always seek solace in movies and I have really been holding out hope for Arrival, the latest from Denis Villeneuve. I liked Prisoners, LOVED Enemy and was a bit underwhelmed by Sicario. But I knew that this one delved into questions about the nature of communication, a favourite subject of mine, as well as starring the stunning Amy Adams, so I hoped this would make it a rewarding experience overall.

The story centers around a professor of linguistics, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is chosen to head a team trying to decipher the language of aliens that have come to Earth. These aliens have arrived in 12 huge vessels hovering over different countries around the globe. Her task is not only to make sense of the in-human sounds of the alien language, but to share her findings with other teams around the world, in an atmosphere that is growing increasingly tense and hostile with each passing day that the aliens remain on Earth. No one knows what these creatures are here for; do they mean to harm us or help us?

What then unfolds is a story that is more about humans than it is about aliens. It is an intelligent, but not cold, examination of our human flaws and foibles.

The script, adapted by Eric Heisserer from a short story by Ted Chiang, deftly handles the very tricky and seemingly un-cinematic subject of linguistics. It also introduces a believable “aliens just arrived on Earth”-scenario, avoiding the pitfalls of so many other films that are all screaming hordes and shouty army sergeants.

And how refreshing it is to have the hero of a film be a professor of linguistics!  Watching Louise puzzle over the aliens’ attempt at communication alongside her colleague, a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), was, to me, just as exciting as any action scene. As a bit of a linguistics nerd, I savoured the theoretical discussions about language and the way we construct it and it constructs us.

Amy Adams is, as per usual, just a delight to watch. We see our own wonder and curiosity reflected in her face as she slowly gets closer to the aliens she is studying.

All of the fantastic elements of the film are then held together by the most incredible score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. The score is a beautiful combination of otherworldly sounds and mechanical noises with an undercurrent of indecipherable vocals that lend the tracks the same human warmth that is pulsating throughout the film.

And this is where Arrival really stood out for me, and gave me some peace in a worrying and stressful time. The movie doesn’t just grabble with theory. It elevates – and yes, stretches – the ideas behind the theory, and applies it to the narrative in a way that clarifies the human impact of these ideas.

What if your greatest gift would also cause you the greatest pain? Would you embrace it, or would you fight it? The science may not hold up to close scrutiny but, as with any great science fiction story, you need a healthy dose of fiction to go with the science. Great science fiction is never just a showcase for shiny spaceships, cool robots and scary alien creatures. At the core you have to have a human story that helps us see our place in the world more clearly. And, after Arrival, I do.

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Review – Sicario

Sicario is the latest movie directed by Denis Villeneuve, who was also behind Prisoners and Enemy. Enemy was, without a doubt, one of my favourite movies of 2014; a completely mind bending experience that just kept on getting better the more I delved into its possible meanings after it ended. I was disappointed that it wasn’t more widely viewed so when hype started building around his next project, Sicario, I was pleased to say the least. He’s a film maker that deserves more attention.

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The film introduces us to the FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who is recruited for a special unit tasked with locating cartel hitman Manuel Díaz who will hopefully lead them to the whereabouts of the Mexican drug lord Fausto Alarcón. Joining the task force means following the leader of the task force Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and working alongside his partner, the elusive and stone faced Alejandro Gillick (Benecio del Toro). At the beginning, we don’t know much about Gillick or the role he plays in the operation, except that he seems to work with unorthodox methods. Macer, with her idealism and play-by-the-book attitude, is a fish out of water in this operation and we follow her down the rabbit hole of horror that is the war on drugs.

The first part of the movie is truly exhilarating and terrifying. With skilful direction and the superb cinematography of the Roger Deakins, each frame looks like a painting, if a painting was a living, breathing thing. From the moment the film starts, it pulls no punches in showing us the horrors of the drug trade and the inhumane effect it has on all the areas it passes through. The part of the movie set in Juarez is edge-of-your-seat film making; each pothole the heavily armoured police vehicles drive over sending a jolt through you, as if you were sitting in the vehicle yourself. The score makes you think we are in Mordor, and the sheer brutality on the streets suggests you shouldn’t be surprised to find orcs running at you at any moment. The tension builds and builds until we find the characters stuck in a traffic jam, a scene which is very probably one of the best of the year.

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The problem with the movie, however, is that it peaks right here. All the elements of an outstanding movie are there, great cast (not least del Toro, who stands out), director and cinematography, a story which is more real than you would wish and, yet, somewhere in the middle of the movie, I found myself bored. I really, really tried to suppress the feeling, but there was no denying that my mind was drifting and my hand was twitching for my phone. The movie hits another high note towards the end of the film with an incredibly tense dinner table scene, but the damage had been done by then and I wasn’t fully engaged any longer.

I don’t know if the middle of the movie was actually boring or if it was just that it started on such a high note and then shifted tone abruptly. Maybe, if we had all the character exposition at the beginning, building up to a climax, I wouldn’t have felt so deprived of the adrenaline that surged through me at the start.

What did work for me though, was the way the movie uses Blunt’s character as our introduction into this world. The story, for me, is actually mostly about del Toro’s character and his quest to right the wrongs that have been done to him. But had we been fed his story in a more traditional way, with him in the centre of the movie, the movie would have felt very different. In that scenario, they could have replaced him with Liam Neeson and had him growling at people about his “special set of skills”.

As we see things through Macer, Gillick is more of an enigma and that does keep your interest longer than it otherwise would have. Macer herself is a frustrating character sometimes, but the movie needs a newcomer to this world to remind us of our own humanity and not just get swept away by the violence and chaos.

Sicario is by no means a bad movie. It has a multitude of strengths and in parts displays real cinematic genius. But it was a disappointment for this Villeneuve fan. Will I be watching his next film? You bet! Will I temper my expectations next time around? You can count on it.