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Fate and first contact - 'Arrival'

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Sci-fi offering simply exceptional across the board

One of the most prominent tropes in the science fiction realm is first contact. The notion of what happens when our world first encounters being from another has proved fertile ground for filmmakers for decades.

The trend in recent years has been angled far more toward the negative, viewing any aliens as invaders with malevolent intent. It makes sense; malevolence begets conflict and conflict begets heroic acts and spaceship battles and laser guns big action wrapped around a morality play written almost exclusively in black and white.

But nuanced takes are far more interesting, allowing shades of gray and offering a degree of what I guess you'd call realism odd to hold that up as an important quality in a sci-fi offering, but the truth is that realism tends to enhance all but the most purposefully cartoonish films.

'Arrival,' the latest film from acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve, is one such nuanced offering. It is a thoughtful and sophisticated take on first contact, a beautifully-made film with dynamite performances that manages to explore some of the more complex questions that might be raised by our species' first close encounter.

The world is thrown into shock when suddenly, 12 enormous, mysterious structures appear at seemingly unrelated spots around the globe. These ships are unlike anything mankind has ever seen and they are most definitely alien in origin.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams, 'Big Eyes'), one of the academic world's most celebrated linguists, is enlisted by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, 'Southpaw') to join the military operation surrounding the ship (the government folks call them 'shells') that touched down in Montana. Essentially, they want her help in finding a way to communicate with the beings inside.

Joining her in this mission is theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, 'Captain America: Civil War'); the intelligence side of the operation is being run by the CIA's Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg, 'Doctor Strange').

Every 18 hours, a door opens in the shell and allows people in. Louise and Ian are tasked with figuring out a way to communicate with the visitors and determine their reasons for coming to Earth. The breakthrough comes when Louise discovers that while oral communication is out of their reach, visual communication is possible the aliens have a written language that, while incredibly complex, is translatable.

However, not every operation is seeing the same levels of success as this one. Rogue nations begin disconnecting from the web of shared information, leaving each group working on an island; before long, escalating tensions give every indication of exploding into aggression. Louise and Ian are left trying desperately to find their way in, to find a way to make a peaceful connection with their unknown visitors that might ultimately prove beneficial to both sides.

'Arrival' is a movie that takes its time to unfold deliberate pacing is a hallmark of Villeneuve's work, one that he has used to remarkable effect in past films. This film benefits as well, allowing for a gradual submersion into the depths of ideas presented within. Communication or lack thereof has always been one of the primary obstacles to equitable interactions between cultures; this story takes that notion to an engaging and powerful extreme.

Villeneuve has an exceptional eye; while 'Arrival' might mark his first foray into CGI-heavy genre fare, he has by no means sacrificed his aesthetic. He's got a remarkable ability to render small spaces expansive and large one claustrophobic an odd juxtaposition that works well in embodying the suffocating pressures and intellectual triumphs inherent to such a heady narrative.

(Seriously a big-budget sci-fi film that revolves around notions of determinism and linguistic relativity? While I'd never go so far as to compare Villeneuve to Stanley Kubrick because that's just not fair - the truth is that 'Arrival' is a film that absolutely fits that Kubrickian sensibility.)

The incredible cast certainly does its part. Amy Adams is arguably the most talented actress of her generation she's got five Oscar nominations in the past 10 years (no wins, but still). The performance she gives here is subtle and smart and emotionally charged; she wrestles with some big concepts and brings them to heartbreaking fruition. Number six is coming it's just a question of whether it's for this film or the acclaimed 'Nocturnal Animals' (assuming she can't convince the Academy that one of these roles is supporting and land a pair).

Meanwhile, Jeremy Renner is no slouch he's got two Oscar nods himself, after all and serves as a consistent counterpoint to Adams. This film belongs to her, but Renner quietly asserts himself throughout, giving a performance that is all the more powerful for its relative subtlety. Forest Whitaker (oh look an Oscar winner this time) gives his standard awesome Forest Whitaker performance as the hard-edged yet sympathetic authority figure, while Michael Stuhlbarg continues building his case as 'supporting guy you REALLY want in your prestige movie' with his strong work here.

Everything about 'Arrival' the aesthetics, the narrative, the ideas, the performances is great. Yes, it's a science fiction film, but it is also so much more than that. It is a story of ideas and fate and love and language. It is beautiful to look at and fascinating to consider. It might also be one of the best movies of the year.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:28

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