Monday, March 13, 2017

Arrival

Spoiler-free.

Based on the novella The Story of Your Life, Arrival asks the question, "if aliens made contact with Earth, how would we respond, really, and how might it change us?" is Louise, an exceptionally talented linguist who lives a sad and lonely life. When mysterious alien ships appear around the globe, she is hired by the US military to figure out how to communicate with them, in order to learn their intentions.

Directed by the subtly stylish .

is Ian, a scientist hired to work with her, and their handler is , but the story belongs to Louise. The story is two-fold: a realistic and politically influenced speculation into how an extraterrestrial crisis would be handled, and a character drama, exploring Louise's personal makeup, her relationship with the aliens, and how they affect her journey as she struggles to understand them. Both sides have their points of appeal, and elements that stand on shaky ground.

On the technical side, the appeal lies in the obstacles to overcome in order to understand a species with which humans have almost nothing in common. Where would you even begin that kind of endeavor? Arrival presents a lot of realistic and impressive solutions that fans of real-science science fiction would appreciate. The promise of this was what interested me in the film in the first place. The downside comes from the politics embedded within. It would have been impossible to go completely without politics with the direction the story took; only, in a handful of moments, the film itself offered opinions, instead of simply relaying those of the characters who inhabit it. I was taken out of the immersion of the film a handful of times as a result.

There's a subtle difference between a movie having an opinion and a movie portraying an opinion. I always prefer the latter.

On the side of personal drama came a lot of unexpected enjoyment since the trailers never gave anything away on the subject. But the film itself starts with it -- full force. Amy Adams does a good job in the dramatic role, keeping her downtrodden and anxious character engaging in spite of depressing attributes. My sympathy towards Louise, however, was much stronger in the scenes that lean toward science, as she solves problems using smarts in the style of Mark Watney. Each new discovery and well-earned step forward sparked significantly more satisfaction in me than watching her in the emotional moments in between.

Her emotional journey is, however, equally as important to the film as the more apparent obstacle. The two eventually tie together significantly, as we know it will from the beginning, and the film is completed. The mysteries are twisty but not too complex, revealed in gradual stages; the three in my group all "figured it out" at different points in the film. The slow reveal of the truth worked well with the film's tone which constantly loomed depressed and sluggish. The mystery, the muted suspense, and the steady supply of mind-bending half-twists kept the film from becoming boring, although I did wish it would hurry up once or twice.

Watching this film is like having your mind blown in slow motion.

Jeremy Renner's natural energy also did a lot to help boost the film, and was constantly glad he was there. Ian also gets his due moments of impressive intellect, and the most involving pure-character aspect of the film was the slowly developing dynamic between him and Louise. The extraterrestrials themselves, their culture, and the human's learning of it were by far the most creative and compelling aspects the film had to offer. When they connect, this is the side of the story that informs the emotional, human journey, and in the places where they intersect the film hits a sweet spot of cerebral sci-fi that is thoroughly mesmerizing.

Then things get complicated, but at the same time, very simple; the story informed itself, essentially building a prison around itself with its own story. There were aspects I thought changes would have improved, but those were things that were impossible to change because their existence allowed for the story's existence, which in turn dictated their existence. It created a loop impossible to escape from. I don't see it as flaw, since the self-constrained story does work and make sense within the space it allows itself to occupy; only it didn't satisfy me as much as it was meant to. Its theme, its message, as finished and complete as they could possibly be, was still limited.

I think this movie is an actual paradox...

Arrival asks big questions, and thinks up creative answers for them. It's a thinking man's science fiction, but still understandable for novices to the genre. Its premise is wholly new, and the direction taken with it is certainly down a path less worn. The story is complete and well-rounded, filmed with dull, gritty beauty, acted with feeling, written with intelligence; simply, it is proficiently and artistically built. What exists within those well-built walls is more open for interpretation.

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