Monday, December 5, 2016

Microreview [film]: Arrival (2016)

Astonishing and humane sci-fi, respectfully adapted from the Chiang story

Given all the largely-positive reviews already out there on the deeply-disturbing-internet, I'm wary of merely placing another stone on the cairn of praise (the more readers that look up what a cairn is online is a reduction in the fake-news searches so go for it). However, given Arrival's cautious, fearful, complex and yet ultimately beautifully-warm message, I feel in this world of, well, 2016, no urge to seek out such stories can be strong enough.

A guarded love letter to a daughter (with one hell of a spin on that conceit), Ted Chiang's original short story 'Story of Your Life' is a sublime piece of writing. Despite what is often known as info-dumping at points (indeed, the film's adapters were concerned not to just make 'the world's most expensive Ted Talk'), these mines of explanatory description of language both written and verbal are the bedrock to the plot, and to its protagonist. It is a tale based firmly in Chiang's own academic viewpoint, but with a love of fantasy and good, old-fashioned human drama as well. What it does with these starting points is profound and moving, and yet surprisingly contained, and subtle.

I highly recommend this story; it is one of the finest ones I have read over the years. Yet I suggest in very strong terms that you read it after seeing the film. Enough time had passed for me to have submerged my memories of the plot detail but the film is faithful enough that it could undermine the experience, and I don't think the film's revelations weaken the enjoyment of reading the novella afterwards.

The chief reason I worry about the film being spoiled is I think it is finer than the work it is based on. Some elements taken out or replaced I missed, but like Shawshank and Blade Runner, so much more comes from the cinema experience than the short stories they are based on. Arrival is one of the very best reasons to fork out for a cinema ticket this year and makes me more confident in its director's success in his next project, the sequel to Blade Runner. Denis Villeneuve slipped up on Sicario in my eyes, stumbling with a flawed script, yet even there brought such exquisite foreboding and tension with a seeming flick of the wrist. His smoothly powerful work continues here, with the shot of our hero arriving on site being up there as cinema's best moment in some time.

Much credit for Villeneuve's results must go to the dazzlingly score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. It's been on my music player frequently since and is a fine album in its own right. Equally vital of course are the sound (which is near flawless despite Forrest Whittaker being often indecipherable) and photography (which is as superb in low and natural light as Deakins's work in Sicario; bravo Bradford Young, who will no doubt shoot the best-looking Star Wars film yet when he does the young Solo movie).


The cast meanwhile , although as sparse as a one-act play, are predictably excellent. It is a joy, pure and simple, to watch a mainstream sci-fi led, no, dominated, by a smart woman who, as played with such gentle force by Amy Adams, lives by her intelligence and by her own (sometimes selfish) emotional desires. Arrival is entirely her journey and Adams should be award-laden for a genuinely great performance, yet she probably won't be as it doesn't involve the weak emotional displays so seemingly required to win a Best Actress (this is no Bullock cry fest).

As for the reasons relating more directly to why I'm writing about this on this site, the alien craft and occupants are refreshingly different enough to make this feel original sci-fi fare. Sure, Kubrick shadows much of the imagery in the craft, and some of the sound, and the aliens themselves and their chamber occasionally reminded me of Lynch's Dune. Yet this is a vision boldly innovative enough to give that sense of wonder so needed in sci-fi, particularly these days.

"Story of Your Life" offers much more simple and practical interaction with the aliens, who are far more creature-like than the strange knuckles of the film, but what fires the mind on the page can be laughable on camera, and Villeneuve and his writers wisely keep the complete physical nature of the aliens elusive. The original story is also more deeply engaged in what one could imagine as a more everyday and realistic set-up surrounding the governmental reaction and procedures, whereas the film decides on propulsive, time-is-running-out movie plotting, including an actual ticking countdown at one point, compared to the weeks or months the book hints at. There are also moments of pointlessly obstructive military resistance to Adams and fellow scientists in both versions, yet the movie perhaps takes them to extremes of shouty CIA people and twitchy soldiers.

Quibbles all these things remain as being, however, in the face of such a lovely piece of filmmaking. Sci-fi is rarely this thoughtful, nor breathtakingly exciting, nor, ultimately so touchingly human. And that twist. What a twist. Never have the words to a Madonna chorus been coincidentally so heartbreakingly used. When Adams exclaims them, my popcorn-embattled heart broke.

The Math

Objective Assessment
: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for the ultimate antidote to the idea of macho posturing being the way to resolve conflict, which sci-fi and politics are too full of lately.

Penalties: -1 for some uneven lurches in pace at times (one sudden shift into rapid voiceover montage in particular) , and possibly too much of one emotional tone despite some causal humour, from Renner especially, to offset the sombreness .

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 which is what we here class as 'very high quality / standout in its category'


Written by European Scribbler, who believes in the better aliens of our nature, NOAF contributor since 2013