Archive for November, 2016

Arrival

Friday, November 11th, 2016—Film

Arrival (USA 2016, Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi), Writer: Eric Heisserer; Director: Denis Villeneuve

I write this piece with such a heavy heart. It has been a dark, difficult week.

It feels sadly fitting that the great, the legendary Leonard Cohen, who left us days ago, named his most recent album You Want It Darker. We have gotten that.

As I read about people celebrating what they see as a “white victory” south of the border, and hear of the planned changes by the upcoming administration to repeal so much progress, to weaken environmental protection (when we’ve already been told by the experts that we hadn’t been doing enough)…

It’s hard to know what to do next. Yet while some of the acts taking place right now are indefensible, there’s another side to all of this. This election, and the climate that made it possible, has illuminated the gaps, the wounds, the divides, and proven the need for better understanding, on all parts. Because we have clearly not been speaking the same language.

In Cohen’s death, we lost one of our most gifted artists. But I take solace in the fact that another talented, highly reflective Canadian artist is still hard at work, revealing elements of our true nature so we ourselves can take a good look and, with hope, do better.

Denis Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today. He has a facility for making films that examine the world around us. Perhaps more importantly, he has the desire to do so.

From Incendies to Enemy (see the Enemy review from March 2014), Prisoners (see the Prisoners review from September 2013) to Sicario (see the Sicario review from October 2015), Villeneuve’s work has explored current events and social dynamics, and always made the effort to understand the human condition. He eschews gratuitous violence, encourages female empowerment and injects his artistic sensibilities into every film he makes.

And he does all this while delivering gripping entertainment. If his movies continue to be welcomed by the mainstream, we’ll all be the better for it.

Villeneuve’s latest film is so timely and so poignant that it hurts a bit to watch. But sometimes that’s how the truth works. And what a stunning piece of honesty it is.

Arrival is based on Story of Your Life, the brilliant 2000 Nebula Award-winning short story by Ted Chiang about language, love and time. In the film, 12 alien crafts descend from the skies, hovering over various points across the globe. One of those points is Montana, where linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is summoned by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in deciphering the alien language and learning to communicate with the craft’s inhabitants, called heptapods. Specifically, Louise is tasked with determining their purpose on Earth.

From nearly its beginning to its end, Arrival is fraught with tension. As teams at each of the 12 points race to communicate with the heptapods, concern grows over when the exchanges will grow violent—that is, when governments will unilaterally decide to attack the heptapods. Far from cooperating, nations examining the crafts start shutting each other out, guarding their discoveries like trade secrets.

There is also, of course, the more immediate fear over Louise and Ian’s safety, as they work tirelessly to progress in their communications. Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young (see the A Most Violent Year review from February 2015) gorgeously capture every one of Louise and Ian’s dimly lit, eerie but exquisite contacts with the heptapods. As envisioned by the filmmakers, the creatures are stunning, with spindly bodies looking more like giant, delicate, dexterous seven-fingered hands than any earthly body.

The heptapods’ graceful, fluid movements are mirrored by the flowing fog that pours over the Montana site when Louise and the crew first approach the craft. As they move in closer to the elegant, oblong oval poised above ground, surrounded by misty mountains, it’s impossible not to be affected by the beauty.

That clash, that collision between unknown menace and hypnotic allure, is punctuated by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s enigmatic score. Jóhannsson is the genius behind Sicario’s pulsing soundtrack, and his music plays an equally powerful, defining role in Arrival. His score is spare, spooky and otherworldly, at times melodic, others metallic and almost grinding, but always deeply poetic and affecting, the perfect mouthpiece for Villeneuve and Young’s visuals.

Together, these powerhouse artists maintain a tightrope level of tension throughout the film. But you’re never alienated from the story’s human heart because Villeneuve and the extraordinary Adams always keep Louise at the forefront.

Louise is haunted by memories of her deceased daughter, and her work with the heptapods frequently triggers words and visions from their time together. As she becomes more familiar with the heptapods’ language, Louise begins to understand that time doesn’t exist for them the way it does for us. Their language, like their physics, is out of this world.

The heptapods use a semasiographic writing system that conveys meaning without reference to speech. It isn’t confined by linearity the way spoken words are. Instead, it relies on complex symbols (brought beautifully to visual life in smoky, ink-link graphics that can be drawn into the air), which require knowing in advance everything you want to say before writing a single symbol. Once you truly learn the language, time will cease to function as it did before; you’ll be able to see the interconnection between past, present and future.

Arrival’s story structure reflects its inventive ideas about language. It weaves through chronology in an unconventional way, asking us to piece it all together at the end. Chiang did this so effectively in his short story, and screenwriter Eric Heisserer does him justice with his adaptation. Heisserer’s screenplay streamlines and consolidates where the medium demands it, but maintains the original story’s power and message. It also makes a stronger case about the need for global unity and the dangers of miscommunication, making the film all the more meaningful today.

At one point in Arrival, Louise explains a linguistic theory about how language shapes the way we think and perceive the world around us. It can enlighten. It can also enclose. In other words: The words we use matter. That’s something we dearly need to remember, as we face an increase in the language of hate and divisiveness.

I’d been looking forward to seeing Arrival since last year. I’ll happily see any Denis Villeneuve film, but after reading Story of Your Life, I was even more excited for this one. I had no idea these would be the circumstances under which I’d be watching Arrival—that the film would be so significant on so many fronts. But whether forlorn or uplifting, its relevance only adds to its importance.

See Arrival because it’s a wonderful work of art made by some of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Because it’s intelligent, thought-provoking and gripping. And because it is, ultimately, about the value of life, no matter what the outcome—that it can never really end as long as we remember it, and that it is still, always, worth looking forward, creating new life and cherishing it for however long we hold it.

In his latest album’s title song, Leonard Cohen sings this:

There’s a lover in the story / But the story’s still the same / There’s a lullaby for suffering / And a paradox to blame / But it’s written in the scriptures / And it’s not some idle claim / You want it darker / We kill the flame

But from earlier records, those that cannot be erased, there’s also this:

Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall / I’ve heard their stories, heard them all / But love’s the only engine of survival

Hallelujah.

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Thank you to Paramount for the advance ticket to Arrival.