Close Encounters with Arrival – a review

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Although Star Wars will remain the apex of my formative years as a young writer and dreamer, Close Encounters of the Third Kind plays a close second. At the risk of blasphemy, the latter film was significantly superior to the Lucas’ space western, offering insights into humanity and our possible place in the Universe that I couldn’t begin to fathom until later in life.

Such films are rare.

Arrival, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened widely this week, is one of those films and is a worthy successor to Close Encounters.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, a man better known for horror films like the reboots of The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Arrival opens with the arrival of 12 alien space craft—looking a bit like fat Pringles—at strategic positions around the globe.

Almost the entire story is told from the perspectives of linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and shows their efforts to communicate with the aliens under the watchful eye of military commander Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), as scientists and military commands near the other 11 craft attempt the same.

While the trio works to simply comprehend the existence of the aliens, let alone try to communicate with them, the outside world falls apart as fear and a sense of insignificance grasps at the hearts of populations being told largely nothing, feeding the paranoid darkness that resides within all of us.

Without giving key aspects of the story away, the movie deals with broad metaphysical questions about existence and time, while at the same time, providing insights into our species at both its greatest apex and deepest nadir. And at its very base, it encapsulates the importance of trust in our evolution as individuals, as a society and as a species.

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Amy Adams channels Richard Dreyfuss in her awe at the miracle before her

This is Amy Adams’ movie, and so all of these concepts are displayed through her fears and growth. She must learn to trust her human colleagues. She must learn to trust her alien counterparts, adorably nicknamed Abbott and Costello. And most importantly of all, she must learn to trust herself despite flashes of what seems like madness.

To tie back to Close Encounters, Adams is this movie’s Richard Dreyfuss, and she embues her character with both the same manic trepidation and child-like wonder as Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary.

Renner and Whitaker, for their parts, are incredibly subdued in this film.

Renner’s Donnelly is an emotional anchor for Adams. Coming from the academic world, his tone is at once familiar and playfully combative.

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The photographic focus on Adams is representative of Renner’s role in this film.

Whitaker’s Weber is authoritative and yet unthreatening. He is the calm in the intellectual storm, grounding the two academics for what they are about to witness and becoming increasingly appreciative of the miracle that unfolds before him.

What I found particularly interesting about Heisserer’s story was that the antagonist of the film was Fear.

Fear of the unknown. Fear of mortality. Fear of our own insignificance. And more importantly, our deepest fear that as individuals, we simply don’t measure up.

And breaking the rules of screenwriting, this fear was not embodied in a single antagonist, but in all characters, and it was only in fleeting moments that any individual character acted upon his or her fear. And yet, as fleeting as those moments were, each was vital to the evolution of the story and the critical relationships to their next stages.

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Connection relies on trust

Again, these moments fed back to the question of trust, particularly in the face of betrayal.

To assure everyone that this film isn’t simply a cerebral exercise—although it is beautiful in what it does accomplish—there is also a very deep emotional thread that runs through this movie, again centering on Adams. And from the opening, it seems like this personal journey is completely disconnected from the sci-fi plot.

But as the story unfolds and we begin to explore what is possible in an infinite cosmos, we begin to realize that the external and internal journeys are one and the same. There is no distinction. The line between physical and emotional is an artifact of our choices as humans and society.

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Arrival continues the saga that started with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Will Arrival be to adolescent minds today what Close Encounters was to mine in 1977?

Probably not.

It is a much more adult film that its predecessor, with many fewer action sequences to engage the eye. And Villeneuve’s views and sensibilities are very different from Steven Spielberg’s.

But Arrival is the closest thing to those seminal films that we have seen in a generation or more. And for the more engaged child or adolescent, it will open a window to another plane of storytelling.

See also:

Movie Review: Arrival (Danny F. Santos)

Amy Adams supplies emotional core of alien invasion film “Arrival” (Richard Crouse, CTV News)

Amy Adams has a sublime word with alien visitors (The Guardian)

InterOkay – review of Interstellar

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I can forgive writer-director-producer Chris Nolan for naming his movie Interstellar as few would be inclined to go see a movie entitled InterOkay and yet, that is what I thought of the movie. It was okay.

Not brilliant. Not amazing. Not a cinema-changing moment. Just okay.

Set in the near future, the Earth has suffered through a variety of crop blights and other unnamed disasters that has humanity at the brink of extinction. As one school principal puts it, the human race has become a caretaker generation, simply trying to manage the status quo in the hopes that something better might show up later.

Failed astronaut Cooper struggles to keep his family whole

Failed astronaut Cooper struggles to keep his family whole

Drop into this failed world the character of failed-astronaut now failing farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who struggles to protect his family—dutiful son, frustrated pre-scientist daughter, sage father-in-law—from the ravages of dust storms and drought. Through a series of odd events, driven by daughter Murphy, Cooper learns of a mission to explore planets in other galaxies in hopes of finding a new home for humanity. They will get there via a wormhole that suddenly appears near Saturn, sent by a mysterious ‘They’.

To get deeper into the plot of the movie here would be to trip all over spoilers and I don’t want to do that. It would also require that I better understand the various plot points, which would likely take a second or third viewing…call me when Interstellar makes it to Netflix.

In an acknowledged homage to every movie that has come before it—Grapes of Wrath meets Top Gun meets 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets The Right Stuff meets Waterworld meets Prometheus meets The Black Hole meets…you get the idea—Nolan and his cowriter brother Jonathan Nolan have woven together a vision of human spirit that is broad in scope, deep in meaning and soul-defining in spirit. Or at least that seemed to be their intention.

The ones left behind search for a way out (Jessica Chastain)

The ones left behind search for a way out (Jessica Chastain)

On paper, the most meaningful speeches seem to come across as cliché, trite or in the most offensive cases, Pablum. And it is only because the Nolan boys have put these speeches into the mouths of some great actors—e.g., John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain—that the movie is not laughed off the screen. Only actors of this quality could breathe life into these leaden lines and hoary speeches.

For me, possibly the worst example of this is scientist-cum-astronaut Amelia Brand’s (Anne Hathaway) attempt to explain love as a higher dimension of existence, as something that transcends space and time and should thus be counted as at least an equal in making logistical decisions. I’m not saying that her argument is wrong (or right) but rather that the material comes across as angst-riddled teen melodrama, made all the worse because it’s coming out of the mouth of an adult.

Ferris Bueller with lipstick? (Anne Hathaway)

Ferris Bueller with lipstick? (Anne Hathaway)

Where I have to give the movie massive credit, however, is in the visual treatments. (Thank you, Director of Photography Hoyte van Hoytema and Production Designer Nathan Crowley.)

This is a visually stunning film where each image is inspired. You feel parched while witnessing the death of the American heartland and your eyes itch with the approaching dust storm. The other worlds are crafted with such realism that you sense the dampness or the cold. And for all its darkness, a black hole seems anything but black.

Without getting into spoilers, I found the story line challenging in some respects because it felt like the Nolans wrote a relatively short screenplay and then every time they asked someone to read it, they were asked “Yeah, but what about…?”

At least three times during the film, I caught myself thinking that this must be the end, only to have Nolan scream “plot twist” and have the movie spiral in another direction to tie up a loose end. Even as the credits rolled, I had the sneaking suspicion they would get half-way done and we’d have more scenes.

And the very last scene before the credits was either “Oh shit, we forgot about…” or was a ham-fisted attempt to set up the sequel (of which I have heard nothing).

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As friend and fellow blogger Danny F. Santos suggested to me recently, he thought the movie might have been better served by converting it to a mini-series and I can definitely see his point. Some aspects of the film seemed rushed, despite its lengthy running time of 169 minutes. (Danny’s blog)

Given the importance of the replacement Earths to the conceit of the story, however, amazingly little time was spent on these worlds. I appreciate that the Nolans may not have wanted to make it longer, but that just lends credibility to Danny’s idea (or they could have done a Peter Jackson-Hobbit impersonation).

To their credit, the Nolan boys have woven an incredible tapestry of plots and subplots, tapping into several deep questions about humanity, the explorer’s heart, interpersonal commitment, abandonment, the purpose of science and complicity in our own demise.

Unfortunately, they used so many strings that they seem to have suddenly found themselves with a lot of loose ends that they either tied off with a bow or tied to another string. For the latter of those methods, I am confident that they wanted me to experience a revelatory “Oooooh!” but too often I was left with a confused “Eh?”

For all my issues with plot points and dialogue, however, I do have to admit that the movie passed my butt test. At no point did I find myself squirming uncomfortably. As the credits rolled, I found myself comfortably rested and satisfyingly entertained.

Unfortunately, for a movie of the scale and scope of Interstellar, “rested” and “entertained” are an indictment, not praise.

The Throw – Austin Film Festival (part one)

Terry Rossio on AFF panel

One of the sessions I was determined to attend this year was The Throw given by screenwriter Terry Rossio, the man who brought us Aladdin, Shrek, the Pirates of the Caribbean series and The Lone Ranger (okay, so nobody’s perfect).

Rossio is a legend at the Austin Film Festival; his The Rewrite session being one of the many highlights. But last year, he went one step further with The Throw, which this year, the folks at AFF decided to put in a hotel ballroom rather than a side meeting room.

For the uninitiated, Rossio explains, the throw is that thing designed into the end of the scene that sets up (or throws to) the next scene. It is a connective element that suggests the two scenes belong side-by-side at a level beyond plot or story.

It can be a visual to visual cue, such as the famous scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the victorious ape throws the bone club into the air and as it spins end-over-end, it turns into a space station.

Alternatively, the throw can be verbal to visual, such as in the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones has made his way into the Nazi camp and learns that the Ark of the Covenant is being shipped out on a truck. Indy’s response is “Truck! What truck?” and the very next second, we watch a truck move through the Nazi camp, onto which Indy has somehow hidden himself.

According to Rossio, there are two ways to organize the narrative structure of a movie or screenplay: using storyline cuts or storyteller cuts.

Storyline cuts emerge from the events of the story, seeming natural and seamless. For example, the storming of the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan, where we see the soldiers move from one section of the beach to another.

Storyline cuts, Rossio explains, maintain the tension and keep the audience immersed in the story. It is a way to maintain and build story momentum while asking for minimal effort from the audience. It is much like a series of dominoes.

Another example Rossio offers is the end of the tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz, when the house finally stops spinning and Dorothy moves from the sepia tones of Kansas into the Technicolor world of Oz. She even states, famously, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

Storyteller cuts, in contrast, imply there is a grand design to the story or an author, who is choosing what you see and when rather than simply presenting events as they happen. This is common in ensemble films such as Love, Actually and American Graffiti.

This sense of a grand design can be comforting and reassuring to an audience, says Rossio. It creates a distance between the audience and the story, with the less immersive story being seen as a creation.

These types of cuts often support a narrator or guide who practically sits alongside an audience and takes them through the story. The guide can appear on-screen or perhaps as a voiceover. Think Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption.

According to Rossio, storyteller cuts are also very good at renewing a story’s momentum, jumping to new locations or situations before a prior scene’s energy drops and thereby re-engaging the audience.

But how do you establish these cuts? With the throw, which Rossio divides into two categories (a fixation, it seems): the strong throw and the soft throw.

(See the next post for Part Two, which actually goes into the different throws and how you would use them.)

(Images is property of owner and is used here without permission, because I don’t give a toss.)