Close Encounters with Arrival – a review

arrival-poster

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.

arrival-adams-dreyfuss

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.

arrival-duo

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.

arrival-trust

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.

arrival-2001-close

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)

White space

blank-paper

Earlier today, I read a blog post by my dear friend Marsha Mason, the latest in a series for Why The Face. In today’s post, she touched on the subject of use of white space in writing, whether a screenplay, query letter, whatever.

“The goal of white space,” she explains, “is to never be at the detriment of your story…but to force you to condense, to economize, to pack as much punch as you can into less.”

I agree with her conclusion, but question if the goal of white space isn’t so much bigger.

For the uninitiated, white space is literally the empty space between lines of text and/or images, the complete absence of content which appears white on the printed page or computer screen.

As I suggested in my response to Marsha’s post, I have worked for several years in careers such as magazine publishing, web design, advertising and now screenwriting, and in all that time, I have found that white space is easily the least understood and most underutilized aspect of creativity.

For whatever reason, people seem to believe that an absence of something is an absence of work. Marsha’s comment about the need to be concise and economical in your word choice partly puts the lie to this conjecture, but it doesn’t go far enough.

We live our lives like we fill our pages, with mostly useless things designed to ground us but which, in fact, anchor us and restrict our movement. It is a restriction that we accept voluntarily and without which many of us could not function, or at least fear we couldn’t.

At this moment, I have five browser windows open and yet am ignoring all but one, and only because that one is playing music. And at the same time that I write this post, my mind is on several other posts and some projects I am neglecting.

Nature abhors a vacuum. True. But think of the greater image.

More than 99.99999% of the known universe is actually NOTHING! Only the absence of ubiquitous light keeps it from being literally white space.

In screenwriting, white space is there to let your reader run free with his or her own interpretation of your work. Restrict their thoughts with clutter, and they resist. Prevent their thoughts with too much specificity, and they disengage.

Let your story breathe, as you yourself should. Your readers will be happier for it. And so will you be.

(Image is property of owner; I stole it.)