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)

Surprise, but never lie

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I recently saw the following advice from filmmaker and screenwriter Don Roff posted on the Facebook page of the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards:

Always mystify, torture, mislead and surprise the audience as much as possible. — Don Roff

Although I agree with the sentiment, I don’t think it is complete (Note: I was unable to locate the source of the quote to learn if Roff said more on the subject). Thus, I offer the following codicil:

Mislead and surprise, but NEVER lie to your audience. Everything must be possible within the context of the universe you have built in your story. If you lose the trust of the audience, you’ve lost them forever.

Finding the Critical Sweet Spot – Part Two

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In the last post, we talked about the challenge of finding someone to critique your work in a way that was actionable; someone who was neither too hard nor too soft on you. Below, we continue the conversation by address the need for that person to be available for ongoing discussion and the limitations of options like coverage services.

Availability: A lot of screenwriters rely on coverage services to get feedback on their screenplays and there are a number of reputable organizations and readers out there.

The challenge, I find, with these services is that they tend to be unidirectional and/or very brief. You send your work, you receive a written report, you may receive an oral report—which allows you to ask questions—but ultimately, it’s “here you go”.

You can get more, you can have follow-up, but it’ll cost more.

As well, I think you really miss out on improving your own skills, knowledge and understanding of story through the critiquing of the work of others.

I also worry that the use of a professional service when your work and skill sets are at a nascent level is largely a waste of their time and your money. The feedback you receive will likely be so broad, so sweeping that it could easily overwhelm you. As well, any minor change you make at one stage is liable to make any of the remaining feedback moot.

Better, I think, that you find someone who is also trying to grow their skills, who understands and shares your needs and fragility. They want and need your help as much as you want and need theirs, and so you’ll be more apt to make time for each other.

Again, it is about building a relationship of trust.

Transient state: Unfortunately, no two people develop at the same rate, and even if you find yourself in a trusting artistic relationship, you will likely find that one of you is ready to move forward faster than the other. It happens in all facets of life.

As your Art develops, you will find that your needs change, and that the partner that got you to one stage of development cannot get you to the next one. It is time to bow to your partner and move on to the next one.

If you’re lucky, both of you recognize this and move on without acrimony. Not everyone is lucky. But for your Art to flourish, the move is necessary.

I wish I could tell you that there is an easy way to make the transition, but in my experience, it is like the end of a marriage and the need to start dating again. The footwork is shaky and the verbiage is awkward, but you won’t die of embarrassment.

The key is to remember why you’re doing this, why it is important to you, and then to simply move forward.

You’ll be okay.

 

Coverage services I have used or have had recommended to me:

Marsha Mason at Why The Face

Terry Zinner at A Film Writer

Scriptapalooza Coverage

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because it was available now)

The Devil’s in the detales

Attention to detail is craftsmanship.

Fixation on detail is neurosis.

It’s important to be diligent when working on a project, but not so diligent that the project is dead before it starts.

Relax. Let your natural skills and energies flow through you as you explore your art.

It is those little quirks that make the piece yours and not the same as every other piece ever produced.

The ceiling of the trophy room of the Hockey Hall of Fame, which used to be a bank. (Toronto)

The ceiling of the trophy room of the Hockey Hall of Fame, which used to be a bank. (Toronto)