Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: Denis Villeneuve achieves a masterpiece with the transcendent "Arrival"

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a film of such vast metaphysical vision and grand emotional scope that I cannot fully believe it was crafted by human hands.

Walking out of the theatre, my breath quite literally taken away by what I have seen, I sit in stunned silence on a bench outside the auditorium for several minutes. I try to jot some thoughts down. It is difficult. What Arrival wishes to impart unto its viewers is, by design, beyond the scope of words. The film is, in part, about the nature and importance of language in dictating sensory experience, and about the places past which our words and symbols can take us. The film’s messages can be interpreted as political or allegorical, but I believe this is reductive. What Villeneuve and company wish to show us is at once far grander and infinitely more intimate. Sitting on that bench, breathing slowly, I felt chemically altered to my core – a sensation very few works of art, let alone films, have ever summoned. The feeling continues through the long drive home and to this moment, as I write these words. I imagine this is what enlightenment must feel like – the sensation of being introduced to realms one did not know existed, to possibilities that rewrite the boundaries of one’s existence.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. You may decide for yourself. Arrival is a film best seen with as little prior knowledge as possible. I shall not dare spoil a stroke of it here. Those who have yet to see it should close the page and stop reading; the rest of this piece shall wait patiently here for you to experience the film for yourself. For everyone else, continuing meditations on this most extraordinarily singular work continue after the jump…

It is clear to me that we are living in a golden age of intelligent sci-fi. Indeed, it may in fact be the trend future film historians most strongly identify in the films of the 2010s. Arrival belongs to the same clear line of films as Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and Ridley Scott’s The Martian, hard-science films about space and the unknown energized by palpable interest in the human condition. Expand the circle a little farther, however, and you will find Rian Johnson’s Looper, Spike Jonze’s Her, The Wachowski Siblings’ Cloud Atlas, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, and even Hideaki Anno’s recent Shin Godzilla – artistically accomplished and adventurous films that employ different types of science-fiction, to varying degrees of realism, but all with an aching desire to uncover, understand, and explain corners of the human heart and mind we are only beginning to grapple with on film. Indeed, this wave of science-fiction that dreams so large in favor of reflecting inwards makes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 only look more and more ahead of its time with each passing day; few of these films could exist without it, and it would feel right at home released 50 years past its debut.

Arrival stands among this wave of greatness, but also rises high above most of it, as though certain of these cinematic accomplishments were mere warm-up acts to prepare us for what Villeneuve and his collaborators would eventually unleash. The film is more attuned to the minutiae of the scientific process than perhaps any spiritual sibling since 2001, and yet it is also more organically emotional and fundamentally intimate than either of Gravity or Interstellar, the two films with which it perhaps shares the most in common. Its budget is not in the realm of those films, yet it carries itself with perhaps an even greater sense of confidence and purpose, an immaculately produced art film effectively masquerading for the world as the next in this line of major Fall sci-fi releases.

So much of this lies in Villeneuve’s willingness to let the unknown speak for itself. Many science-fiction stories promise the wonder of the unknown, of course, but then proceed to amaze us with wondrous displays of special effects that transport us into space or onto alien worlds. This is not a defect, necessarily, and I do not say it to diminish the achievement of a Gravity or an Interstellar, films which transport their viewers in ways only cinema can. But it speaks, perhaps, to a fundamental contradiction of the human condition – that we yearn for wonder, which is in essence an encounter with something greater than ourselves, and yet we often insist on making that wonder tactile through literal illustrations of fantastic sights and spaces. Villeneuve resists this urge. He understands that wonder and awe lie just as powerfully – perhaps moreso – in the things we cannot see and cannot understand. To see an alien world is one thing; to know that they are out there, confirmed by the arrival of alien visitors but perpetually unseen, is another kind of awe entirely.

It is the awe of the sublime, of being confronted with something so beyond our capacity for understanding that it is equal parts wondrous and horrific. This is the kind of awe Villeneuve asks of us. He does not take us to alien worlds, nor, for the most part, does he even give us clear glimpses of aliens, even though his film’s plot is predicated on a first contact event with extraterrestrial life. Arrival is defined so much more by what it holds back than by what it shows. By the film’s end, we will have gained an understanding of the aliens’ purpose, humanity’s path forward, and the reality-altering truth of what knowledge has been gleaned; but it is, by design, a partial understanding, akin to a light shining through a pin-hole rather than a window. To Villeneuve, the universe and its possibilities are so vast that to suggest humans could gather anything more in a single encounter would rob the narrative of its actual significance.

And yet, within that single encounter, Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer conceive of a vision so grand and perception-altering that I suspect I shall continue processing it for some time to come. The film is predicated, in some sense, on a ‘twist,’ though to use such ugly verbiage sells the narrative short. Rather, Arrival builds itself initially on a structure we find partially familiar, with protagonist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) remembering the time she spent raising a child who would eventually succumb to cancer, her emotional scars reopening as she works to understand the language and motivations of these alien visitors. Our instinct is to call these memories ‘flashbacks,’ but think closely – does the film do anything, apart from editing, to suggest a clear chronology to these images? Do characters, in the diegesis, make any reference to Dr. Banks’ past or how it affects her now? And as the supposed ‘flashbacks’ begin arriving at more syncopated intervals, triggered in ways more lyrical than literal, should we not realize they are more unusual than they are traditional?

Villeneuve is using not only our knowledge of cinematic conventions, but our normal perception of linear time against us. For these are not flashbacks, and the film, in the end, adheres to no strict chronology. The truth of the aliens’ language and purpose is to help humans see time as they do, not as a linear progression but as a vast and complicated plane, a dimension unto itself that can be travelled, not geographically, but emotionally. And so the film itself follows suit, opening itself up in the final third to a lyrical series of images, sounds, and events governed not by linearity, but by emotional revelation. This is, at its core, not a twist, for nothing we supposedly knew about the story or its structure was actually violated; Dr. Banks was experiencing memories – they were just coming from a different direction than our narrow chronological perceptions could envision.

I found this final stretch of the film almost overwhelmingly emotional, in part because it all falls into place so gently, its vast reimagining of existential perception conveyed with quiet grace, its grandest revelations an invitation to empathy. Arrival is a wondrous creation not just because it perceives of space and time in a way most human beings cannot fathom, but that it does so in service of one of the biggest questions human beings can, to my mind, ask: That if there is grief, and if there is loss, and if there are horrible things that will happen to each and every one of us in our time on this earth, then why do we allow ourselves to invest emotionally? Why love? Why try? Why feel, when sensations like joy must inevitably curdle? If one could see their life stretched out in all directions, tragedy and ecstasy set against one another as sibling sensations on a plane of reality, rather than opposite ends of a chronological line, would one have the courage and the strength to embrace the good, knowing for certain that it will one day mean feeling the bad? Is standing up to such a reality even possible?

Villeneuve emphatically answers in the affirmative, building his protagonist’s story upon one of the darkest tragedies humans can endure – the loss of a child – and in that darkness finding a reason for hope. Dr. Banks, as the first human to understand the alien language and its full implications, is thrust into the existential scenario outlined above, and seemingly comes out stronger for it – her knowledge of her child’s eventual death not preventing her from embracing the love she will experience along the way. Her revelation, and the vision the film illustrates, is that the totality of time does not erase or overwrite the passion and impact of individual moments. An instant of transcendent joy matters; it is transformative, powerful, a feeling that must be held tightly and experienced in full, no matter what may come. Indeed, if experience could be detached from linearity, as this film suggests – if one could travel in an instant between a moment of transcendence and a moment of tragedy – perhaps we could perceive an existence in which one need not outweigh the other.

Arrival does have political undercurrents, in imagining a scenario where mankind finds a way to come together after fear nearly tears us apart, where only by breaking free from our most basic patterns of perception can we see something larger than ourselves. This is, obviously, a most timely message, and seems exceptionally prescient given the film was released the same week America elected a demagogue, unleashed a torrent of white nationalist hatred, and ultimately invited the most hateful and destructive ideologies among us to sit at our head of government. For all the progress we make, as a species and as a country, it has rarely been more apparent how much easier it is for human to slide back into the warm comfort of hatred and vitriol rather than put in the work to embrace lives and experiences and perspectives beyond our narrow visions.

And yet, allegory is not what resonated the most with me in Arrival. Just as the film itself has ultimately set its sights higher than the here and now, I felt most strongly beckoned by the metaphysical spirituality of the film – the exploration of a belief that bad things in our world cannot erase the good, just as the good cannot stop the resurgence of the bad. It is something I have felt before, a belief I have tried to hold on to, but seeing a film present it in this way, encouraging us to see time and existence as a plane to be explored, rather than a line to be travelled, is cathartic beyond words. The film awoke in me not just memories of every loss I have suffered, but projections of every loss I one day will – the kind of grief I have not the capacity to understand. Yet at the same time, I was made newly aware of the memories of joy and happiness and fulfillment that gave those losses, and will give future losses, meaning. The scope and intelligence of this film is staggeringly humbling.

Some superlatives are in order, then, as Arrival is not only an unfathomably wise work, but a spectacularly crafted one as well. Villeneuve has been working steadily towards a masterpiece for years now, and this is it, a landmark accomplishment by a filmmaker who had previously shown boundless potential, and who has finally wrangled it into something fully representative of his talent. Eric Heisserer, whose previous screenwriting credits suggest nothing on the magnitude of Arrival, is a major discovery. Amy Adams, long one of Hollywood’s greatest contemporary performers, has delivered career-best work, and although this year’s Best Actress race is stacked with greatness, this would be a fully deserving moment for her to win an Oscar. Up-and-coming Director of Photography Bradford Young (perhaps best known for Selma) has firmly planted his flag as one of the best in the business; he has one of the most subtly distinctive eyes out there, and he crafts here a visual palette that is so quietly expressive it aches pathos from every corner of the screen.

Most importantly, special attention must be paid to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s stirringly unique score, which exists on a plane of greatness all to itself. Inextricably linked to the larger sound design of the film, Jóhannsson’s gorgeous compositions are as integral a part of the film’s aesthetics as any set, shot, or performer. Never cloying, obvious, or overbearing, Jóhannsson has crafted a musical masterstroke, one that lights a fire underneath the entire film and ignites the full potential of every other cinematic element. It is as good as film scores come, and any other winner in this year’s Original Score category would be, frankly, ludicrous.

As I said before, there is more still to see in 2016, and even moreso than in most years, studios seem to have held their most significant cinematic salvos for the final weeks on the calendar. So I will not get myself in trouble by prematurely calling Arrival the year’s best film, and will instead label it a singular accomplishment in one of cinema’s most thriving genres. This is a film that will be remembered, that will likely be as important to future generations as it is to those alive today. Many films dream for the stars; Arrival strives for nothing less than enlightenment, and comes closer than any movie rightly should to achieving it.  

Follow Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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