Tuesday, February 7, 2017

LANGUAGE ARTS: a review of "Arrival"

Based upon "Story Of  Your Life" by Ted Chiang
Screenplay Written by Eric Heisserer
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
**** (four stars)

Never did it really occur to me that right as I was compiling my final listings for my favorite and least favorite films of 2016, in addition to preparing myself for the Academy Awards, would I see a film that would greatly force me to alter my list. Certainly the possibility exists but I never expected a change so powerful.

Dear readers, many of you may already be in the know and I am just a late-comer to the party, such as it is, but Director Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival" has soared to sitting at very close to the tip top of my favorite films of 2016, a motion picture experience that is more than worthy of any and all accolades it has and will continue to receive. It is a science fiction film, yes, but one that is not the least bit concerned with explosions and wars, heroes and villains or anything approaching a more fantasy based aesthetic. Villeneuve has created a science fiction film based within ideas and concepts that speak directly to the human experience, making a film that is simultaneously intimate and epic, individualistic and communal, all the while bridging the gaps with an elegant yet disturbing beauty and reverence to the gift of communication.

For the benefit of those of you who still may not have made their way to the film as of yet, I will keep my plot description appropriately brief. "Arrival" stars Amy Adams as Linguistics professor Louise Banks who is called upon by the United States military to decode the language and discover the full purpose of an alien species that has mysteriously appeared over 12 locations around the globe.

Working alongside Mathematician/theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and under the command of the gruff Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker), Louise attempts to establish first contact and build communication with the species soon to be dubbed "heptapods" and who possess a written language of circular symbols, before an increasingly anxiety ridden worldwide public falls apart into chaos and the increasingly jittery world military elects to wage war.

Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival" is proudly of the tradition set forth by the likes of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) and Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" (1977) and continued with Robert Zemeckis' noble yet flawed "Contact" (1997). Yet for my money, "Arrival" sits most comfortably somewhere within the cinematic universe that houses Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" (2014)  and Terrence Malick's "The Tree Of Life" (2011) as "Arrival" displays a rich cinematic tapestry where coincidence, fate, free will and destiny converge and majestically intertwine and with a wonderfully, fully organic, sturdy performance by Amy Adams perfectly centered at the film's core. Now having seen the film, it stuns me that she was not nominated for an Academy Award, for Adams is indeed the full heart and soul of the film and she is most deserving of any attention and accolades she may receive for her work in a complex project such as this one.

Denis Villeneuve, working brilliantly alongside the striking, seamless, photo realistic visuals by Cinematographer Bradford Young and the eerie, rumbling sound design plus the unnerving, haunting and undeniably innovative score by Composer Johann Johannsson, has masterfully merged the accessible and the esoteric, ensuring "Arrival" remains emotionally and conceptually grounded even as the story voyages into the cosmic via quantum physics, cryptic symbols and symbolism and even the nature of time itself, either linear or cyclical.

Through these concepts, Villenueve presents a difficult philosophical conundrum and vision that may take some time to wrap one's head around for some viewers--including myself--and to that, I greatly appreciated Villeneuve for trusting that his audience would be more than intelligent enough to place all of the film's pieces together to craft the sumptuous whole, which does ask of us to really put into practice the rhetorical concept of "If I knew then what I know now." And let's say that you did possess that impossible knowledge. Would you then make the same choices?

And with all of that being said, Villeneuve, most importantly, never for a moment relinquishes his powerful directorial hold upon the overall humanity of the story and the humanistic themes I feel that anyone viewing the film could be able to relate with but also a theme that carries the very message most needed within our increasingly divisive times, as "Arrival" is completely about the art and necessity of communication and the myriad worlds of language that exist in order to establish that very communication.

On the surface, Villeneuve has created a tale that is more than compelling. The race against time story of a woman urgently trying to forge a communicative bond with a previously unknown species before potential warfare and therefore, inevitable annihilation is an especially dire warning to all of us in the audience as we exist in a time when our leaders are more prone to shoot first and never ask questions either before or later and additionally, any sense of actual diplomacy is viewed as a weakness. On the contrary, Villeneuve argues, communication is perhaps the most courageous act any one of us could perform because to actually take the time to try and understand someone wholly different than ourselves, whatever our station in life might be, can potentially be life-altering. Communication at its most effective leads to information and with information, there exists the potential for elevation. Yet, to communicate, one needs the tools and that is where language...ahem...arrives.

What is language? According to Merriam Webster, the word is defined as "a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings." Combine that definition with an Italian educational philosophy that promotes the concept of there existing 100 languages we possess and are able to learn and not simply ones solely based in spoken and written words around the globe.

What of the language that communicates through visual and/or audible means or even drawing, painting, sculpture, dance, athleticism, Mathematics, the Sciences, music and of course, for me, film? Whatever it takes for one to reach and make meaningful communicative contact with another is the what Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival" celebrates at its highest. To reach the goal of understanding what was once incomprehensible requires tremendous patience, time, and the willingness to keep trying to forge that connection even when the fear of the "other" or failure or both threatens to overtake.

Villeneuve is superbly in tune with all of those emotions as "Arrival" possess a sense of wonder and awe that is equal to the palpable fear and anxiety for possible apocalyptic doom. But instead of blasting through with all weapons blazing, we are given a film that urges us to ponder a world in which our brains and our hearts carried just that much more currency. And how our brains and hearts will expand and become more enlightened with the newfound knowledge, for with language and communication, we can travel, we can navigate and we can even change the world--both inner and outer--if we only allowed ourselves the chance.

Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival" is first rate science fiction of a temperament and quality that is truly a rarity to behold. And once again, it is also one of the very best films of 2016.

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