By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Toronto Review: Arrival

arrival

Arrival director Denis Villeneuve has realized a beautiful, life-affirming piece of science fiction as visually strong as it is thematically layered, featuring astonishing performances and knockout sound design to carry it through the upcoming season. Any qualms about the Québécois-turned-international director’s Blade Runner sequel can be dismissed.

tiffAdapted from Ted Chiang’s Nebula-winning novella “Story of Your Life,” Villeneuve’s eighth fiction feature showcases Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguist whose skills may be able to interpret alien communications from one of twelve massive “shells” that have arrived on Earth. Working with the U.S. Army and the gruff Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Louise enters the shell with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), determined to learn more from “Abbott” and “Costello,” a pair of Lovecraftian giants that communicate through coffee-stain rings of ghostly ink.

As these two intelligent races peacefully exchange information — and through Amy Adams’ shining performance, this process is a marvel to behold — the manifestations of human nature and applications of linguistic relativity fester: political climates upend, stock markets crash and global superpowers itch to engage violently. In short: no one is cooperating, making human-to-human dialogue as xenophobic as the arrival of extraterrestrials.

Like so many aspects of this movie (and to be specific, Amy Adams in particular), these aliens and their floating shells — which look like immense “contact” lenses — are graceful, silent monoliths. Were this a Christopher Nolan film, the spaceships (and earthbound forces) would hum with bowel-rattling bass vibrations, but that now-cliched shorthand gimmick to inspire awe is absent.

On the contrary, Arrival is too elegant, too smart, too well-acted to be a product of Hollywood excess — or perhaps more disappointing than that, merely sci-fi prestige. Rather, with Arrival, Villeneuve finds majesty in simplicity. His film is nearly an IKEA catalogue in its set design and composure. Arrival dips into Tree of Life territory when we see flashes of Louise’s mind, but unlike other directors who employ similar shots of handheld wonder, Villeneuve restrains his indulgences. Put simply, this is one of the best movies of the year; it heralds a director who is prepared to make movies magical again and again.

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“The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes. It’s the destruction of our business. I have such respect and admiration for film criticism. When I was growing up film criticism was a real art. And there was intellect that went into that. And you would read Pauline’s Kael’s reviews, or some others, and that doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s about a number. A compounded number of how many positives vs. negatives. Now it’s about, ‘What’s your Rotten Tomatoes score?’ And that’s sad, because the Rotten Tomatoes score was so low on Batman v Superman I think it put a cloud over a movie that was incredibly successful. People don’t realize what goes into making a movie like that. It’s mind-blowing. It’s just insane, it’s hurting the business, it’s getting people to not see a movie. In Middle America it’s, ‘Oh, it’s a low Rotten Tomatoes score so I’m not going to go see it because it must suck.’ But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct. I’ve seen some great movies with really abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores. What’s sad is film criticism has disappeared. It’s really sad.”
~ Brett Ratner Has A Sad

“The loss of a local newspaper critic is a real loss. People who know the local audience and know the local cultural scene are very important resources. You can’t just substitute the stuff that comes in from nowhere through syndication or the wire. I think at the same time, some of the newer outlets have really beefed up and improved their coverage and made room for criticism. The real problem is in the more specialized art forms — fine arts, classical music, dance and jazz, say. There is a real slowing of critical voices, partly because those art forms have smaller audiences. Newspapers and magazines can say that doesn’t get enough traffic, so we don’t have room for that. To me, that’s especially worrisome. This is the opposite of what newspapers are supposed to do, which is not to try to figure out what people are already interested in and recite that back to them, but to hopefully guide them to something that they should be interested in, connecting potential audiences with more interesting work.

“Then again, not everyone needs a critic. People have been going to movies for more than 100 years now, and probably the vast majority of those people have not read movie reviews or cared what critics thought. But there has always been an important subset that wants to know more, that wants to think about what they’ve seen and what they’re going to see, and wants someone to think along with. I think critics are important, not just as dispensers of consumer advice — though that’s certainly part of it, too — but as trusted voices and companions for people to argue with in your head when you’re going to movies or afterwards.”
~ A. O. Scott