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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“With any character, the way I think about it is, you have the role on the page, you have the vision of the director and you have your life experience… I thought it was one of the foundations of the role for John Wick. I love his grief. For the character and in life, it’s about the love of the person you’re grieving for, and any time you can keep company with that fire, it is warm. I absolutely relate to that, and I don’t think you ever work through it. Grief and loss, those are things that don’t ever go away. They stay with you.”
~ Keanu Reeves

“I was checking through stuff the other day for technical reasons. I came across The Duellists on Netflix and I was absolutely stunned to see that it was exquisitely graded. So, while I rarely look up my old stuff, I stopped to give it ten minutes. Bugger me, I was there for two hours. I was really fucking pleased with what it was and how the engine still worked within the equation and that engine was the insanity and stupidity of war. War between two men, in that case, who fight on thought they both eventually can’t remember the reason why. It was great, yeah. The great thing about these platforms now is that, one way or another, they’ll seek out and then put out the best possible form and the long form. Frequently, films get cut down because of that curse in which the studio felt or feels that they have to preview. And there’s nothing worse than a preview to diminish the original intent.Oh, yeah, how about every fucking time? And I’ve stewed about films later even more because when you tell the same joke 20 times the joke’s no longer funny. When you tell a bad joke once or twice? It’s fine. But come on, now. Here’s the key on the way I feel when I approach the movie: I try to keep myself as withdrawn from the project as possible once I’ve filmed it. And – this is all key on this – then getting a really excellent editor so I never have to sit in on editing. What happens if you sit in is you become stale and every passage or joke, metaphorically speaking, gets more and more tired. You start cutting it all back because of fatigue. So what you have to do is keep your distance and therefore, in a funny kind of way, you, as the director, should be the preview and that’s it.”
~ Sir Ridley Scott