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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“I had this friend who was my roommate for a while. She seemed really normal in every way except that she wouldn’t buy shampoo. She would only use my shampoo. And after a year it’s like, “When are you going to buy your own shampoo?” It was her way of digging in her heels. It was a certain sense of entitlement, or a certain anger. It was so interesting to me why she wouldn’t buy her own fucking shampoo. It was like,“I’m gonna use yours.” It was coming from a place of “You have more money than me, I just know it”—whether I did or I didn’t. Or maybe she felt, “You have a better life than me,” or “You have a better room than me in the apartment.” It was hostile. And she was a really close friend! There was never any other shampoo and I knew she was washing her hair. And clearly I have a thing about shampoo, as we see in ‘Friends with Money.’ I had some nice shampoo. So I found that psychologically so interesting how a person can function normally in every way and yet have this aberrance—it’s like a skip in the record. It was a sense of entitlement, I think. I put that in Olivia’s character, too, with her stealing someone’s face cream.”
Nicole Holofcener

“When books become a thing, they can no longer be fine.

“Literary people get mad at Knausgård the same way they get mad at Jonathan Franzen, a writer who, if I’m being honest, might be fine. I’m rarely honest about Jonathan Franzen. He’s an extremely annoying manI have only read bits and pieces of his novels, and while I’ve stopped reading many novels even though they were pretty good or great, I have always stopped reading Jonathan Franzen’s novels because I thought they were aggressively boring and dumb and smug. But why do I think this? I didn’t read him when he was a new interesting writer who wrote a couple of weird books and then hit it big with ‘The Corrections,’ a moment in which I might have picked him up with curiosity and read with an open mind; I only noticed him once, after David Foster Wallace had died, he became the heir apparent for the Great American Novelist position, once he had had that thing with Oprah and started giving interviews in which he said all manner of dumb shit; I only noticed him well after I had been told he was An Important Writer.

“So I can’t and shouldn’t pretend that I am unmoved by the lazily-satisfied gentle arrogance he projects or when he is given license to project it by the has-the-whole-world-gone-crazy development of him being constantly crowned and re-crowned as Is He The Great American Writer. What I really object to is this, and if there’s anything to his writing beyond it, I can’t see it and can’t be bothered. Others read him and tell me he’s actually a good writer—people whose critical instincts I have learned to respect—so I feel sure that he’s probably a perfectly fine, that his books are fine, and that probably even his stupid goddamned bird essays are probably also fine.

“But it’s too late. He has become a thing; he can’t be fine.”
~ Aaron Bady