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 remember very much the iconography and the images and the statues in church were very emotional for me. Just the power of that, and even still — just seeing prayer card, what that image can evoke. I have a lot of friends that are involved in the esoteric, and I know some girls in New York that are also into the supernatural. I don’t feel that I have that gift. But I am leaning towards mysticism… Maybe men are more practical, maybe they don’t give into that as much… And then also, they don’t convene in the same way that women do. But I don’t know, I am not a man, I don’t want to speak for men. For me, I tend to gravitate towards people who are open to those kinds of things. And the idea for my film, White Echo, I guess stemmed from that — I find that the girls in New York are more credible. What is it about the way that they communicate their ideas with the supernatural that I find more credible? And that is where it began. All the characters are also based on friends of mine. I worked with Refinery29 on that film, and found that they really invest in you which is so rare in this industry.”
Chloë Sevigny

“The word I have fallen in love with lately is ‘Hellenic.’ Greek in its mythology. So while everyone is skewing towards the YouTube generation, here we are making two-and-a-half-hour movies and trying to buck the system. It’s become clear to me that we are never going to be a perfect fit with Hollywood; we will always be the renegade Texans running around trying to stir the pot. Really it’s not provocation for the sake of being provocative, but trying to make something that people fall in love with and has staying power. I think people are going to remember Dragged Across Concrete and these other movies decades from now. I do not believe that they will remember some of the stuff that big Hollywood has put out in the last couple of years. You’ve got to look at the independent space to find the movies that have been really special recently. Even though I don’t share the same world-view as some of my colleagues, I certainly respect the hell out of their movies which are way more fascinating than the stuff coming out of the studio system.”
~ Dallas Sonnier