Tuesday, November 15, 2016

In Theaters: ARRIVAL (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Eric Heisserer. Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O'Brien, Russell Yuen. (PG-13, 116 mins)

It's easy to see the trailers and the advertising for ARRIVAL and write it off as another alien invasion sci-fi movie, but it has bigger goals in mind and is ultimately about something else entirely. Having said that, the path it takes to get to where it's going borrows from a variety of sources. You'll easily spot ideas from other movies--CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and CONTACT immediately spring to mind, and the imagery of spacecrafts hovering over cities invokes INDEPENDENCE DAY and DISTRICT 9 among others, while its somber mood and its focus on the deconstruction and composition of language and communication takes things into an alien invasion PONTYPOOL realm. Though it's all a primer for a surprise third-act revelation that packs a wallop and shows ARRIVAL's true intent, even that has distinct echoes of both a no-budget cult classic from a decade or so ago as well as a certain '90s sci-fi mindbender, albeit with less apocalyptic implications.

Twelve shell-like spacecrafts appear at various points around the world, with one of them in Montana. Linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought in by the US Army's Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) as a consultant to attempt to establish communication with the visitors and decipher their language. Largely withdrawn from the world following her 12-year-old daughter's death from a rare form of cancer, Louise immerses herself in her work and still has military security clearance from some translation work she did for a counterterrorism operation a few years earlier. She's joined by theoritical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as they enter a gravity-free portal at the base of the "Shell" and very slowly open a line of communication from behind a giant glass divider in the ship with a pair of large, heptapod beings that they dub "Abbott & Costello." It's a slow process--too slow for Weber and irate CIA agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose main goal is to ascertain the threat level and who demonstrate little patience for the curiosity of linguistics, physics, and the wonder of scientific discovery, even though Abbott & Costello have done nothing aggressive. A growing sense of paranoia and too much of an Alex Jones-type right-wing TV pundit gets the better of a few renegade soldiers who try to blow up the shell while Louise and Ian are in it, their lives spared when Abbott & Costello use their gravitational powers to force them down the portal after unsuccessfully trying to warn them about the explosive device. They clearly mean no harm, but neither Louise nor Ian can convince Weber and Halpern of that, and the global operation goes south when paranoid Chinese military leader Gen. Shang (Tzi Ma) issues an ultimatum to the Shell over China, threatening to blow it up if they don't retreat. Various countries, working together, soon go off the grid and stop sharing information with one another as talks break down, humanity grows impatient and violent, and Louise is haunted by recurring dreams and visions of her dead daughter.

Quebecois INCENDIES director Denis Villeneuve, who crossed over into the mainstream with 2013's PRISONERS and 2015's SICARIO, isn't as commercial this time out, with one shot in particular a winking nod to his bizarre 2014 Cronenbergian indie ENEMY. With its chilly, cerebral tone, ARRIVAL occasionally has a Cronenberg feel to it, or at least looks a lot like what might've happened if an in-his-prime Atom Egoyan made an alien invasion movie. It's a film that's not particularly interested in accommodating those looking for action and special effects, but it's still accessible enough for the multiplex. Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (LIGHTS OUT), who adapted Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life," don't seem to bother pretending to camouflage ARRIVAL's obvious influences, but it finds its own voice quite unexpectedly, and what initially appear to be plot holes, contrivances, and corner-cutting actually make sense once all is revealed. Whether that makes ARRIVAL legitimately clever or very smooth at pulling off some bullshit dei ex machina may be one of the many post-viewing discussion topics. Even with its unexpected late-film developments, ARRIVAL isn't quite the instant classic that many reviewers are making it out to be, but it manages to accomplish a lot more than most genre films that opt to travel down a road paved with the ideas of so many movies that preceded it.

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