Sunday 13 November 2016

Arrival (USA 2016: Dir Denis Villeneuve)

A while back I was complaining to a friend about the all embracing spread of emo-driven advertising at the cinema to sell anything from booze to banking. Well the trend has seeped into the sci fi genre as well. Swelling string sections and trembling bottom lips have recently found their way into metaphysical sci-fi outings like Interstellar and Midnight Special. Denis Villeneuve's ponderous Arrival also has metaphysics and emotion in spades, and sadly isn't the better for it.

Amy Adams, in a bravura performance, plays Dr Louise Banks, a lecturer in linguistics with a tragic past - a teenage daughter who died from cancer - called upon to assist when a series of huge oval spacecraft suddenly appear, hovering above a number of towns and cities around the world.

The authorities, in the shape of Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker, whose age and acting style have finally found harmony) persuade Banks to join a small team of experts to travel to Montana, where one of the craft is located, and help decode the first messages from the aliens inside (the UK also have one, in Devon of all places, but we don't get to see that story). Also assisting is scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner, smarmy as always) representing the yin of fact to Banks's yan of belief.

Much of the film is devoted to the pair's growing understanding of the language of the Cthulhu-like aliens, named heptapods (as well as a discordant moaning they write their messages in what looks like a cross between smoke and squid ink), while other members of the team monitor the reactions from Governments around the world to the arrival of the strange craft in the other visited countries - predictably China are first to turn from tolerance to aggression.

This is a fine setup - taking the germ of the last few minutes of Steven Spielberg's 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind and making a whole movie out of it - but a rather thin one, and in its rush, or rather gentle trot, to replace content with emotion Arrival becomes rather laboured. By the end, Jóhann Jóhannsson's sweeping orchestral score had become so overpowering I wasn't sure whether I was still watching the movie or just more adverts. As an aside, Jóhannsson used to be a much more interesting composer (just listen to his score for The Miners' Hymns - it's on YouTube - and tell me if it isn't the most powerful soundtrack you've ever heard) but seems to have blanded out recently, possibly tantalised by the promise of more Oscar nominations.

The first part of the movie is the most successful. Villeneuve, a skilled director who gave us one of my favourite films of last year, Sicario, delays showing the spacecraft, cutting away from news items and reflecting the wonder of the alien vision via the reactions of his actors. And the final unveiling of the craft, about twenty minutes in, is a woozy mix of aerial and tilt shift photography that depicts the military activity around the craft as the aliens would see them, small and insignificant dots in the Montana landscape - it's a great scene. The craft's interior is simply designed, with its own gravity system (which provides the film's most obviously exciting moment) and as mentioned the tentacled heptapods are distinctly Lovecraftian.

But as the film progresses the promise of the first half subsides. The analysis of the alien language may be interesting but doesn't make great cinema, and Villeneuve's decision to show the world's varying reactions to the alien presence - from fervent prayer to looting and violence - via TV screens is clearly a deliberate attempt to tell a 'first contact' story from the point of view of one character rather than through spectacle. But in so doing it reduces the film to a rather one dimensional, almost soap-operaesque drama. I also couldn't help but notice that, once again, the only country to make the communication breakthrough was the Americans.

Arrival is based on a short story called 'Story of Your Life' by Ted Chiang, who also contributed to this movie's script. The story's themes of language, time and memory are arguably more suited to the printed page than the cinema screen. Here the awkward melding of aliens and sentiment just didn't work for me. I found Arrival at times very clumsy and forced, and if it wasn't for the casting of Amy Adams (a central character in some ways similar to Emily Blunt's flawed heroine in Sicario) it would scarcely be worth bothering with at all.

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