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The Consuming Fervor of 'Arrival'

 
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 01, 2016 12:31 am    Post subject: The Consuming Fervor of 'Arrival' Reply with quote

What lingers from this alien encounter is neither the wizardry nor the
climax but the zephyr of emotional intensity that blows through the film.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/14/the-consuming-fervor-of-arrival

The New Yorker
The Consuming Fervor of 'Arrival'
By Anthony Lane
November 14, 2016 Issue

When aliens come, how will they get here? Well, unless they are sly
infiltrators of the flesh, they will probably go for the kind of boastful,
get-a-load-of-us craft that was immortalized by Douglas Adams in “The
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” He wrote, “The ships hung in the
sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” That was true of
“Independence Day,” and it is doubly true of “Arrival,” in which a
dozen mountainous ovoids—charcoal gray and rough to the touch, like a
pumice stone—show up at various locations around Earth. Rather than
land, the vessels suspend themselves in dignified fashion, with their tips
facing downward and not quite touching the ground. Whatever their
occupants want, it’s a pretty cool way to make an entrance.

But what do they want? No ultimatum is issued; no humans are abducted and
probed until they blush; no hairless mini-travellers trot out to say
hello. In the face of this stonewalling, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is
summoned to the cause. She is, you will be heartened to hear, a linguist
by trade. Add her to the botanist played by Matt Damon, in last year’s
“The Martian,” and you sense a new Hollywood trend, whereby
superheroes and special agents will be gradually replaced by people with
proper jobs. The question is not who will play James Bond but whether Bond
should retrain as a geography teacher. Jack Reacher could be huge in
plastics.

The director of “Arrival” is Denis Villeneuve, who is both a brooder
and a tease. Anyone who saw “Prisoners” (2013), “Enemy” (2014), or
“Sicario” (2015) will know how sparing he can be with facts, divulging
them slowly as the tale gets under way. You have a clue what’s going on,
but no more than a clue, and what you learn is far from comforting. So it
is with Louise, who finds herself lecturing, at college, to an almost
empty room. Cell phones are ringing. Outside, as she walks to her car,
fighter jets hurtle overhead, like thunderclaps. At home, where she lives
alone, she goes to bed with the television on and the news channels in a
frenzy. The next day, she is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest
Whitaker), from Army Intelligence, who plays her a recording of unearthly
noises—knocks and clicks, with a hint of moan—and asks if she can
translate. Louise is perfectly clear on the matter; she can’t hope to
understand such a vocabulary, if that’s what it is, unless she meets the
speaker face to face. Or, as things turn out, face to sucker.

The first forty minutes of “Arrival” consumed me utterly. I gave up
taking notes and resorted to scrawling sketches in the dark, as one
prodigious image followed another. So sure is the stride of the narrative,
and so bracing the air of expectation, that you feel yourself, like
Louise, beginning to spin, and barely able to catch your breath. She is
borne away, by night, in a military helicopter, introduced on board to Ian
Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a scientist from Los Alamos, and flown to
Montana, where one of the spaceships has come to rest. Until now, we have
been granted mere glimpses of them, as granular smudges on a TV screen,
but now we are blessed with a prime example, on a beautiful day. Behold
the great mass of the thing, standing prouder than a neolithic stone, with
green prairies beneath and billows of bright fog streaming off the hills
and breaking around it like waves. David Lean would have approved.

The test, of course, is what happens when you enter the craft. The Special
Edition of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” tacked on a scene of
Richard Dreyfuss goggling inside the mother ship, to no avail. All we
needed was to see him walk up the ramp, and what he found
within—basically, a mall designed by Busby Berkeley—was so much less
witty than the fairground-like exteriors that it bled the movie of
imaginative power. “Arrival” does things differently. For a start,
within the belly of the vessel, gravity takes a holiday. At one point,
Louise and Ian—small figures in protective orange outfits, shepherded by
Weber and other personnel—are seen advancing cautiously, upside down,
along the ceiling of a vast gray vault. If they practiced long enough, and
ditched the suits for white waistcoats, maybe they could dance there, like
Fred Astaire in “Royal Wedding.” Hence the grin that Ian can’t
suppress. The physics he thought he knew just flew away.

As for the aliens, suffice to say that nothing you’ve ever eaten, even
in a Greek restaurant, will prepare you for tentacles like these. Shaking
hands is not recommended, unless you’ve got a spare afternoon. The
newcomers are set apart, at the far end of the vault, by a transparent
wall, behind which they drift in a hazy medium. Their gestures are nicely
poised between a writhe and a waltz, and, for particular emphasis, they
like to hit the wall with a scary splat. To Louise’s infinite
satisfaction, when she shows them a word—her species, or her name—on a
whiteboard, they write back, not in script but in mottled black circles
that they describe in elegant squirts, daring her to decipher every blot.
All this puts the visitors in good company. Aristotle, another ancient
philosopher complained, “surrounds the difficulty of his subject with
the obscurity of his language, and thus avoids refutation—producing
darkness, like a squid, in order to make himself hard to capture.”
Louise speaks Mandarin, among other tongues, but those are no help. How do
you become fluent in monsters’ ink?

For better or worse, it’s a question that Villeneuve and his
screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, prefer to duck. Halfway through the film, as
Louise is preparing to solve the circular codes, we get a lumpy
voice-over, explaining that she has cracked them and updating us on her
progress. Suddenly, she is scrolling through extraterrestrial symbols on
her tablet and matching them to English nouns and verbs. Huh? Did the
studio take fright at the prospect of linguistics? Was the Pentagon
concerned that hackers might communicate in squid? There are splendid
things to come, in “Arrival,” but somehow, from here on, the focus is
blurred. We get a rushed and scruffy subplot about a plan to sabotage the
craft, and an expansion of the movie’s range—reports from China,
Russia, and other interested parties, declarations of war against the
aliens (on the strength of one translated word), and Louise
single-handedly striving to halt the meltdown. The moral of the tale is
that our world could be as one, if only we could all talk the same talk.
You know, like Esperanto. That worked out well.

None of which, I hasten to add, is a reason to skip “Arrival.” It may
be weaker in the resolution than in the setup, but that is an inbuilt
hazard of science fiction, and what lingers, days after you leave the
cinema, is neither the wizardry nor the climax but the zephyr of emotional
intensity that blows through the film. The dominant feeling, strange to
say, is sadness, which may cause audiences who associate spaceships with
the zap of merry mayhem to stir uneasily in their seats. The first thing
we get in the movie, even before the aliens roll up, is a flashback—or,
at any rate, a flash—to a daughter whom Louise bears, raises, loves, and
loses to illness. The ensuing grief refuses to dispel. Indeed, it may
account for the hunger with which she greets the news of visitors from
beyond as though it were an annunciation: a shaft of light to pierce her
private gloom. What happens to that hope, and how Villeneuve plays around
with time in order to extract the maximum fervor from Louise’s
experience, I won’t reveal, not least because I’m too dumbfounded—or
simply too dumb—to have worked it out yet. The most accurate guide to
such mysteries is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music, which is rife with choral
chanting, swelling brass, skitterings, and booms. Is it based on the
heartbeat of the beasts? Should we be threatened or thrilled?

This uncertain mood extends to the secondary characters. Whitaker is at
his most creepy-kindly as Louise’s handler, exhorting but not badgering
her to establish the aliens’ intent, and Renner, likewise, sheds the
tough hide of his action-movie persona for the sake of a wonkish
inwardness—relieved, I suspect, to swap the arrows of Marvel for a pair
of spectacles. Above all, Villeneuve attends to Adams, using her as our
gauge of these momentous events; time and again, we see her face
responding to something before we properly witness the thing itself. The
spry benevolence that carried her through a film like “Enchanted”
(2007) has been cross-grained, in recent years, by the stern resolve of
“The Master” (2012) and the snap of “American Hustle” (2013), and
now, in “Arrival,” her gift for sorrow, her strength, and her
instinctive sweetness of temper are rolled into one. It is Louise, not the
military men, who dares to doff her headgear inside the spacecraft and to
inhale the risky air; it is she who draws near to the broad and shining
screen within whose frame the creatures loom into view. Just for a minute,
she looks like a moviegoer, waiting, with a thumping pulse, for the show,
and all its wonders, to begin. I know how she feels. ♦
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