Arrival (2016)

2016 #179
Denis Villeneuve | 116 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Heptapod | 12A / PG-13

This review sort of contains spoilers.

Arrival

An intelligent sci-fi movie released by a major studio?* What madness is this? A good kind of madness, because Arrival is one of the best — and, importantly, most humane — science fiction movies for years.

For one thing, it takes an unusual, but completely pragmatic, approach to alien first contact: how would we communicate with them? Most sci-fi movies gloss over this — either we don’t because they’re just killing us, or the aliens are sufficiently advanced that they already speak our language. Here, however, the focus is on Amy Adams’ linguist. The problem is approached as it would be in real life — the production sought advice from real linguists, and the only tech used is stuff we have access to today. Far removed from the usual glossy high-tech sheen of most sci-fi movies, the most important pieces of kit here are things like whiteboards and scissor lifts. It’s very mundane, and that’s the point — it’s grounded in a world we know. Apart from the aliens, of course. But while the process Adams’ character undertakes may be factual, as she begins to work on the aliens’ language its unique properties begin to have a surprising effect on her…

At the risk of sounding like one of those people who boasts about guessing a twist, I did develop a fair idea of where the film was going. (Not completely — at one point (massive pseudo-spoiler here) I thought it might be that Jeremy Renner’s character was the future-father of Adams’ past-child, in some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey all-things-happen-at-once way that I was curious how they’d explain.) But whether you work it out in advance or not doesn’t matter, because Arrival is not a middling M. Night Shyamalan film, dependent on its twist. That it’s a revelation to the characters is enough. The emotional journey they go on is what’s more significant, and Arrival is a powerfully emotional movie. This is all carried by Amy Adams in a subtle, understated performance; one that quite possibly deserved to win the Oscar but, bafflingly, wasn’t even nominated.

We're only human after all

Despite the high-concept setup, Arrival is really a character-driven emotional drama that just happens to be about first contact with aliens. Because of that, it’s not a Sci-Fi Movie in the sense that it needs to explain why the aliens are here — despite what some commenters on the (now defunct) IMDb message boards (and similar places) seemed to think. If you’ve seen the film and are thinking “but it does explain why they’re here?”, you’re right, but apparently we need to know more specifics, otherwise the film hasn’t achieved its “stated objectives”. Yes, I agree, people who say that are talking utter bollocks.

Part of what makes Arrival so good is the way it does work on multiple levels. Despite what I just said, you can enjoy it as a pure science fiction movie, about both the logistics of first contact and some big theoretical ideas that I won’t mention because of spoilers. A lot of effort was put into the concepts underpinning the film, both the scientific theories and the functions of linguistics (the Heptapod language was developed for real; the software used to translate it is a functioning program), so it’s got a dedication to detail that rewards those interested in that aspect. It’s also, again as I said, an emotional drama; effectively a dramatisation of Tennyson’s famous adage “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” though a unique lens. The author of the original story, Ted Chiang, started from more or less that place and then found a sci-fi concept he could use to explore it.

I think I'm turning Heptapod, I really think so

In addition to both of those, it’s also got a timely message about the state of humanity and global politics. This factor is even more pertinent now than when the film came out almost a year ago, mainly thanks to Trump. Just look at the recent willy-waggling between the US’s President You’ve-Been-Tango’d and North Korea’s Supreme Leader It’s-My-Party-And-I’ll-Blow-You-All-Up-If-I-Want-To — it’s the very stupidity that Arrival is warning against. In the film, some soldiers who watch too much nutty television and swivel-eyed internet rants almost fuck things up, while level-headed scientists and experts save the day. If only we could take some of the morons in power these days, and the even-worse people who voted for them, and strap them to a chair in front of this movie until they got the point…

While its greatest power lies in these analogies and emotional beats, it’s also a beautifully made film. Bradford Young’s photography is a little on the gloomy side at times, but it creates a clear mood — director Denis Villeneuve refers to it as “dirty sci-fi”, by which he means “the feeling that this was happening on a bad Tuesday morning”. It’s a pretty accurate description. That doesn’t preclude the film from generating some fabulous imagery, however. The sequence when they first arrive at the spacecraft by helicopter — which follows the choppers over amassed civilians queuing to see the ship, then transitions to a long oner that flies over the makeshift army base towards the giant, unusual alien craft, as clouds roll in over the hills, before continuing on down to the landing site — is majestic, and indicative of the entire film’s attitude to pace. It’s measured, not slow, and all the more effective and awe-inspiring because of it. That’s emphasised by Jóhann Jóhannsson atmospheric score, which almost lurks in the background, his work supplemented by Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight during the emotional bookends. (The latter is such an important piece to the soundtrack’s effect that Jóhannsson’s work was deemed ineligible for nomination at the Oscars, which is a shame but I can kind of see their point.)

Majestic

Arrival is a multifaceted film, which works well as both a sci-fi mystery and a reflection of current sociopolitical quandaries, but has its greatest power in the very human story that lies at its heart. The mystery and the twist are almost a distraction from this, actually — I watched the film again last night before finishing this review and enjoyed it even more than the first time. That it’s a movie best appreciated when you can see it in totality, watching it with an awareness of how it will end from when it begins, is only appropriate.

5 out of 5

Arrival is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

It placed 6th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

* Only in the US, mind, which presumably means they just bought it after someone else made it, so let’s not give them too much credit. ^

Enemy (2013)

2016 #136
Denis Villeneuve | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Canada & Spain / English | 15 / R

EnemyBetween his popular English-language debut Prisoners and his apparently-not-quite-as-popular-but-definitely-better-in-my-opinion drugs thriller Sicario (its IMDb score is a whole 0.5 points lower, which is more than it sounds), French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made this less-widely-seen psychological thriller. I think it may’ve struggled to find distribution (here in the UK it definitely went either straight to digital or was a day-and-date cinema-and-digital release), which, once you’ve seen it, is unsurprising: it’s considerably less accessible than any of Villeneuve’s other English-language features.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Adam, a discontented university lecturer, who one day spots a bit player in a movie, Daniel St. Claire, who looks exactly like him. Discovering the actor’s real name is Anthony, Adam tracks him down and discovers… well, that’s getting into spoiler territory. Let’s just say things get more than a bit weird at times.

There’s no denying that Enemy is atmospheric, but the actual story was a bit too elliptical for my taste. It was all going fairly swimmingly until it suddenly stopped just before it appeared to be going to offer answers. That naturally suggests you need to go back and reconsider/deconstruct what you’ve already seen, but it nonetheless makes it feel a bit frustrating, at least initially, and makes reading theories online a virtual necessity for deciphering the movie’s meaning (unless you want to try to work it all out by yourself, of course). I’ve read a few of those theories, and I’m not sure any have won me over 100%, but they did enhance my understanding. Nonetheless, I find myself sticking with my initial assessment.

I wish I knew how to quit my boring jobWhile looking up those various explanations, I read at least one review that asserted it’s a good thing that the film doesn’t provide a clear answer at the end. Well, I think that’s a debatable point. I mean, there is an answer — Villeneuve & co clearly know what they’re doing, to the point where they made the actors sign contracts that forbade them from revealing too much to the press. So why is it “a good thing” that they choose to not explain that answer in the film? This isn’t just a point about Enemy, it’s one we can apply more widely. There’s a certain kind of film critic/fan who seems to look down on any movie that ends with an explanation for all the mysteries you’ve seen, but if you give them a movie where those mysteries do have a definite answer but it’s not actually provided as part of the film, they’re in seventh heaven. (And no one likes a movie where there are mysteries but no one has an answer for them, do they? That’d just be being mysterious for precisely no purpose.) But why is this a good thing? Why is it good for there to be answers but not to give them, and bad for there to be answers and to provide them too? If the answers the filmmakers intended are too simplistic or too pat or too well-worn or too familiar, then they’re poor for that reason, and surely they’re still just as poor if you don’t readily provide them? I rather like films that have mysteries and also give me the answers to those mysteries. Is that laziness on my part? Could be. But I come back to this: if, as a filmmaker (or novelist or whatever) you have an answer for your mystery and you don’t give it in the text itself, what is your reason for not giving it in the text? Because I think perhaps you need one.

Could be pregnant, could be a third scatter cushionFortunately, Enemy has much to commend aside from its confounding plot. Gyllenhaal’s dual performance is great, making Adam and Anthony distinct in more ways than just their clothing (which is a help for the viewer, but not for the whole film), and conveying the pair’s mental unease really well. It would seem he errs towards this kind of role, from his name-making turn in Donnie Darko on out, which does make it all the odder that he once did Prince of Persia and was very nearly almost Spider-Man. I guess everyone likes money, right? As Anthony’s wife, Sarah Gadon also gets to offer a lot of generally very subtle acting. Her character’s evolving thoughts and feelings are not to be found in her minimal dialogue, but are clearly conveyed through her expressions and actions. On the other hand, Mélanie Laurent feels wasted, her role as Adam’s girlfriend requiring little more than being an object of desire — a part she’s completely qualified for, but also one she’s overqualified for.

Some find Nicolas Bolduc’s yellow-soaked cinematography too much, but I thought it was highly effective. Especially when mixed with the location of Toronto, a city we’re not so familiar with seeing on screen (or I’m not, anyway), it lends the setting a foreign, alien, unfamiliar feel, which is at once modern, even futuristic, but also dated, or rundown. The dystopian sensation is only emphasised by the distant yellow smog that seems to permanently hang over the city. It’s pleasantly creepy, but not the creepiest thing: the use of spiders is scary as fuck. I’m not properly arachnophobic, but I don’t like the buggers, and some of their surprise appearances are more effective at delivering chills (and potentially nightmares) than many a dedicated horror movie. (Incidentally, there’s a bit in Object of desireArrival that instantly called this to mind. I don’t know if it was a deliberate self-reference or just Villeneuve recycling techniques.)

For a certain kind of film fan, I imagine Enemy is Villeneuve’s masterpiece (at least among his English language features; I’m not au fait with his earlier work). For the rest of us, I’d guess it slips in behind his other movies as an interesting but frustratingly arty also-ran.

3 out of 5

Sicario (2015)

2016 #126
Denis Villeneuve | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

SicarioFighting a losing war against Mexican drug cartels in Arizona, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is keen to be enlisted to an interagency task force run by Department of Defense consultant Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Taken along for the ride but kept in the dark, Macer becomes increasingly concerned that all is not as it seems — especially when it comes to Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a mysterious task force member whose motives seem to be a big secret…

Much like his previous film, Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve here takes a storyline that could fuel a run-of-the-mill genre picture (a war-on-drugs action-thriller) and instead turns it into something altogether classier. In this regard, I’m tempted to invoke the work of directors like Hitchcock and Fincher. Sicario isn’t necessarily a film I could picture either of them making (maybe Fincher), but the way it takes a “genre movie” and elevates it artistically has a certain similarity. That said, like those directors at their best, Villeneuve here works primarily with tension and suspense — words I’m about to thoroughly overuse in this review, but they encapsulate the feeling of watching Sicario so well.

Any viewers seeking simple action thrills will not be satisfied with the sequences offered here, but the way the scenes rely on suspense rather than bullet choreography makes for a supremely tense movie; one that can grip you like a vice and only occasionally let up, letting you catch your breath before it doubles down. As viewers, we’re positioned alongside Macer, kept out of the loop and so unsure who to trust and what exactly is going on for much of the movie. In that respect the plot demands a certain level of attention, because it isn’t always spelled out in nice bitesize chunks of exposition.

Arguably, the film loses its way a little when it does reach that point. Answers are forthcoming eventually, and the third act occasionally abandons the conflicted and complex world that came before it for more straightforward and satisfying turns of events. Fortunately, the film survives such wobbles thanks to the strengths it’s already established, and with an even deeper dive into moral greyness even while it seems to be offering a simplistically fulfilling climax.

Blunt is excellent as Macer, an outwardly tough-as-nails tactical specialist who is hiding a less assured core. If that sounds almost trite then it doesn’t play that way, afforded greater subtlety by Blunt and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. Macer is a capable agent, but is she capable of operating in Graver’s world? The only other character and performance that really stands beside Blunt is Del Toro’s Alejandro. Around 90% of Alejandro’s dialogue was cut by Del Toro and Villeneuve before shooting began, and it works to everyone’s favour. He’s an unreadable presence in his silence, seeming both brooding and almost bored, like he’s fed up waiting for the task force’s duties to get him where he wants to be. His silence is threatening, even after his demonstrated skill-set is (to Macer, anyway) a kind of comfort. It’s only fitting that the final scene — the real climax of the movie, hitting hard on its emotional arcs even after the plot is done — is a two-hander between Blunt and Del Toro, loaded with as much tension and suspense as any other part of the movie.

Brolin may be a headline lead alongside those two, but his character is given little to work with beyond being a son-of-a-bitch who keeps Macer onside with (deceitful) charm. He’s fine but unremarkable in that role. Perhaps the sequel will give him more to work with. More memorable is Daniel Kaluuya as Macer’s FBI partner, Reggie Wayne. More time spent with Macer and Wayne working together wouldn’t go amiss. Jon ‘the Punisher’ Bernthal also pops up in a small part, imbuing what could’ve been a sketchy plot-driver with more believability.

The film’s other real stars are behind-the-scenes. First, the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Roger Deakins. I must admit I was a little underwhelmed at first, as the film starts in the flatly-lit daytime world of the Southern US / Mexico region. Not that it’s poorly shot, just that very little of it struck me as particularly remarkable. As the film transitions to more nighttime settings, however, Deakins’ work comes vibrantly to life, starting with some majestic golden-hour shots of ominous cloud-darkened skies, which seem to visually overwhelm Macer as she begins to realise she’s out of her depth. Later, the task force descend into tunnels, and the film presents a mixture of ‘regular’ photography — so dark that only certain things can be glimpsed in the patches of light — and both thermal- and night-vision shots. I guess it’s a cliche to say the use of headcam-type footage puts the viewer there with the characters, but here it really does. Most extraordinary are the thermal shots: captured for real with a thermal vision camera, rather than a post-production special effect, they look like some heightened-reality video game, their eeriness only adding to the tension.

Tension is definitely the name of the game when it comes Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, which was also Oscar nominated. Dominated by elongated, heavy strings and pacey, heartbeat-emulating percussion, it makes the threats lurking in every corner feel tangible; makes the sense that everything is doomed and liable to go south at any moment palpable. It’s a major contributor to the film’s mood.

It may have familiar genre building-blocks at heart, but between Sheridan’s focus on character, Blunt and Del Toro’s nuanced performances, Deakins’ fantastic imagery, Jóhannsson’s intense music, and Villeneuve’s skilful orchestration of every aspect, Sicario emerges as a film that exceeds the artistic and emotional effect you’d typically expect from a “genre movie” without sacrificing the thrills that should be inherent.

5 out of 5

Sicario is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

It placed 1st on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Prisoners (2013)

2016 #22
Denis Villeneuve | 153 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Yesterday I wrote about Predestination, a twisty sci-fi thriller in which I guessed all the twists long before the end, but it didn’t matter because the film had more to offer. Today I find myself in the same situation: Prisoners is a thriller (though not of the sci-fi variety) centred around some mysteries that lead to big twists, all of which I guessed with complete accuracy about one-third of the way through.* I don’t say this to boast — well, I do a little — but my other point is this: while it proved a bit of a distraction, occasionally feeling like I was sitting through aimless red herrings as I waited to be proved right, there’s more to Prisoners than just OMG moments.

We set our scene on Thanksgiving in the small, slightly rundown Pennsylvania city of Conyers, where the Dover and Birch families gather for the traditional lunch at the latter’s house. As things transpire, they can’t find their two little girls, and a suspicious RV parked down the street has disappeared. Fearing the worst, they call the police, who track down the RV and its driver, an adult with the mental capacity of a ten-year-old. The girls are nowhere to be found. He’s the obvious suspect, but he couldn’t’ve taken them… could he? As Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) pursues an increasingly complex investigation, unsatisfied Dover patriarch Keller (Hugh Jackman) thinks he might need to take matters into his own hands…

There’s a lot going on in Prisoners. While the basic format is straightforward, it’s realised in the form of a multi-stranded narrative full of well-drawn characters with complications of their own. Jackman and Gyllenhaal may be top billed and on the poster (well, an air-brushed waxwork vague approximation of Jackman was on the poster), but there’s actually a powerful ensemble cast here, and it’s their performances that help the film to stand out from the thriller crowd — as well as to overcome the fact I guessed all the twists.

So we have: Maria Bello as Grace Dover, who begins to crack under the mental pressure of her daughter’s disappearance. Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch, who, based on their houses, is clearly in a better financial situation than Keller, but is he man enough to help Keller do what he feels needs doing? His wife, Nancy, played by Viola Davis, may at first suggest a fragility to match Grace’s, but it soon becomes clear she wears the trousers in this marriage. As mentally stunted suspect Alex Jones, Paul Dano gives a well-managed dialogue-light performance, not straying into caricature. The aunt who raised him, Holly, played by Melissa Leo, is protective, but also doesn’t seem all that shocked by the accusations levelled against him.

Then we do have our two leads. I think Gyllenhaal’s Det. Loki may be supposed to come across as a first-rate cop — he’s certainly so good that he can tear his Captain a new one about not doing stuff properly and not get a dressing-down for it — but he struck me as a little less than ideal. I mean, he’s effectively a small-town cop suddenly stuck in a child-kidnapping (and possibly murder) case — of course he should be out of his depth. He’s not a bad detective, just not the usual genius-level investigator you normally find in thrillers, and at times you feel he’s muddling his way through the investigation as best he can. Aside from giving Loki the slightly-affected tic of blinking too much, Gyllenhaal offers a reasonably restrained performance. (I’d love to know what the blinking was in aid of, but the film is woefully understocked with special features.)

Jackman gets a showier turn as Keller Dover, the dad who prides himself on being a strong, capable, prepared-for-anything kinda guy. This is partly a value his father instilled in him, he tells his son, but you have to think there’s an element of it being a response to the emasculation of not being able to fully provide for his family — there’s not much work around, he mentions, and their home environment clearly isn’t as well-appointed as the Birches’. He does have a basement full of survivalist gear, though, and we first meet him coaxing his son into shooting his first deer. This is a man ready to do what he feels is necessary, and what he feels is necessary takes him — and, by association, several of the other characters, and indeed the whole film — to some dark places.

Not that the film needs any help accessing dark places. The truth behind what’s happened to the girls is very dark indeed… though that would be spoiler territory. I thought it was a good solution, even if I did guess it so early on, but I’ve seen others suggest it’s too neat. I dunno, but I think it’s come to something when a film answering all its questions and explaining all its threads is seen as a bad thing.

Denis Villeneuve’s direction gives the sense of a non-Hollywood background with the occasional arty shot choice or composition, though not to a distracting extent. He’s aided by serial Oscar loser Roger Deakins on DP duty, who once again demonstrates why he shouldn’t have a golden man already, he should have a cupboard full. The photography here doesn’t flaunt itself with hyper-grading or endless visual trickery, but is consistently rich and varied. Deakins may also be the best action cinematographer working — pair what he brought to Skyfall with a climactic car dash here and you have a more impressive action demo reel than you’d expect from the kind of guy who has multiple Oscar nominations to his name.

In the end, I find it a little hard to succinctly assess Prisoners. We have a film of complex characters brought to life with vivid performances, though the latter are not adverse to an element of grandstanding, and some of their actions slip into genre familiarity. So too the narrative, which for all its twists and turns isn’t a world away from any number of airport-bookstore doorstop thrillers — and that length is certainly mirrored in the two-and-a-half-hour running time. The fact that I was waiting for my predictions to be confirmed also colours my perception somewhat, because while I don’t think the film completely leans on its twists, it was a bit of a distraction. Nonetheless, you can’t deny the quality of the moviemaking, particularly Villeneuve’s sweeping direction and Deakins’ rich cinematography.

As a thriller that is also a drama about people caught up in those events, and the lengths to which some of them may be prepared to go, Prisoners is a must-see for anyone with the stomach for some dark material (though don’t let me overemphasise that point — it’s not as bleak as, say, Se7en). Is it a classic in its own right, though? Not sure. But it is very, very good.

4 out of 5

The UK network premiere of Prisoners is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

* For those playing along at home: the precise moment I got it (explained in non-spoilery terms) was when Det. Loki visits an old lady and watches a VHS. ^