Arrival’s human elements outshine its speculative ones

Arrival is the kind of major Hollywood movie some sci-fi fans have been eternally asking for. It’s a story of alien vessels descending on Earth that doesn’t present itself as an excuse to blow up the White House, or immediately turn into a cheap thrill ride. Its main focus is on something technical (linguistics), and it doesn’t immediately turn into faux-mathy quantum-this relativity-that technobabble but instead lets it drive the plot. It involves nations colluding and high stakes, yes, but it also is consistently a very personal story that never loses sight of its main character. It leaves plenty of room for imagination while not resorting to magical excuses. But something’s still missing for me. Arrival is a sparse, thoughtful, beautiful film that I just can’t love, mostly because it’s payoff simply didn’t entirely work for me. To go on much further would be clearly spoiler territory, but suffice to say that the movie doesn’t cheat with any twists nor does it betray its tone. In fact, its payoff is incredibly affecting dramatically. While the viewer in me interested in human stories left satisfied, the world-investigating nerd in me felt a bit let down.

Arrival’s sparsity and humanistic elements come to the forefront immediately, starting with flashback’s to Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) daughter dying young, and allowing the landing of the aliens to happen entirely offscreen. We only see what Dr. Banks sees, and only get a full-out effects shot once she’s brought in by the military as a linguistics expert. Twelve crafts have landed sporadically around the world, and while Dr. Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) try to figure out just what they want, they must work with the other eleven nations while also staving off aggression towards the visitors both foreign and on their base. It’s timely that international mistrust plays such a large role here, considering the current nationalistic trend in politics, but Arrival mostly shies away from that form of commentary. It has more sympathy for the aliens themselves, and condemns those who see mystery and respond with fear. Alt-right-esque commentators make brief unsavory appearances, panic spreads through a literal game of telephone, and when Renner notes that they’re having “Coffee with some aliens”, it’s possible to mishear as something very politically relevant today.

For all that it has to say about how we treat those deemed “other”, Arrival is more interested in it’s sci-fi elements than its political ones. And while they don’t entirely land for me, they take big swings and hit home emotionally. A lot of it’s successes have to do with its score, beautifully subdued and often incredibly sad, and Villeneuve’s command of mood, painting the movie in a washed-out blue haze on Earth and surgically cold blacks and whites on the vessel. Its alien design is fairly minimalistic, with the gravity-bending trick seen in the trailers as its lone flashy moment. Otherwise, it’s content with its giant black obelisks of vessels, remarkable for their unremarkability. Amy Adams gives a career-best performance in the middle of a fantastic career, important as the movie rests entirely on her shoulders. No amount of disappointment in the end result can erase the fantastic buildup, and if you’re able to go with it all the way, the reward is memorable and touching.

B

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Arrival (2016)

Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Forest Whitaker
Rotten Tomatoes (93%)

SPOILERS BELOW:

Really, my only problem with the film is that its ending plays with causality in a way that felt a bit convenient. On a larger scale, I like that it’s willing to play around with a big idea like perception of time, but on a micro scale, the conclusion it presents us with is one where we have no free will. I’ve read elsewhere interpretations that, instead of choosing to perform certain actions in the hope of certain results, heptapods (and eventually Dr. Banks) choose whether or not to prevent certain events from occuring. This seems to open up a giant Grandfather paradox, which the movie never really addresses in a satisfying way. A many-worlds or timelines interpretation isn’t really humoured either, as then I would expect Dr. Banks would see visions of her life with and without Hannah. The fact that it leaves a lot to discuss is a good thing, and it doesn’t negate the fantastic buildup and film-making nor the dramatic impact of the finale, but it doesn’t feel like it fully explores the ramifications of its twist.

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Arrival’s human elements outshine its speculative ones

Star Trek Beyond once again favours spectacle over speculation

Star Trek means many things to many people, and what the brand means to you heavily influences how you react to the direction it takes going forward. I can understand why so many were disappointed with JJ Abrams’ 2009 reboot, but as someone with no real connection to the brand (to the probable minor chagrin of my father, who was well versed in both but raised me a Star Wars kid), I found it to be a perfectly enjoyable popcorn movie. On the other hand, I found the second “new” Trek, Into Darkness, to be a ludicrously dumb, bland, and creatively bankrupt endeavour, clearly trying to mine the success of its predecessors but without any spark of its own. Trek, as my more well-versed friends say often, is better known for big ideas rather than action movie spectacle. Star Trek Beyond isn’t quite as bland as Into Darkness, and toys with the odd idea or two, but still clearly presents itself as action movie spectacle; spectacle which is quickly getting old.

The ideas that lie barely under the surface of Beyond are timely, with the Federation being set up as a stand-in for globalization and Idris Elba’s villain Krall representing all the mistrust that prevents such movements from going over smoothly. Notably, the Federation representative rides in a united vessel (the Enterprise), while Krall’s fleet is a swarm of individual ships, working together but clearly sovereign. Krall, naturally, views the Federation as an enemy that must be crushed, and to do so requires a weapon (read: MacGuffin) currently in the posession of the USS Enterprise.  In a bold move, the Enterprise is destroyed in the first act of Beyond as opposed to being more-or-less obliterated in the final battle, marooning the crew on an uncharted planet. The planet is briefly noted to be the home of many shipwrecked crews, which is an incredibly interesting scenario that is immediately forgotten about. One could imagine a movie about these foreign crews working together against the oppressor who brought them there, but outside of a resourceful lone wolf named Jaylah, the idea that others exist is quietly pushed aside.

Jaylah, played by Kingsman: The Secret Service standout Sofia Boutella, isn’t a particularly well drawn character, but nonetheless is the best part of the movie thanks to Boutella’s screen presence. She is mostly paired with Simon Pegg’s Scotty, and while Pegg is normally a refreshing presence in anything he’s in, he goes a bit over-the-top here, and calls Jaylah the dimunitive “lassy” a rather infuriating number of times. Most of the actors chew scenery in showy ways, especially Pegg, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and the normally reliable Karl Urban as Bones. Idris Elba is buried under a mountain of mo-cap, rendering his villain unrelatable and unmemorable. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, John Cho’s Sulu, and Anton Yelchin’s Chekov are once again given very little to do. Chris Pine is at least a decent leading man, with a lot of soul in those baby blues, but not enough to effectively work as the centre of the movie.

The sci-fi ideas of Beyond are mostly half-baked as well. While I’m generally willing to accept nonsense if enough effort or technobabble is inserted such that it feels legitimate, very little is halfway justified in Beyond. A starship jumpstart is among the dumber moments, clearly designed as an insert-thrill-here type of scene, but without the requisite “a-ha!” moment to make it coherent. Ancient alien technology plays a big role, but is never explained or even pondered (for example, why does Krall look they way he looks, and where does his energy-sapping ability come from?). In one great moment, technobabble flies left and right as the crew comes up with a plan, but its deflating by it being an incredibly cheesy, groan-inducing plan (hint: it involves the power of music saving the day). The Federation city of Yorktown is marvellously designed, evoking the geography of Halo or the Citadel of Mass Effect turned up to eleven, but it definitely feels of a piece with the design of other modern sci-fi movies such as Inception and the upcoming Dr. Strange.

These are mostly all problems that were present in the 2009 Star Trek, but here, even the action doesn’t really work. Instead of tactics winning the day (aside from the power of music), pretty much every turning point of Beyond seems to come down to a fistfight, which quickly grows tiring. The climactic action sequence revolves around what is becoming an increasingly familiar blockbuster trope, where our hero must race above a big city to prevent a villain from getting a MacGuffin into a pipe or something like that, and despite the neat city design, Beyond doesn’t do anything new with the format. Director Justin Lin, known primarily for the Fast and the Furious franchise, films the action scenes jerkily, with nary a static shot in sight, trying for a mile-a-minute thrill ride but reducing the narrative thrust to an indecipherable blur.

Star Trek Beyond has more going on creatively than Into Darkness did, but is unable to capitalize on any of its ideas, instead favouring most unsatisfying action sequences. The cast, full of actors who have previously proven themselves time and time again, are either overly hammy or completely ignored, and the sci-fi world building is treated as completely secondary.  There still might be some juice in this crew, but as long as Trek keeps trying to be a top summer blockbuster, I don’t see it producing anything of value.

C-

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Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Dir. Justin Lin
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, and Sofia Boutella
Rotten Tomatoes (84%)

Star Trek Beyond once again favours spectacle over speculation

Into the Forest is an intimate, feminist, and melodramatic portrayal of the collapse of society

How easy is it for modern society to go up in smoke? Fiction would have you believe that zombies would do it, nuclear war would do it, disease maybe, but do we need to go that far? If we pull the plug on modern society, and just take away electricity, can we survive? If we still think it will come back any day now, will we stay sane? Into the Forest takes place in this world, where the power suddenly goes out on two sisters living a bit off the grid with their father. Even though there’s no otherworldly threat looming, with the rumours tending towards more believable ones like terrorism than aliens, it doesn’t take long for civilization to undo itself.

But Into the Forest is only tangentially interested in that, and is much more about the relationship of two sisters in near-isolation from the rest of the world. While its basic setup could have easily made for a thrilling film, Into the Forest is much more intimate. There are moments of suspense, but this is far from The Walking Dead, and while its vision of how easily the world can turn upside down (“It’s the Wild West all over again,” one character remarks) is compelling, it doesn’t dwell on the details as much as others would. It takes place in the not-so-distant future, with some neat subtle touches (mostly in how the screens look) and some awful, not-so-subtle touches, likepeople walking around without power, saying “LIGHTS ON” in vain (I guess the Clapper came back), but could just have easily taken place in the present day. If its being sold as a sci-fi apocalypse flick, moviegoers may be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised by the methodical character drama it actually is.

The two sisters, Nell and Eva, are played by Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood respectively. The way the two play off of each other feels very natural, with the standard squabbling but also inborn protectiveness. Eva is a dancer, which lends itself to some really fantastic shot opportunities that director Rozema exploits fully; it would be excessive were they not so entrancing to watch, lending a sense of kineticism to whatever they are being cut against (Nell’s pre-apocalypse hobby of studying for the SATs is considerably less exciting to watch). The focus is entirely on the two women front and centre, with men filling the sidelines representing one-note features of masculinity: protectiveness, aggression, and hopeless naive romanticism. Notably, every speaking role outside of the two leads and faces on video screens is a man, allowing us to project the entirety of femininity onto the leads. Leaving the baggage of representing all women aside, Page and Wood deftly portray the two sisters who have to mature from reasonable-minded college-aged folks to full-fledged adults, with all the roadbumps on the way. Both characters take similar journeys in the broad strokes, but remain distinct with very believable arcs, a testament to the actors, writing, and directing.

However great the central characters are, the movie is a bit too melodramatic for its own good.  The musical cues in the movie always seem to go for big and obvious, and montages of grief and misery are used more than once. Every big moment is heavily foreshadowed in ways that are clear the second the moment occurs, which is a bit distracting but also helps to process it all. But while the movie fumbles a few big moments by going over the top, it admirably doesn’t let them fade away into nothingness. The instantaneous emotional response vanishes, but leaves its mark on the characters, changing them in obvious ways when triggering topics come up, and in how they generally interact with the world after traumatic events.

The house becomes a character into itself, sometimes acting as a metaphor for the mental state of the characters (notably when pieces of it close off), sometimes representing the decaying state of society post-event. It helps that its a beautiful, charismatic lodging, which makes its transformation into something more primal a touch eerie. What the house is supposed to represent is not-so-eloquently posed to the audience over and over, and factors into a less-than-satisfying ending (more on that in the spoilers). Despite the ending going a bit off the rails, placing metaphor above narrative, Into the Forest is a brisk 100 minute character study that held my attention throughout and acts as an exceptional star vehicle for Page and Wood. It’s sci-fi doomsday backdrop gives it bones, but its spirit belongs to sisterhood.

B

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Into the Forest (2016)
Dir. Patricia Rozema
Starring Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella, and Callum Keith Rennie
Rotten Tomatoes (80%)

  • SPOILERS: Eva’s child being male may seem arbitrary, but a big deal is made of the gender, and it does continue the trend of only having men in the film outside of Eva and Nell. What is there to read into that? I suppose it can be read as a comment that, not only can women survive on their own, but that men are incapable of even existing without them (Eli’s implied death fits here too, although that’s a stretch).
  • MORE SPOILERS: In the final sequence, Nell and Eva burn down the house to go into the forest (hey, that’s the title!). While Eva justifies it briefly as covering their tracks, there really is no good reason to leave behind a pile of ash rather than a shelter that they can either use for storage even with the black mold, or a home for the next poor sap to walk by. It’s clearly meant to represent something rather than as an actual plot device; if the house represents the decay of society, is burning it down an act of finally leaving the concept of modern society behind altogether? If it represents how they have closed themselves off from the environment, does burning it show them opening up to a whole new world, finally free of the pain and loss of the past? Does it read as them finally fully reaching independence, able to get by without any support from their parents who thoroughly haunt those grounds? A bit of everything? Regardless, the fact that it really only works metaphorically rather than literally took me out of the movie at the very end, and burning it really didn’t add anything that letting it collapse wouldn’t aside from a small bit of catharsis.
Into the Forest is an intimate, feminist, and melodramatic portrayal of the collapse of society