We can all do with a laugh, and this looks like it will deliver;
We can all do with a laugh, and this looks like it will deliver;
The celestial saviors seem to be descending into our atmosphere thick and fast at the moment, and judging by the increasing venality and corrosive incompetence of our political ‘leaders’ their arrival is not a moment too soon. Two years after his exhausting failure of The Thing oozed from the screen Carpenter needed a hit, and with the popularity of certain non-belligerent aliens in the cultural firmament following a certain Spielberg behemoth he had a stockade of studio scripts to pick from. Karen Allen, still a hot property after her appearance as the spirited Marion in Raiders Of The Lost Ark stars as Jenny Hayden, a young, working class Wisconsin dame whom is mourning the recent loss of her husband, genial handyman Scott Hayden (Jeff Bridges). A miracle arrives in the form of a downed extraterrestrial entity whose craft is disabled by the suspicious USAF, the creature replicating from hair follicles the DNA and physical appearance of the deceased Scott, a simulacrum for the intelligence to explore and experience our environment. The cherubic civilization from which the so-called Starman hearkens has stumbled across the Voyager probe whose co-ordinates led them to our meek and wet planet. Contained within the craft was its multi-lingual United Nation peaceful greeting which doesn’t exactly mirror the interstellar interloper’s experiences of our cruel and primitive species, as he and Jenny embark on a desperate road-trip rendezvous at a vast Arizona asteroid blasted crater, before his avatar succumbs to the poisonous plumes of our atmosphere. So far, so traditional when it comes to the cycle of misunderstood aliens, their morals and scientific discoveries centuries beyond ours showing us the error of our ways, which can be traced back to the classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. Starman however also comes equipped with a romantic sub-plot which is quite the change of pace for Carpenter, whom is more likely to extract beating hearts from their exoskeletons with a maniac wielded kitchen knife, rather than with a tear-jerking SF-Rom-Road-Movie-Com.
Is there something in the water for the Menagerie after Midnight Special, Arrival and now this retrospective screening? It’s pure coincidence of course, and its a nice thought to think that there is intelligence out there more refined, less violent and intolerant than ours, if they don’t succumb to the plausible sounding Fermi paradox if the trajectory of our upright shaved apes journey is anything to go by. If I was going to be a little unkind I’d reduce Starman to E.T. with adults, it ambling trajectory mapped to the open, almost existential possibilities of the road-movie, tracing an episodic structure which provides the framework for Jenny to overcome her initial disorientation and warm to the savior in her midst. There is some padding with this design and a few issues with pacing toward the final splutterings of the film, Charles Martin Smith’s good-guy scientist whom is sympathetically on the trail of the visitor feels a trifle undeveloped (not dissimilar to Adam Driver in Midnight Special), while the wicked NSA Director George Fox (Richard Jaeckel) is channeled directly from 1980’s, mustache-swirling, WASP villain central casting. Nevertheless for the most part it works as a modest chase movie and there is a modicum of chemistry between Allen and Bridges, with the alien’s half dozen magical silver ball bearings the instruments of his divinity and narrative deployment markers, performing miracles on earth such as resurrecting felled animals and walking not on water, but through flame. If you so choose there are further biblical allusions which serve the semiotic theologies, the consummation of Jenny and Scott’s relationship in a modest hay carpeted railway car with no crib for a bed suggests a certain festive myth, not to mention the holy one’s seed performing an immaculate conception on Jenny’s infertile frame……
As usual Bridges is great, a masquerade in human form, aping birdlike figure movements and seeming fully uncomfortable and, well, perpetually itchy in his newly acquired body. Remarkably he received an Academy Award nomination which is as rare as a SETI communique for a SF film, apart from Bullock in Gravity I can’t recall another genre SF film which has been blessed with such a performance driven accolade. Whatever happened to Karen Allen? A good question as after this with the exception of Scrooged her screen presence diminished, before returning to the A list with the ill-received third Raiders sequel in 2008. It seems she tired of the industry and went into the theater while pursuing other interests, having rejected the machinations of the Hollywood culture, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was only offered the wives or girlfriends roles given her age and demeanor, which quite rightly didn’t satisfy her ambitions or expectations. This being JC we naturally have to talk about the soundtrack, right? Well, this was the second film in a row that Carpenter abandoned scoring duties. With The Thing he relinquished the critical task to Ennio Morricone, possibly as the studio wanted a ‘big-name’ to herald the quality and prestige of their assimilating horror. I’m not sure a similar contract provision wasn’t enforced here, as although Jack Nitzsche’s score remains memorable like the now legendary Morricone piece it does sound like an initial draft was filtered through Carpenters emulator equipment, giving a more synth based pulse to proceedings. In any case it still works well and provides a choir chanted commentary on the narrative, particularly in the celestial, tear stained finale. Less successful are some of the bizarre plot contortions toward the end of the film, where contrivances seem to conspire to get our heroes in position for the final climax – I’m not sure why a young Arizonan native would suddenly become a petrol bomb hurling diversion for a woman he just met in some remote dust blasted diner, grabbing the authorities attention while they slip away down some poorly guarded storm drain, no matter how cute she is. Now, in terms of style let’s set some context, so here is a concise primer on Carpenters specific visual permutations;
It’s interesting, I was watching the new Blu-Ray of Christine last week and that stabilizing style and coverage leapt from the screen in certain sequences, the use of the widescreen framing coupled with the character gliding viewpoint really buries you into a scene and thus the film as a whole once the metronome plot gets ticking, although his more expressive flourishes do seem reigned from, say the dramatic eruptions in Halloween or The Thing. If he seems to have been reigned in, then this is a self-conscious decision rather a studio mandated dilution, a couple of SFX flourishes aside JC knows to step aside and let the blossoming relationship between Jenny and Scott to take center-stage, as empathy rather than any political or metaphysical theme is the primary drive of the picture.
Screenwriters Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon went on to pen the beloved Stand By Me two years later which is a testament to their ability to harp on the heartstrings, even if some of the plot contortions stretch character credulity. SFX wise the film holds relatively firm, there’s some fairly obvious travelling mattes and fragile optical work in some of the sequences, but the opening Voyager assimilation is convincing in its celestial purity, and its also a bit of an oddity in utilizing the unholy triumvirate of Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Dick Smith on design and execution duties during the reasonably convincing birth sequence. In terms of the most amusing trivia my research has revealed that there was an ill-fated TV spin-off which aired for a mere season in 1986, featuring the never to be taken seriously Robert Hays in the title role, somehow I don’t think I’ll bother tracking that DVD down. Naturally the film is being considered for a remake with Shawn Levy in the directors chair according to announcements made back in April of this year, I don’t think I’ll be re-calibrating my google sensors to trace every excited development of that pre-production pathway. Is Starman a classic? No, and at best is second tier Carpenter, but for us acolytes it is a genuine thrill to finally catch these oft-seen projects on the big screen, in full anamorphic 2:35 scope which can be a revelation after decades of poor quality pan-and-scan VHS and DVD transfers. I’ll never forgot the first time I saw the film and was devastated by its absolute killer ending, with a haunting mix of score and simple, appropriate close-ups which I’d champion as one of Carpenter’s most skillful and considered climax’s – stop the world, I wanna get off;
Ahead of Scorsese’s latest here is a little profile of his cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, whom is also known for his sterling work with such luminaries as Iñárritu, Oliver Stone, Ang Lee, Spike Lee, and others;
A slight aside today as this just made me gasp. This weekend I’m preparing to fire up for the first time my VR kit which has now all arrived – I’ve been waiting twenty-five years to experience this immersion. I think if they ported on a Godzilla style carnage application on to this platform I’d never leave the flat again;
As we stumble toward the end of the year the studios always start to unveil the previews of their big guns for the period ahead, and we’ve waiting a while for this one;
Marty’s been anxious to make this for twenty or so years, I can’t say the subject matter particularly inspires me, but that’s quite a cast, it’s Marty, and that is quite a trailer. First essential viewing of 2017, and a perfect context setting multiplex release for the BFI season. Excellent.
There has been an increasing aptitude of buzz for Moonlight growing over the past few months, another Sundance flavoured hit which seems poised to break through from the independent world into a modest, but successful multiplex bow. That could be no mean feat for a film about a young black gay dude who is suffering ritual abuse, in todays world that wouldn’t immediately strike me as a box office blast;
I’ll probably try and give it a chance relying on the strength of the reviews, some have cited the giddy heights of Wong Kar-Wai at his best, although having seen the rather dull and pedestrian The Grandmaster last week that’s not exactly propelling my excitement….
Yes, this seems apt for this miserable, rainswept Monday;
I generally shy away from posting every god-damn trailer in our current age of x 4 previews for the same bloody film, but I don’t know about you but I could still do with a distraction from the real world with some monsters. Some huge fucking monsters;
Hmm, not fond of that speed-ramping but I assume that’s a trailer effect they’ve thrown on the piece, and at least it looks like it has a sense of humor. – here is the greatest John C. Reily impression in recorded history. In other news, yes, we can do better – Indeed, we nust…..
It’s funny how the little things, or rather the enormous, epoch shattering events can sneak up on you. I confess to being somewhat shocked when the trailer for Arrival, erm, arrived a couple of months ago, I’m normally pretty good at keeping my finger on the pulse when it comes to new releases, particularly SF themed material given my penchant for all things alien attuned and otherworldly ouroboros. Instead this project was a total shock, especially the presence of rising star director Denis Villeneuve in the captains chair, given his growing stature in appreciation following last years compelling crime thriller Sicario. Challenging, thought provoking and intellectually compelling SF is difficult to detect in the current constellation of Star Wars and Trek clones, like sourcing a genuine SETI signal in the franchise fueled firmament, and while these pictures can be undeniable fun they rarely leave much lasting impression, relying more on the action orientated narratives of the superhero or action movie welded with a Science Fiction genre chassis. Arrival is another, taking off from the same narrative ground zero of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind nearly forty years ago – First Contact with aliens, and all that may entail for the human race. The approach to such a obliterating event in Arrival is intergalactically equidistant from the cartoonish carnage of, say Independence Day, this is much more in the vein of the smart, cerebral and considered, with not a single blaster nor dogfight in sight. It’s always interesting to consume these films whilst considering the paradigm of Science Fiction reflecting its era’s beliefs and fears, we’ve recently seen a burst of material such as Interstellar, Gravity, The Martian and Midnight Special which are ultimately optimistic and progressive, unlike the communist menace of the 1950’s, the saviors of E.T., Starman, CE3K of the 60’s to the 80’s, or the paranoid conspiracy of the X-Files 1990’s. More recently the post 9/11 uncertainties of War Of The Worlds, Minority Report or The Hunger Games series seem to have been in the ascendant, and like those films Arrival speaks to a prevailing sense of anxiety, a global malaise which seem more prescient by the day.
Based on the admired short tale Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang the film opens with a live action version of that heartbreaking sequence in Pixar’s Up, except this time it’s linguistic professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams, brilliant) nursing and then tragically mourning the death of her young adult daughter. With the somber mood appropriately set Louise’s loss is swiftly overwhelmed by an epoch shattering event – twelve vast interstellar objects have arrived at various unconnected sites over the globe, their presence and purpose a total mystery. Given her past terrorist intercept & translation security clearance Banks is recruited by the stern Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to join a specialist team, tasked with initiating contact and establishing the alien interlopers intentions, alongside theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly whom is played by a a perpetually perturbed Jeremy Renner. Every 18 hours the craft open to admit the humans who desperately attempt to establish a common communication channel, a sense of urgency adding flames to the fire as global panic and anarchy begins to sweep across the globe, and suspicious world governments of the non-American sort start to saber rattle as their populations demand assurances. So far, so conventional from a lot of SF material, but this is much more situated in the Contact, Stalker or Solaris constellation of screen science fiction, treating the material with an equal weight, with a philosophical and psychological fidelity which is rare for such an outrageous premise. It’s all too easy to reflect current events on cultural artifacts such as movies which are conceived, filmed and finished months and years before they are released to the public, but you can’t escape the fact that Arrivals is oozing with anxiety from every pore, from Louise’s bereaved psyche to the impending sense of some global apocalypse, reflected in the films palette and iconography which broods with blacks and grays in the ascendant. The SFX and CGI work is absolute first class, the arrivals feel glutinous, ghastly and simply not of our ecosystem in a completely convincing fashion. I won’t go further for fear of spoilers other than to say the design smacks of a Lovecraftian fever dream dredged from the deepest chasms of the Marianas trench, in one of the most compelling intellectualized movie species design since H.R. Gigers’ 1979 nightmare fuel.
Some years ago I read that the native American Indians had a philosophy and society based around a circle, this shape representing the strongest point of their understanding of the world around them, being equally tensile around every point of its 360° axis. It was also the circumference of the tepees they erected and called home, and it also represented the now rather trite sounding ‘circle of life’ chronology and repetition of the seasons, the return of the life-giving buffalo every spring and summer to their valuable hunting grounds, and apparently the Greeks were also in on this vibe. I’m not sure why I’m sharing this but it was one of the thoughts that struck me when the contact between species gains some traction in the film, and when any creative work begins to raise fundamental questions so eloquently on our species, on our customs, hierarchies and manipulation of the physical dimensions around us, on our language, the tenses we use and our perceptions of time and temporal space I have to consider the film as working genuine wonders. The portions of the film when our creeds full intellectual rigor is pressed into such a monumental task as deciphering the otherworldly cryptography are just wonderful, brilliantly cut and spliced with a deft montage voice-over, and you initially begin to query why Villeneuve is inter-cutting these efforts with Louise’s memories of her daughter, until the two strands collide in a supernova brilliance during Arrival’s final annihilating masterstroke.
Unlike this laugh-fest which I simply have to read I like how a lot of SF these days – heh – seems to play in the unstable arena of the quantum, of probing at the nature and omnipotence of time, whether it is running out or refracting back on itself, which is another of Arrival’s sub-nuclear narrative cores. Just to switch gears a little Renner is the best he’s been in more of a supporting role, Whitaker plays the Colonel with his usual hulking and dour concern, but Amy Adam’s is phenomenal as the core character cluster, the simultaneous terror and trance-like wonder scattering across her face in a fully realized and deftly balanced performance. There are a few small niggles, as wouldn’t the use of the canary in the coalmine tool be a little threatening for a first contact meeting guys? Demonstrating how we capture and exploit our fellow species? That might not look so good, even if its accurate. There is also a fairly obvious piece of explosive plot foreshadowing which is a little rushed and under-cooked, and perhaps the film loses a little focus in the middle section as to how much time is being spent formalizing the joint language, but Arrival is still smart enough to sidestep other clichés such as the suspicious paranoid CIA lackey (Michael Sthulberg) or the one dimensional aggressive military Colonel. Both are here in form but avoid there respective genre traps, both play their parts with a little more consideration and nuance, willing to give the scientists a limited benefit of the doubt that they are the best chance for success. It’s funny, I’ve been musing over the film for a couple of days now and I’ve realized that it’s also lifting intentionally or unintentionally from Cameron’s The Abyss and even, most amusingly, various manipulations in a most excellent journey.
I just loved how the film handled the genuine, psychological shredding impact of genuinely making first contact as presented in the film, the bewildered and terrified faces of the scientists, civilians and military brass, devastated on both a global and personal level – I loved the throwaway moment of earlier witnesses being lead off the camp on gurneys, with Weber muttering ‘some people just can’t handle the situation’. The traditional approach we know is the whole celestial look of magical awe, the upturned camera, swelling score and slow push-in to reveal the beatific saviour beings, but that paradigm is deeply inverted here, as the humans attempt to process just what this seismic event means for our very species, as we are challenged on every established belief structure over the past couple of millennia. The monolith was a device that Clarke and Kubrick arrived at for 2001 – yes I’m going there – them both realizing that the very concept of inter-dimensional entities, trillions of years in advance of our puny apes just could not be realistically represented on-screen using the cinematic effects of 1968, leaving them seeking a conceptual solution of representation instead. Through discussions they arrived at an algorithm of form and visual semiotics which is simultaneously esoteric and faceless, unknowable and impenetrable, qualities which all are wrapped up in our shared perception across creeds and cultures of that silent, indestructible slab. Arrival makes a good stab at taking this forward, the film has one of the best realizations of something genuinely ‘alien’, of creatures utterly divorced from our evolution, atmosphere and geology that I’ve ever seen, and that alone is a major achievement beyond the usual CGI cudgels we get these days. The implications have also been carefully considered and thought through, the effect on the planets delicate geo-political landscape, and the seismic sociological and cultural tsunami that would sweep through every creed and religious ideology propel a sense of things falling apart and decaying with a terrifying rapidity, yet still struck through with the emotional thread, the beating heart of the picture which rests on Amy Adams significant shoulders.
Eric Heisserer deserves an Academy Award nomination for the script from a design perspective, it nestles on page and screen like a palindrome, so further re-watches are definitely in order and I have heard even stronger praise from those whom have already indulged. Although it bows to the conventions of exposition voice-over to convey information, and there are a couple of dream feints how the filmmakers manipulate the very cornerstones of how you parcel and transmit information, of how the interpretation rests within the ear of the beholder and their expectations and conditioning, its in the space between those two concepts that Arrival descends. This is where form meets story, clearly Heisserer has done his research into the semiotic difficulties of communication with entities that may even have a conception of language as we understand it, their process of cognition, their mastery of physics, they way they even approach time is brilliantly queried, and whilst avoiding spoilers these ideas are stitched into the fabric of the film in a truly revolutionary fashion. – language itself has a formalizing intellectual structure, deciding how the discourse is programmed into the psyche of others, a lesson we could all learn given the nauseous events of last week. If you think that’s gobbledygook then I haven’t even grazed the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or other queries that the film conveys – how do we, think we can / are successful in understanding bees or ants for example? What about communicating with primates or Dolphins?
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ethereal and unearthly minimalist score perfectly complements Arrival’s scale and subject matter, harnessing that oscillation from the epic to the intimate which seems to be Villeneuve’s forte. Apparently he’s been signed up for the Blade Runner 2049 musical duties which must be quite a formidable task, given the influence and adoration of Vangelis’s original mastery. I’m immensely encouraged to see a film of this intelligence and sophistication on multiplex screens, especially one which has the confidence to manipulate the very building blocks and engineering of how cinema works, of character perspectives and how a movie can manipulate time, all of which speaking to the central themes and lyrics of the story. Villeneuve has been slowly growing in appreciation after Sicario (I really want to get my hands on a copy of his rare, expensive to source Polytechnique) and with this achievement he has firmly been implanted as one of the filmmakers to closely follow, with this picture he has singlehandedly obliterated any remaining concerns I had about that sequel, and I hear he has his sights on a Dune remake which has detonated an ultimate nullifier of excitement in my SF sanctified soul. I am slightly hesitating, my fingers hovering over the possible use of the word ‘masterpiece’ as I think any piece of work needs some space to breathe, to establish itself in the lexicon and see how it evolves with age. Nevertheless I’m close to that level of praise, and have no doubt that future revisits will yield deeper treasures, from the oubourous opening and ending shot selection, through interrogating its deeper structure and design, and how Arrival’s conception and execution marries its thematic intentions – even the title holds a potent metaphoric charge. Are we advancing as a species? Do we deserve to? Arrival suggest we will, because we exist, and if we exist then we have a potential, despite all our flaws and foibles. We can sacrifice and struggle, and face the void which comes to us all in the knowledge that our ability to adapt and grow might be sufficient, and potentially unique in this incomprehensible universe of ours – now that’s an interesting theory. Language and communication serving as empathy projections seems to be a priority to avoid annihilation these days, both at a personal and geo-political level, so in that light I’m electing this as my film of the year;
Despite the horrors of the real world this week we appear to be hurtiling into a golden period of screen SF, I’ve just got back from catching Arrival with my brain still scrambled by its brilliance, only to see this hacked onto my feeds;
Looking pretty magnificent, isn’t it? Closest we’ll every get to a Neuromancer translation, and as a Depeche Mode fan the deployment of that Enjoy The Silence cover made me grin like a over-amphetimised pleasure-bot. I also like the look of Passengers which could be compelling on just the space opera visuals front, and Luc Besson’s latest also looks worth a cinema visit, despite his recent transgressions. Damn, I’m trying to think of some pun on the whole ‘the future’s not bright, the future’s orange’ motto but that just reminds me of the US results and my ecstatic mood has just been blasted out of hyperspace…..