The fact that this destructive bacteria, whom actually shares the namesake of PKD’s imaginarium of a false, withdrawn, corrupt & corporate overlord disrupting and frantically attempting to massage civilisation is beyond satire – and when was the last time you checked the legitimacy of your pets?;
Not exactly off to a punctual start of the year are we? It’s been a few weeks since I caught Rogue One, the long anticipated first wider universe film set in the Star Wars universe, and to be frank I just haven’t been able to muster the enthusiasm to collect my thoughts. Then of course tragedy struck which threw an entirely new shadow across the film, with the passing of Carrie Fisher the first loss of the primary acting talent of the franchise although we also lost Kenny Baker earlier in 2016. Just to be a hideous, privileged soul I remember sitting at Frightfest 2010 when Monsters was showing, a mere five feet from Gareth Edwards who took to the stage for a rapturous Q&A, and look at him now, one of the corralled and manageable directors that seems to be the current studio executive strategy in controlling these dollar spinning franchises – see also Disney’s Marvel imprint, Universal’s Jurassic Park behemoth, and the Warner Bros. DC Universe. I loved Monsters, a genuine achievement of a fresh new talent assembling a movie at zero budget, utilising the new trajectories and abilities of digital equipment, with a fine understanding of story, character and empathy. Something is intergalactically amiss in this film in those crucial areas as although it’s already cliche to state this Rogue One is the biggest fan-fiction movie ever made, stuffed full of lip-service and nerd nuggets for the converted to mutter and coo appreciatively, but fatally lacking in anything resembling rich and engaging characters, or even the slightest dregs of emotional drive which is so crucial to this specific franchise. I didn’t hate the film, it had its moments and strengths that we will come to shortly, but until it reached its final act I was deathly bored, and even then none of the climactic story beats detonated with any impact whatsoever.
It’s all about keeping it in the family for this franchise, and this first picture nested away from the tragedy of the Skywalker clan flirts with the same territory of estranged patriarchs and hidden secrets. A nordic flavoured opening sequence introduces us to Jyn Erso, a young woman separated from her parents when the Empire arrive and threaten her father to return to work for them on their secret, planet devouring super-weapon. After her mother is killed and father (Mads Mikkelsen) captured we smash-cut to some time later, with Jyn all grown up and played by a neutered Felicity Jones – more on that phraseology later. It’s murky but she’s either a thief or scoundrel of some sort, soon rescued from the prison camp by the Rebel Alliance in order to join the effort to rescue her father, a mission led by intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna). Eventually this chemistry free couple manage to recruit Imperial defector Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), the blind monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and his heavily armed grunt Baze (Jiang Wen) – all of their ideologies and motivations I perfect mystery, other than Chirruts mystical ramblings about some strange alchemy known as the force. So, from a kernel of familial strife and guilt the film warps into a mission movie, in a scrappy and fractured narrative line which fails at numerous dramatic hurdles.
The neutron core problem with Rogue One is just how manufactured it feels, how designed by committee, with a critical and fatal disregard for character. From the potentially offensive Zatochi clone and his mate I just didn’t care about anyone in this picture, just like it appears neither did the screenwriters who were clearly directing their efforts into the avenues of fan-service, references, and crafting a film whose sole purpose is to reference other entries in its own bloody franchise. None of the principals get any decent lines or tangible development moments, the first half feels very fractured and scattershot, and whilst I’d concur that the final section is a marked improvement it all comes to little too late to save this plundering product. If you compare and contrast with The Force Awakens (or indeed Episode IV or V) within seconds we given enough information to form our own ideas and backstories – Ren’s a mischievous and resourceful with dreams of getting off-world and into wild adventures, Finn’s a fractured yet spirited conscript whom is struggling with his moral compass. In this film we know nothing of our main protagonists, the prologue aside we learn nothing of Jyn’s interviewing struggle, her drive or reasoning, so when the character moments arrive they don’t land with any density whatsoever – her sudden transformation for inspirational speech orator was ridiculous. In his role as some sort of mentor / father surrogate / Afrika Bambaataa clone Forrest Whitaker is a terrible over-actor with his wheezing portentousness and husky, and quite frankly the main character we met in the trailer, the arrogant and brooding Jyn has been transformed into a much more, well, feminised archetype . There was so much they could have done here, the thriller trope of this being an assassination mission not a rescue mission, and what about the notion of Jyn, our heroine, spending her life as a the daughter of a collaborator – theres plenty of drama and tension to mine. Instead we got some limping procession from one planet to another, drizzled in flat and inspired dialogue, and some feeble stabs at humour from the reprogrammed Imperial droid K2-SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) which missed my funny bone by about 10 trillion parsecs.
SPOILERS SECTION – Yes, Darth effortlessly scything through doomed hordes of Rebel redshirts was highly amusing albeit pure fanboy masturbation, I felt his appearances were listless and not exactly squirming with menace, and very poorly written – what the hell was that ‘choke’ ‘gag;?.\ The entire connection of this story into the opening frames of Episode IV smacks of huge executive interference, it is clunky, it is ugly, and stinks of pure incoherent ‘hey this would be cool’ rather than letting the story be guided by any inconvenient diversions such as character arcs, logic or emotional closure. Some of the other cameos were almost embarrassing – the droids moment might retain their fidelity as the central characters who have appeared in every Star Wars film but it’s just pointless and distracting. Unfortunately Hollywood still hasn’t cracked the uncanny valley as the Peter Cushing resurrection was just weird and deployed far too often, it completely threw me out of the film, although I guess it is meta-commentary amusing to see na actor who spent his entire career grappling with the undead back on the screen a couple of decades since he slipped this mortal country. I quite liked the Leia cameo though, unlike most that kinda worked for me, even with the rather clunky line delivery – although I saw it before the sad news so I’m not sure if this just won’t play as deeply disrespectful. I also quite like the idea of the two reprobates from Mos Eisley engaged in some intergalactic pub crawl after they inadvertently bumped into Jyn, I’m sure there are numerous other references I missed but this is what has just curdled in the memory banks. Just to be really picky, the decision to nuke the final battleground, considering that they hold all the Empire’s plans and numerous intelligence assets seems a little extreme, a bit like nuking the Pentagon if the generals learned that some F23’s secret blueprints had been compromised. Why did Forrest Whitaker’s character just stay in his home intoning gravely instead of getting the fuck out of dodge with everyone else, and what was the fucking point of the psychic tentacle thing? SPOILERS ENDS
Most amusingly I have recently learnt that director Gareth Edwards, also graduated from the same Surrey University as me back in the mid 1990’s, I don’t specifically remember him as he would have been on a different course, but it was a small colleague so I’m sure our paths crossed at me point. I don’t quite know why he was stalking me at Frightfest but here we are. Not wishing to psychoanalyse his intent but he’s evidently one for apocalyptic instincts, big broad metaphors like the creatures in his debut and his Godzilla remake, but like the new generation of malleable directors they serve in obvious thrall to the franchise behemoth, delivering some acceptable product with any fiscal polluting edges and controversies whittled away. Thankfully the film improves dramatically once it reaches the final stretch and the climax begins to coalesce begins, it almost transforms into an actual Star Wars movie with the cross cutting between parallel planes of action to power the dramatic crescendos, but without any genuine investment in any of the occurrences it is all too little too late. To be a little more positive I did enjoy spending some more time in this franchise world from a nostalgic perspective, seeing the ship designs and costumes was fun, including Bahamas Stormtrooper © and was that a new horizontal TIE fighter design I spied? To deny that didn’t depress some nerd buttons would be dishonest. I also did like the sense of a teeming and populous universe which the film just about mustered, skipping from one planet to the next, and I wonder if the lack of traditional wipe edit patterns and inclusion of planet inter-title introductions (which haven’t been deployed in the franchise before) weren’t a deliberate effort to distinguish this movie from the Skywalker saga. But none of this can fully detract from an imaginary realm populated with dull and uninvolved characters, a bruising lack of camaraderie or comradeship, and an utterly unearned heroes journey from jaded criminal vagabond to inspired guerrilla leader who can inspire noble souls to join her on a doomed suicide mission. Oh and a quick memo to the next film producers – decide who your villain is, for fuck sake. Rogue One has at least three villains oozing around the galaxy and cackling over their nefarious plots, which left Ben Mendelsohn flailing for any presence or nefarious heft, in a completely wasted role.
The other reason its taking me so long to pull this together is that I didn’t want to start the year on such a tepid, negative posture, but for me the Scorsese season starts in earnest tomorrow with a screening of Silence so I need to disintegrate the back-log, no matter how distasteful. The film was subjected to reshoots before release which is par for the course these days, almost all major films do this so it’s not necessarily a warning sign, but the shift of emphasis from that original trailer alongside rumours and whispers coming out of the set smacks of Executive molestation a la Suicide Squad, where certain key moments have been culled to the cutting room floor to actively change the pace and tone of the narrative and the characters – ‘this will play gangbusters, so who cares about the plot’ is the corporate mantra especially with more receipts coming from overseas. Then again, apart from a few of us rare dissenters everyone seems to be loving this, or at least giving it a pass as fun couple of hours and upon reflection I can’t necessarily disagree with that for a major blockbuster, a distraction from the increasing ominous shift of the culture. Fine. Maybe I was in a bad mood when I saw this as I wasn’t particularly excited about it, as I’ve said before I’m of the generation that grew up with and was obsessed with this universe when I was a kid, but those pangs have faded partially due to its unearned ubiquity in the cultural landscape, but while I’m always down with some fun big dumb SF opera my exhaustion with this series is becoming overwhelming. So maybe it’s not for me and that’s fine, if people are throughly loving this then great, more power to you, the world is lacking in enthusiasm and genuine enjoyment these days, and perhaps a message of committing to fight against the darker forces in our world, no matter how futile as it might just make a difference isn’t such a bad shell of message to offer. Churning these out every year will inevitably tarnish the brand however, the appearance of a Stars Wars film was a major event for good or ill, and inevitably when we get to the Chewbacca: The Early Years dregs of the series it will have amassed enough in merchandising trillions to justify a reboot of the whole Skywalker saga again, from A New Hope, just in time for a 2027 50th anniversary treat. Rogue One is better than the I-III trilogy but then rampaging case of necrotic syphilis also occupies the same dubious qualities, so on that note ‘Beam Me Up Scotty’!!…wait, that’s the right franchise, right?;
So this is doing the rounds, and rightly so. I re-watched the film recently as part of a still unpublished rewatch of 2000’s films, and am still deeply disappointed in myself at not seeing it at the flicks when it was released – as a prophetic slice of SF it surely is some kind of masterpiece. There is a great deal of deployment of the so-called long take these days, on both TV and cinema, most of which is unjustified from a storytelling sense – but that’s another blog post. Cuarón on the other hand is a master and his technique is married to the material, in an organic and thrilling way. Watch the film again, think of the political rhetoric and obstacles we now face, and get fucking organised as it’s gonna be tough;
Here’s my idea of a happy Christmas;
I knew it was coming, I’ve been turning over in my mind for months how I might respond to this, and maybe it’s the fact that we’re in the romantic, nostalgia laden period of the seasonal cycle but there was one reaction which I hadn’t anticipated. I burst into tears;
Now, in my defence (and stop laughing at the back you heartless swine) I’ve just been disappointed with a revisit to a certain other SF legend today, and as regular readers might be aware Blade Runner occupies a monolithic position in my life, cinematically speaking, and thus I have been waiting to see this through rumours and numerous false starts for over thirty fucking years. I love the look of it, I really loved the soundtrack which took all the appropriate cues, although those glimpses we saw of the world didn’t seem to have significantly moved on from 2019 to 2049 eh? Now, if you’ll excuse me gentle reader, I shall spend the rest of the evening going on a carnage strewn speculation marathon – will they weave in some of other dormant themes from the Dick book, like the Mercism religious material and absence of animal life? Will Tyrell or Rachel cameo? Will they, actually scratch that, how will they tackle all those ‘he’s a replicant’ debates that have raged for decades – I mean, that’s inevitable, right? Is that desert wasteland off-world? A lightly terraformed Mars maybe? Am I the only person who got a strong Hardware vibe from that preview? Oh Deckard’s wielding the same blaster……(swoons)……
Well, tis the season I suppose, as the trailers for next years tentpole pictures are dropping thick and fast. But where is that god-damn Blade Runner 2 preview eh?
I like this rebooted franchise, its a lot more thoughtful and socially attuned that expected, with appropriate references back to the 1960’s originals. Good stuff…..
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;
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…..