#haveseenmonday: The Long And Winding Road Less Travelled in Arrival

I didn’t realise Arrival was such a dark film. Seeing it in the cinema on release I had been so overwhelmed by the sound, the cinematography and Amy Adams’s mesmeric performance that this passed me by. I’m not talking about tone, of course; this films ends in a place of hope and invitation. I mean in light levels. Most – or all? – of the exterior scenes of the film take place in shadows, or with the sun evidently just one side of the horizon or the other. Interiors are low lit also; I notice two exceptions – the spotlight shone from a helicopter in to Amy Adams’s face when Forest Whitaker returns to pick her up in the early stages of the story, the second towards the film’s end, when the whole screen is bathed in white smoke as one character goes behind the screen that had separated people from the alien visitors up to that point. It all points to a person – and a human race – living in the half-light of partial understanding; unaware that there’s a light that can be turned on until someone (or something else) does it instead.

In many respects Arrival tells a familiar story of alien first contact with earth, and tells it as a thoughtful drama rather than an action spectacular. Like many science-fiction stories, this is one concerned with how we as a species and as individuals understand ourselves, and how we conceive of ‘the other’ – whether that’s people or beings different to us, or God. It’s certainly the case that even on the small screen this is a film that’s deeply effective in evoking a sense of wonder; it may only be just over 30 minutes in to the film when we first see the aliens, but the lighting, the camera’s repeated reminding us of Amy Adams’s aloneness, the sound design and the remarkable score all evoke a sense of encounter with something that is truly different, alien in every sense of the word.

Arrival

Amy Adams’s performance is towering; she seems to be on screen for at least 95% of the run time; for much of that time we seem to be following her from behind or looking in to her face, a face blessed with the ability to express volumes. This film was always going to stand or fall on her performance; as a result, it stands very tall indeed.

The film initially sets itself up as a struggle between science (in the shape of Jeremy Renner’s character, a theoretical physicist) and language (Amy Adams); but it becomes more than that. Breakthrough in communication with the aliens is only achieved when Adams, followed by Renner, break out of the strict, rigid almost ritualistic structures laid down by science and the military; maybe it’s because I’m a priest and I was watching it in Holy Week, that I saw more than a hint of a reference to the curtain in the temple, separating people from God, through which only one priest could go and which was torn in two by Jesus’ crucifixion.

There’s something in that, however. So often words and laboratories, religion and science, mind and heart are pitted against each other. In Arrival we see the fruit of something else; something the film calls a ‘non-zero sum’ game, a movement beyond linear, binary thinking in to something more fluid, more supple. If moving beyond the boundaries laid down by military and science gives humanity a breakthrough in communicating with the aliens, it’s a departure from conventional ‘zero sum’, straight line thinking that is the key to the whole mystery and crisis that forms the heart of the film.

Like Arthur C Clarke’s classic 1950s novel Childhood’s End (clearly an influence on both this film and its source text), the vision of humanity presented could easily be something so optimistic and naive as to be of no use. Certainly that’s where Childhood’s End left me; but I felt differently on rewatching Arrival. Of course, right and wrong, truth and falsehood and many others are binaries we need – too much blurring of the lines leaves with an epidemic of uncertainty and fake news. This time around, however, I was reminded of how I characterise my own thinking as someone with ADD and two learning disabilities; not neuro-typical, I guess you would say. I say that I don’t think in straight lines; I think in blobs. Then I try to string the blobs together, make connections in order to form coherent thought and output (or not … ). Straight lines can be helpful; but I find it very difficult to follow them.

 

amy adams

A valuing of intuitive, relational thinking can also make us a bit more humble, a little less keen to make it all about us. Especially useful when it comes to the ‘other’ – the other person, culture, lifestyle or God. Trying to build bridges with something or someone utterly different to us needs more than a straight line-rationale; it needs a humble willingness to take the long, winding road of presence, listening and submission. When it comes to God, it comes with the awareness that we can’t build the bridge ourselves; we have to accept that all our rationality will only get us so far, and instead accept the invitation to the humble submission of walking across a bridge which we had no hand in building – and which for much of the time, we can’t see the other side of, or even much more than a step or two in front of us.

Arrival, in the form of Amy Adams’s portrayal of a linguistics expert learning a new of way of speaking and thinking, presents us with a humbling invitation to engagement with others and the Other; a vision which requires us to step beyond the straight lines we naturally default to, a commitment to the long and winding road of another’s design. It is in the letting go that we take up, the losing that we find, the dying that we live.

Have Seen Monday is a (hopefully) weekly series in which I reflect on rewatching a film I haven’t seen in a while. 

 

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Elysium (2013)

A peril of blogging about film is that it can give the inadvertent impression that my opinion of a given film is fixed. My blog about District 9 (click on the last two words) is a case in point. I enjoyed much about that film the first time around, but I concluded that it didn’t have the depth it liked to think it did. I’ve re-watched it multiple times since (largely because it’s a film people like to watch when they visit us in South Africa), and my admiration has grown and deepened. I still find it exciting and fun, but I keep seeing new depth in it too. It turns out that it was I who wasn’t thinking deeply enough.

So it’s with a little apprehension that I finally settled down to watch the director (Neill Blomkamp) follow-up to that film, Elysium. Worryingly, my conclusions are similar if less positive overall; there’s much that’s good about it, but it’s ultimately disappointing. Like the former, this is a science-fiction earthed in the director’s South African reality. This time the context is the division between rich and poor; Earth has been left behind by the elite for an idyllic space-station called Elysium, always in view and out of sight by the teeming masses of poor left behind, grinding out lives of subsistence, dead-end jobs and subservience to a system loaded against them. Matt Damon gets caught up in an industrial accident on Earth; seeking healing he’s embarked on a dangerous course of action to earn illegal passage to the man-made paradise and certain healing.

There’s so much about Neill Blomkamp’s emerging style. He knows the grammar of science-fiction films well, but his is an authentically original voice and style. He directs actions scenes brilliantly in a post-Bourne world, using hand-held shaking cameras well but in a subtly different way. Every action scene is gripping and involving. As someone who lives in South Africa I like that he uses South African talent and patois alongside better known talent and language. Throwaway South African slang is brilliantly used to draw into the film’s world, not alienate. District 9‘s star is back again, similarly intense but in a key supporting role and a world away from that film’s fear-struck vulnerability.

Overall, though, it just doesn’t work. Key supporting roles (Jodie Foster’s being a case in point) are under-written to the point that we’re never quite sure what they’re for even at key plot moments; the coldness of the privileged elite seems less like the gap between rich and poor and more like lazy writing. Other than good medical care and nice gardens, Elysium itself doesn’t seem to have any actual content – which means the gap between rich and poor is never quite established beyond a need for good health care. Which might make sense (and it does) in South Africa, but just doesn’t work for the film’s central theme. By the time the climactic scenes roll around, you’re impressed and entertained, but confused as to quite what’s happening and why it all matters so much to so may people.

It’s a shame, but not a crying one. It’s still a decent film, but I’d be really surprised if I grew to feel about this film the way I do about District 9. What we do know for certain, though, is that Neill Blomkamp is a director to watch with excitement.

I rated this film 6/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

I watched this film at home on tv.

Star Trek (2009)

Re-watching this on DVD for the first time since I saw it on cinema release, it felt of a piece with its sequel in all the ways it should. It’s an origins story that reboots the whole Star Trek universe – we see the birth of Jim Kirk, him and everyone else enrolling in Starfleet Academy and the origins of their finding themselves on-board the Enterprise for life. It, like the sequel, is a joyride of a film; at pains to point how far its come from the cheap TV original with every swoop and swish and dash of lens flare (which is slightly less annoying than its omnipresence in the 2nd movie).

This is an action movie, not just a TV franchise now, so we have bigger set-pieces and buddy moments of a type we might not have expected: a Bond style skydive, a slightly irritating Spock/Kirk bromance and beefed up roles for bit-part players from the TV show. The effects sparkle, the sequences with Leonard Nimoy are a joy as opposed to what could have been horribly self-indulgent, and it all goes to show that J J Abrams really is the natural inheritor to Spielberg’s crown as cinema’s great entertainer.

I watched this on DVD on my laptop.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Grinning Like A 12-Year Old: Pacific Rim

Some films achieve a kind of breathless beauty which leaves you gasping for air. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, the exquisite Pan’s Labyrinth was one of those for me. Seeing that a few years ago did all sorts of things to me; each re-viewing still does. If the film’s Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro never gets close to that level again he shouldn’t be disappointed. It’s a high-water mark few will reach.

His latest film is not such a film. Pacific Rim is many things, but transcendent beauty it isn’t. It’s a huge blockbuster, a special-effects movie about enormous alien-monster thingies and great big robots hitting the living daylights out of each other. At one point a ship is used. As a hand-held weapon.

What Pacific Rim is, though, is a great big joyous grin of a film. My wife and I haven’t smiled all the way through a movie in quite the same for years. I simply cannot recall the last time I saw a film this much fun.

Right now some of you are thinking … well, maybe you’ve been subjected to a Transformers movie. Forget that. Those are cynical imagination-killing cash cows made with no thought, soul or courage, and a side-serving of leering misogyny. They are boring in the extreme. Pacific Rim is not perfect – the two scientist characters, part comic relief, part key to how to beat the aliens – don’t work well enough to be given as much screen-time as they have. The script has some thick cheese at times – but at others it does what it’s there to do, and when you’ve got a speech which culminates with Idris Elba shouting ‘we are cancelling the apocalypse!‘ then the script has done its job. Idris Elba, by the way – there’s an actor with presence and charisma to light up a coastline. Of course if you’ve seen TV’s The Wire or Luther you already knew that, but if this film puts him on the global stage, then that’s another thing to be thankful for.

What differentiates this film from the interminable and soulless Transformer franchise is that Pacific Rim was made with love. Love for the original concepts and comic traditions the film comes from; love for the creatures and robots themselves, so much so that they actually feel and sound as large as buildings; love enough to know when to almost wink at the camera, and enough to know when to let two really big things hit each other hard in the middle of the ocean. Love enough to shoot the action sequences (Zac Snyder, please learn this for the next Superman/Man Of Steel movie) so that you actually know what’s going on and who’s where. Love enough to keep you glued in your seat for the first part of the visually astonishing end credits and reward you with a cheeky, corny, laugh-out gag.

Pacific Rim, when all is said and done, left me remembering what it was like to be 12 years old and be blown away by something I couldn’t even imagine until I saw it on the screen, and to be so excited about it I wanted to tell everyone about it for days. If cinema doesn’t sometimes do that, it’s failing.

I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Oblivion

Oblivion wants to a big science-fiction epic with things to say about the human condition. Whilst it does have that – the film touches on some very contemporary fears in the shape of drones, genetics, artificial intelligence, the trustworthiness of God and the ubiquity of Morgan Freeman – it’s let down by one big problem. I call it the Return Of The King problemPrecisely: the film appears to end at least three times before it actually does. In the case of the third film in the Lord Of The Rings, I was able to forgive that because I’d been so richly entertained over the previous two and half films. Peter Jackson had by then earned some self-indulgence (someone tell him, by the way, that he has to earn that all over again now). By the time Oblivion tricks you into thinking it’s ending for the third time, it hasn’t done quite enough to buy you off. Nearly, but not quite.

It’s a Tom Cruise film. I’m not averse to him as a leading man and with the right director or the right material he can be really good (Mission Impossible franchise, Magnolia are my first exhibits for the defence); he doesn’t have enough direction or material to do that here. What he does have is a plot twist which buys him and the under-used Olga Kurylenko out of what could be thought of as some lazy acting. Halfway decent genre-films like this need to demonstrate an awareness of the genre’s classics first, and Oblivion does that. It’s a science-fiction movie set on a ravaged earth in a future where earth’s inhabitants have won the war but lost the planet. Tom Cruise and his partner are on clean-up and security duty. So, duly invoked we have – in no order – Moon, Forbidden PlanetSilent RunningTerminator and a whole load more. Unfortunately it pales by comparison because there’s no energy to the direction, no shock, no fear, no convincing self-doubt when it’s needed. The big twists may be fairly unexpected, but they’re also unconvincing; all shown up, and not in a good way, by the problem of the three endings. By then, two hours had felt like a lot more.

This is not a bad film; there’s enough in here to divert, provoke and entertain (and, if you’re a preacher, provide a handful of illustrations). It’s just not good enough to really stay in the memory and let you explore those thoughts more deeply. Which makes your realise, ironically, that Prometheus was a much better film than many realised.

I rated this film 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 6/10 on imdb.com

Looper

Looper is a new science-fiction film which essentially tries to deal with an age-old moral teaser: ‘if you could go back in time and kill Hitler before he did what he grew up to do, would you?’. It isn’t about Hitler – it’s about a future in which time travel is both possible and outlawed. Illegal – thus over-taken by organised crime: ‘loopers’ are highly paid assassins who kill the targets of the future sent back in time by the gangs to meet their death. Loopers ultimately, can have their loop closed – discovering they’ve killed their own future selves, leaving them with 30 years of life before they meet their own execution.

So the story of the film goes – one looper escapes his fate and events are set in motion which lead to the question – one looper has the chance to kill the future’s criminal mastermind before he’s a grown adult, thus erasing the deadly trade for good. The film has noir-ish overtones, and occasionally a cheeky sense of good fun. It’s absurd, but largely conscious of its own absurdity. There’s a couple of unnecessary sub-plots, and a gratuitous, unconvincing strand involving tele-kinetic powers which lead the film into misplaced horror-lite territory.

All of which would leave the film as diverting but unremarkable if it wasn’t for one thing. The aforementioned moral dilemma leads to one character hunting down 3 children who may or may not be the future’s criminal mastermind and shooting them. It fits with the story of the film, and the moral dilemma is at least given some kind of recognition by the film-makers. It’s not a mis-step in terms of the film  itself – but given that it was released here on the day of America’s Sandy Hook school shootings, the film does have a big problem. It’s surprising that the cinemas showing the film  or the film company or  journalists or somebody haven’t done something – pulled the film to a later date, warned people, or at the least stopped to think if this is the best time.

This isn’t about censorship – there really shouldn’t be issues which can’t be dealt with in film; but timing and sensitivity matter. Someone has got this badly wrong, or at least not thought enough. Looper is, ultimately, an interesting but inconsequential film released in some territories at just the wrong time. What’s more worrying is that no one seems to have spotted that.

I rated this film 3 out 5 on rottentomatoes.com & 6/10 on imdb.com

Avatar: Getting What We Deserve

I quite enjoyed this at the time. James Cameron’s massively hyped, almost a generation in the making, film that’s supposed to change the face of film-making: its not all bad. I was gripped and on the edge of my seat at times. I was truly blown away by a film that looked genuinely stunning (although, like all the other 3D films I’ve seen, it doesn’t benefit from the third dimension). It was baggy, but I was more or less held for the duration of the two and a half hours. So, all told, pretty diverting.

It’s only when you step away and think about the ‘big picture’ of this very biggest of pictures that you realise what an offensive, hypocritical piece of self-righteous nonsense this is.  Cameron has spent a vast amount of money on bringing to life what he says was in his head. From that point of view, the money is well spent – its brilliantly realised with depth and imagination. Which it makes it all the more offensive that no attention was paid to a baggy plot, a script that could have been written by any idealistic 16-year old. Or to peddle a philosophy that talks peace and love, but builds to what is essentially a big action-movie, let’s blow stuff up pay-off. Or to talk the talk of new, sane and urgent environmentalism in the face of so-called progress and corporate greed, while running a production that must have had a carbon footprint the size of a city. If Cameron’s such an environmentalist, can he come out and tell us how much of an impact his production had?

Let’s be clear – Cameron’s made a couple of films I really enjoyed and one or two classics. Avatar, though, is what we deserve – a movie perfect for the age of politically spun smoke and mirrors: have your mind blown by something amazing, all the while smuggling under the radar a money-making machine with no soul and no concern for anything other than a quick buck or surface sheen. I did enjoy it, but it just goes to show how much we get taken in; empty, good-looking and soulless. It spin, it’s pornography, it’s hypocrisy. Cameron may have tried to change to industry, but if this is what we’re going to get then he’s ruined it.

James Cameron: hang your head in shame.