Thursday, April 21, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Arrival (2016) 1h 56m

On Saturday, 23 April at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh will screen Denis Villeneuve’s touchstone of contemporary storytelling excellence, *Arrival*, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg. 

We’ve gotten a lot of mileage in these pages from the linkage between the ugly real-world circumstances befalling the planet in the early to mid-1970s, and the unprecedented wave of superlative films that graced the planet’s theaters at that time. Perfectly sensible, this bit: If one couldn’t bear to face the era of Watergate transcripts and Kent State shootings and Sinai offensives, the natural vector of escape was a plush-velvet theater seat and all the suspension of reality that it promised to confer. 

Except I wouldn’t have to tell anyone reading these words that 2016 was no picnic, either. From Brexit to Aleppo, from the rise of Donald Trump to the death of Princess Leia, hiding from the real world in that fateful year took on a mantle of gallows-chic that hadn’t been so prominent in popular culture since ... well, since the early to mid-1970s. And the world’s filmmakers delivered again, too—with Risen and Perfect Strangers and Nocturnal Animals and How to Be Single. 

And then there’s Denis Villeneuve and his jewel of throwback cinematic escapism, Arrival. A film that defies not just genres and conventions, but the far more sacred taxonomy of commercially- vs. critically important work. 

Amy Adams is Dr Louise Banks, the cracker-jack linguist who finds herself visited in her academic office by a shadowy military detachment (led by Forest Whitaker), seemingly out of the blue. After some appropriately uneasy back-and-forth, it develops that the military folk want Dr Banks to come with them to interrogate a group of uninvited guests. If I told you why they need a math expert (played by Jeremy Renner) along for the ride, I’d spoil the movie. But they do. And a CIA observer (Michael Stuhlbarg), too.  

The four of them must work together, and to say this spoils nothing. And none of them know what they're doing, or what the consequences of what they're doing might be, good or otherwise. The whole of the story is a deep-dive into the samurai arts of professionally faking it and hoping for the best. There are turns of a sort we might expect under high-pressure, high-stakes, without-a-net circumstances such as these, and then, just when we think we're clear on where we're being taken, the entire flow of the movie and the story that we thought we were being told, is dumped all but literally on its head. Everything about this picture is a feint, and everything about it is a reminder that feints don't have to end with travel bans and slatted border walls in Arizona. They can be beautiful, and thrilling, even as they are dangerous and difficult to comprehend. Yes, Arrival is a science fiction movie. But in the end it hardly matters.   

Many great films have enjoyed box-office prosperity, and many successful movies have attracted the eye of the world’s critics and awards, to be sure. Most of the films we’ve shared in our screenings straddle this boundary to at least some degree. But far, far fewer films have ever dared to actually be both of these things, with conscious intent, from the moment they were green-lit at the studio’s top-floor offices. That Arrival succeeds so completely in both aspirations—as a commercially entertaining movie, and as a work of cultural durability—is little short of miraculous, especially for its time. A bonbon of mall-cineplex escapism, just when we needed it most, which manages to be genuine art at the same time.

But to succeed as well as it did, Arrival had to match its moment into the bargain. Had Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi been released in 1971 it would still have evoked spirited intellectual discussion and deep reservoirs of fan loyalty, but it wouldn’t have broken the freaking world. (Indeed it would have been Werner Herzog’s *Fata Morgana*, which ... didn’t.) Coppola’s The Conversation is a fantastic picture, sure, but part of the reason it works so well is because it was screened over a summer when tape-recorded conversations were all anyone could think about. The lesson is clear. To make that kind of impact, a film must lay its hands in just the right folds of our collective consciousness at that particular time. 

In 2016, those folds wouldn't have been much fun to think about. They would have prominently included fear of outsiders, an even greater fear of those who were afraid of outsiders, and existential geopolitical uncertainty. But they also would have included breakneck technological progress and an almost foolish-feeling reach for optimism and self-betterment. Villeneuve would have needed to resonate with all of these disparate cultural overtones, and, in that last extra little challenge, he would have needed to at least nod in the direction of society's desire for cinematic escapism itself. Somehow. Perhaps by featuring some venue or shooting aspect that happened to be of a sixteen-by-nine dimension. I dunno, maybe have it look white when there’s nothing to see on it, just to be nutty.   

For those who know his work, it will come as no surprise that Villeneuve hit every single note with this gorgeous picture. Writing for The London Telegraph, Robbie Collin called it “introspective, philosophical and existentially inclined—yet [it] unfolds in an unwavering tenor of chest-tightening excitement. And there is a mid-film revelation—less a sudden twist than sleek unwinding of everything you think you know—that feels, when it hits you, like your seat is tipping back.” Across town, The Guardian was busy deciding it had been the third-best movie of the year, and the nineteenth-best scifi movie. Ever. 

I hope everyone will plan to join us Saturday, 23 April at 6:30pm for this stately and breathtaking puzzle of overlapping narratives, nuclear statecraft, and the sometimes, but not always, reckless-seeming currency of hope. 

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