Arrival (2016)

Arrival makes its mark with an ingenious use of the concept of time and a curious portrayal of aliens, but the soppiness of a central relationship is this work’s major flaw.

ArrivalUSA
3.5*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriter:
Eric Heisserer

Director of Photography:
Bradford Young

Running time: 115 minutes

Despite its ever more sentimental bent and its simplistic good guy/bad guy dynamics, Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction film Arrival is a cleverly constructed tale of first contact between humans and aliens and has a satisfying twist at its core.

The twist has to do with time, and more specifically with viewing events not in bits and pieces advancing from A to B to C, from one day to the next, but as an all-encompassing whole seen all at once. In this way, the domino effect is no longer at play, and cause and effect disappear into a new space-time continuum that until now had been illustrated the best by the “Cause and Effect” episode of the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series, which depicts the shaping of the present thanks to future events being anticipated through contact with the past.

The film’s emotion-laden opening sequence, which introduces us to single mother and renowned linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), quickly moves from one beat to the next as her baby daughter grows up and turns into a teenager before suddenly falling ill and dying of a rare illness. This episode is firmly in our heads not only because it kicks the narrative into gear but also because Villeneuve returns to it again and again and again throughout the rest of the film. But while Banks’s recollection of these moments is perceived as melancholy memories, something else is happening, and we have to recalibrate our sense of time in a clever way.

The idea of viewing a story – never mind one’s own life – as a whole rather than in its constituent parts is an intimidating proposition, but such an approach is central to communication (and action) in Arrival, because the aliens that arrive in their gigantic grey shell-shaped pods and touch down in a desolate expanse of land in Montana communicate in precisely this way.

Their signs consist not of distinct words but of circular signs that convey a complete overview of both meaning and feeling and can range from the basic to the hypercomplex. And for Banks to understand their message, her brain needs to start thinking about life in such a way, too, affirming the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language also transforms our perception of life itself. Thus, by acquiring a language that sees the beginning and the end rolled up into one, she starts seeing her own life that way as well, including events she is yet to experience.

Of course, she needs a foil in the shape of research partner and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Renner’s part is woefully underdeveloped, however. Beyond wanting to jump straight into asking the aliens about Fibonacci numbers without understanding that mathematics is not a particularly useful language for basic communication, he appears not to do all that much except support Banks on her surprisingly successful English as a Foreign Intergalactic Language course with the aliens. These two are sent by the government to ascertain the purpose of the visit by the aliens, which have landed at 12 spots on the globe but remained hidden inside their shell-shaped spacecrafts.

Villeneuve, whose film has traces of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, particularly in the scoring by master composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, with whom he also collaborated on Sicario, uses Steven Spielberg’s well-known technique (from Close Encounters but most famously from Jaws) of delaying a major introduction. The aliens themselves (which, unlike in most other films, are not particularly anthropoid but look very much like the spider in Villeneuve’s Enemy, albeit with seven instead of eight legs, thus earning them the label “heptapods”) are almost never completely visible.

But more generally, the director does not do justice to the intelligence of his story. He beats the relationship between Banks and her daughter to death with too many inserts while failing to convey Banks’s perception of the frequency of these images. But with the exception of a life-changing, humanity-saving flash-forward in the final act, an exception that proves the rule, he doesn’t cast his net any farther to provide other interesting examples of using consciousness about time past, present and future in an unexpected way.

Villeneuve, who captured the suspense in Sicario so well, is surprisingly inept when it comes to creating tension, and he creates a Hunt for Red October moment by having the camera point straight at a team member who will betray them all. And he does this not once but multiple times. In fact, it is much more blatant than the infamous introduction to the cook (later revealed to be a traitor) in John McTiernan’s 1990 film.

The film has some beautiful moments, including the already mentioned flash forward during the climax, as well as a voiceover delivered by Renner to explain the heptapods, much like he is narrating a documentary about them years into the future. But its presentation of the global collaboration and suspicion between the groups trying to investigate the aliens is incredibly stilted, and when we hear that the Sudan is planning to attack the aliens, it is difficult not to burst out laughing.

The sentimentality in Arrival may be a bit much to stomach, and there are simply too many inserts with Banks and her daughter, but the flexibility of time and the way in which it is made visible in the film bring us another perspective that might just trickle down into other science-fiction films in the future.

Sicario (2015)

Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s sweeping view of the war on drugs, focuses on the law enforcement officials crossing the border.

sicarioUSA
4*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriter:
Taylor Sheridan

Director of Photography:
Roger Deakins

Running time: 120 minutes

The United Status–Mexico border may appear to separate the two most populous nations in North America, but in fact, as we know, the length of the border and the rough terrain make it difficult to control, and for decades there has been a northward movement of people and drugs. In Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve does not tell the tale of those crossing the border, as this has been done often enough, but instead focuses on the moral wasteland that the government’s fight against the drug-induced violence has become.

The opening scene is intense. In Arizona, in a small town just a few miles from the border, a federal team of agents is moving in. They ram their truck into a flimsy suburban home and return the fire they receive from the wife beater–clad gentlemen inside. At first, there is no sign of the hostages they had been tipped off about. But upon closer inspection of the property, they find the walls are hollow and stuffed with dozens of corpses whose heads are all covered in plastic bags. The scene is gruesome, and most of the hardened men and women of the team retch at the sight and the smell. Moments later, a bomb goes off, and we witness at least one team member losing a limb.

One of those involved in the raid is Kate Mercer (a stunningly composed Emily Blunt), who is intent on rooting out the drug problem and agrees to work with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a Defense Department adviser who heads up a Delta Force team to get those who are responsible for the first scene’s carnage. The team is accompanied by Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), an unflappable and enigmatic Colombian whose intentions are opaque but who brings unmistakable expertise to the operation.

There are many revelations throughout the film, as we realise time and again that the U.S. government engages in all kinds of undercover and even unlawful activities in order to reduce the general level of criminality, and they do so in a way that would make Machiavelli proud. For those who have not seen the film, it would not be too much of a spoiler to disclose that the U.S. team does not limit its activities to its own territory, and the notorious border town of Ciudad Juárez is the location of one of the film’s dramatic highlights.

In that particular scene, Villeneuve demonstrates his talent for building and maintaining tension, for keeping the audience on the edge of their seats thanks to a threat that seems to be both ever-present and covert, and for using his camera to produce images that are breathtaking yet entirely relevant.

For example, there are a few amazing fly-over shots from high up in the air that show us the congested lanes on the Bridge of the Americas, the port of entry between the United States and Mexico. The sequence in Ciudad Juárez is bookended by shots on the bridge, and at first, the U.S. team races unobstructed across the bridge in their big black Humvees. When they return, there is much more congestion, and the heavy traffic is not only an inconvenience but a security threat. At the same time, the shots from the air convey the feeling of a disembodied menace (it is not connected to a helicopter, for example) that might as well be a Predator drone – the kind that the U.S. government uses to patrol the border.

But in the background, beyond the blood and the action, there is the eerie indifference among the thousands of passengers crammed into the hundreds of cars passing the still-bleeding corpses without so much as a shocked expression. In this part of the world, even the slaying of two handfuls of people in broad daylight does not elicit the turn of a head or a soft gasp of breath. All the while, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s throbbing, menacing and absolutely riveting score pumps our blood faster and faster.

Sicario, which means “hitman” in Mexico, is a film whose overwhelming sense of dread is difficult to shake, even many days after the viewer has left the theater. While the drama is elegantly directed and flawlessly put together and the narrative is always crystal clear, the overall feeling is one of never-ending chaos, and that early scene in and around Ciudad Juárez greatly contributes to this impression.

Villeneuve’s film is scary and profound. It focuses on a small group of people representing larger forces we only get a glimpse of, but these snippets of the battle against drugs is enough to make us understand there is no easy answer, and that eventually everyone loses in this fight.

Enemy (2013)

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in existential thriller about two men who might just be the same and that is as unconventional as it is spellbinding.

enemy-denis-villeneuveCanada
3.5*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter:
Javier Gullón
Director of Photography:
Nicolas Bolduc

Running time: 90 minutes

“Chaos is order yet undeciphered”, reads the epigraph to Enemy, another striking film by one of Canada’s most talented filmmakers, Denis Villeneuve. It’s not clear what this means, exactly, and confusion reigns for much of the film, until the very end, when things start to come together and leave us… completely lost.

Based on The Double, a novel by one of the masters of magical realist writing, Portugal’s José Saramago (author of Baltasar and Blimunda, the most affecting love story I’ve ever read), the film is all about creating a suffocating atmosphere full of tension and mystery that is bewildering yet alluring, a kind of science-fiction film without the science fiction.

Set in an almost unrecognisable Toronto, permeated with an ominous yellow haze, the film opens with a voiceover by Isabella Rossellini, whose character has phoned her son to tell him, in a voice that sounds uncomfortably robotic, she is concerned about his living situation.

We soon get a glimpse of what she is talking about (his threadbare apartment), but not before we see a man walk down a shadowy corridor, filled with the same yellowish light that appears almost everywhere in the film, and join a group of people in a dark room where they look at a woman in high heels who may or may not step on a giant tarantula.

This incident, out of place as it appears to be, will be at the back of our minds by the time the final scene rolls around – one that fully qualifies as bathos, because it unexpectedly serves as the only source of laughter in a very serious film.

What this seriousness comprises is one man’s discovery he has an identical twin, even down to them having the same scars. The man is Adam Bell, and he is a college history teacher. Slightly awkward and childlike, and clearly suffering from a form of depression, he gets a recommendation from a colleague to watch a movie and discovers an actor in the background who is a spitting image of him.

This actor turns out to be Anthony St. Claire, who looks and sounds exactly like him, and even has a wife who closely resembles Adam’s own girlfriend. Adam doesn’t know what to do, even though his classes at the moment are about repetition in history, and we’ve already seen his own life mirror this aspect in other ways.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as both men in this, his second film for the director in less than a year after another serious turn in Prisoners, but although we follow the twists and turns of the plot, as far as possible, mostly from Adam’s point of view, his inaction or reticence to dig deeper and confront this inexplicable enigma is frustrating, although it could have been much worse in the hands of another director or another actor. Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal maintain the tension throughout with very little dialogue and bucket loads of atmospheric lighting and music, as they reel us in to persuade us the story will reveal its answers in the end.

But anyone familiar with Saramago knows he isn’t big on answers. His style – long sentences and dialogue without quotation marks or attribution, constructed around a central theme or inciting incident – has always been the overriding factor in readers’ appreciation of his work, and his books have not had much success as big-screen adaptations.

Enemy, however, effectively conveys the feeling of the material, and although many viewers will likely be disappointed by the lack of a more explanatory dénouement, they should stay put and watch the end credits, in which a lateral tracking shot from one end of the city to the other makes it very clear this is no ordinary film. As beautiful yet unworldly as anything you can imagine, it may be the most inspired shot from a technical point of view since Andrei Tarkovsky pulled back from a solitary house at the end of Solaris.

Meaning in the film always seems to elude us, as we can almost never know the characters’ thoughts or explain their behaviour. We don’t know whether the colleague’s recommendation at the beginning was by design or by chance, it is tough to understand why a meeting is arranged in a lonely motel an hour outside the city, and moreover why Adam agrees to it, and a scene with him in an empty classroom, in front of an enormous diagram of “chaos” and “order” scrawled on the board, seems entirely out of place because it is so obviously relevant. Once again, we get just enough information to make us want more, but it is always too little for us to decipher the chaos and see the order behind it.

The film makes about as much sense as those of David Lynch, or some of Villeneuve’s fellow Canadian, David Cronenberg. Speaking of Cronenberg, Enemy has one of the most brutal and best-staged single-take car crash scenes you are ever likely to see, and it reminds us how skillfully the director sometimes uses his camera, as anyone who has seen his earlier works, like Next Floor, would confirm.

With more questions than answers, Enemy won’t be to everyone’s liking, but even though it sometimes feels like a version of Żuławski’s Possession, though thankfully without a hysterical Isabelle Adjani running around, the mysterious ambience is spellbinding, and our minds stay busy because we keep wondering what will happen next.