Arrival review

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The best science fiction films are about so much more than their subject matter. They probe deeper, asking complex questions about what it means to be human, about what unites us and divides us, about the role (and limitations) of science in advancing humankind. Aliens, like zombies, are not really that interesting apart from their metaphorical trappings.

Smart sci-fi understands this. And Arrival is certainly that. In fact, it’s brilliant; a haunting and somber meditation on grief, love and the primal bonds that unite us. It’s also one of the most original sci-fi films in years.

Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist who is called in by Col. Webber (Forest Whitaker) to translate an alien language. The mysterious visitors have just arrived in a large, black oblong pod over a field in Montana, and 11 others have interspersed across the globe in places like Russia, Australia and China. This arrival predictably causes a global panic; mass looting and plummeting stocks soon follow. Could this be the end of the world?

Dr. Banks is teamed with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelley (Jeremy Renner) to enter the local pod, which opens every 18 hours, and attempt to communicate with the tentacled creatures inside. What follows are weeks of visits with the creatures, as the team attempts to decipher a visual language that can best be described as a series of inky circles. The hope is to eventually understand the answer to the question, “why are they here?”

But language is a subtle thing, and fear does not invite subtlety or compromise. It’s not long before the various nations collaborating on communicating with their pods begin to get anxious. Why take chances with these guys? Are we simply standing by for our own destruction? What are these visitors waiting for, and why won’t they leave?

In the vein of The Martian and other recent films in the genre, Arrival stands out by making the science more important than the fiction. Dr. Banks’ linguistic process is intensely systematic and exhaustive. Much of the film consists of characters poring over notes, drawing and having complex conversations about the nature of communication. It’s all a bit heavy, and in less deft hands could come off as a bit dull. But writer Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) turn the film into a complex jigsaw puzzle, with individual scenes that slowly piece together into a larger whole. It’s a slow but intoxicating burn.

Arrival is thought-provoking and intelligent sci-fi, and may go down as a genre classic.

Arrival is thought-provoking and intelligent sci-fi, and may go down as a genre classic.

The film might also fall apart if it didn’t give us cool creatures or environments. But the alien pod is a visual marvel, as are the creatures themselves (referred to as septapods). Separated from the humans by a barrier, they’re often cloaked in a mysterious mist, and the fact that we can’t quite make out their full forms leads to a constant sense of unease and suspense. They eventually become their own characters, with nicknames and highly intelligent ways of processing information. These are not just your average vague CGI space creatures. I also want to praise the sparse but effective sound design and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s chilling score; they give the film a great deal of punch it may have otherwise lacked.

Descriptions of Arrival may come off as cold, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The film is incredibly emotional and achingly human, and that’s mostly thanks to Adams’ performance, the best of her career. She portrays Dr. Banks as both highly intelligent and a bit of an emotional wild card, someone who has an intimate connection with the septapods to the point where she can almost think like them. She feels deeply, and that can be both a strength and a weakness. As with Emily Blunt in Sicario, Villeneuve has a knack for drawing sensational performances from strong leading ladies, and that strength is used to grand effect here.

It’s tough to write about the film without giving away what makes it special. There is a twist, one that I was surprised I didn’t guess. Perhaps wiser film-goers will find in highly telegraphed, but I’m still thinking about the ramifications of it and what I would do if I was in a similar situation. It’s devastating and, at the same time, quite powerful.  It’s up to individuals to decide if the film does enough to solve its grand mystery in a satisfying fashion. There’s a fine line between leaving us guessing in a good way and simply not giving us enough information to be emotionally satisfied, but I think it strikes the perfect balance.

The ultimate question of all great art is, “what makes us human?” Sci-fi is uniquely positioned to meditate on that, because it often includes a non-human entity to contrast. Arrival is no different, but it goes about the question through a lens I haven’t quite seen before.

Arrival’s subtleties and minimalist design may not satisfy everyone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ultimately goes down as a genre classic. In the realm of alien invasion flicks, it should certainly be mentioned alongside the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Day the Earth Stood Still.  It’s a film that will inspire conversation, and it’s one I will be thinking about for some time.

Doctor Strange review

Is this really happening? Am I really reviewing a Doctor Strange movie right now? Ten years ago, the idea of such a thing would have seemed a distant dream to comic book fans. But therein lies the insane genius of Marvel Studios. Everyone could have probably predicted an Avengers film at some point. But Guardians of the Galaxy? Ant Man? Doctor Strange? Fans of geek comic lore might bite, but your average filmgoer would raise an eyebrow and move on. Except that’s not what happened. Time and again, the comic giant has spun gold out of increasingly outlandish and obscure franchises. And Doctor Strange might be its wildest yet. Whatever the conditions that birthed the film, fans should be grateful: this is one of the trippiest and coolest Marvel films to date.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a wildly successful (and wildly narcissistic) neurosurgeon who injures his hands in a car accident. After burning through his money seeking increasingly exotic treatments and alienating his it’s-complicated lover Christine (Rachel McAdams), Strange hears whispers of a mystical society called Kamar-Taj in Nepal. With nothing left to lose, he ventures afar in search of healing.

But Strange gets much more than he bargained for, and is quickly introduced to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mystical being trained in the magic arts. He is taken under the tutelage of sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who helps him discover realities far beyond any his highly scientific and rational mind has previously thought possible. The Astral Plane, multiple dimensions and the ability to travel through space and control time. Together, this secret society of mystics helps protect Earth from an ancient and all-consuming evil. Of course, a former disciple (who else?) of the Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), thinks that this being is actually benevolent, and so he sets out to destroy the magic shield protecting the world and bring it into harmony with other already devoured universes.


Doctor Strange is a visual stunner, and takes the Marvel universe to some trippy new places.

Clearly, there’s a lot going on here, and it would be very easy for a film like this to get bogged down in exposition or extraneous details. Thankfully, director Scott Derrickson and co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill do a great job of keeping things moving smoothly. They also run with this material, really milking the creative potential of this downright, well…strange material. This comes across in the film’s humor (which, like other Marvel films, is gentle but still elicits belly laughs) and in its characters, which are memorable and creative. There wasn’t a major character I didn’t enjoy, or one who felt extraneous to the story or shoehorned in. Even the villain, who isn’t written particularly interesting, gets a pass thanks to the amazing Mikkelsen, who can do no wrong in my book. The film also seems to take lessons from past Marvel films in avoiding overt connections to the extended universe that often take us out of the story being told.

Of course, the main draw of the film is its visuals, and they are beyond spectacular. This is honestly one of the coolest looking films I’ve seen, and certainly the most visually engaging in the Marvel canon. The special effects work is simply second-to-none, and it gets my vote as the most creative since, probably, Inception. That is remarkably high praise, but when you see entire buildings torn apart and put back together, trippy 2001-esque voyages through space and action sequences that play with fast-forwarded, reversed and paused time, it may be hard to argue otherwise. Everyone who worked on the visual effects here deserve the highest praise (and an Oscar), and the film should be seen on the biggest screen possible.

In other ways, Doctor Strange is less creative. This is, in the end, another superhero origin story, and it doesn’t do anything particularly new with that arc. It very much feels like Iron Man, but with magic and sorcery instead of technology. Like Tony Stark, Strange goes through a redemptive character transformation, but it’s not on the same level emotionally as Stark’s was. Maybe we’ve seen this kind of story too much, or maybe Robert Downy Jr. is simply that good of an actor; he’s set the bar impossibly high even for a performer as all-around excellent as Cumberbatch. The film also fizzles a bit at the end, perhaps feeling a bit winded after throwing so much incredible stuff at us.

I’m certainly grateful that we’ve come to a place where a movie like Doctor Strange can not only actually get made, but earn a boatload of money and critical praise (yes, there was a Strange film in 1978; let us not speak of it again). The film takes the Marvel Cinematic Universe to some psychedelic and exciting new places. Now that we have heroes in heaven, outer space, the quantum realm and the astral plane, where do we have left to go? I don’t know, but if we keep getting films this creative and fun, I’m along for the very strange ride.

Hacksaw Ridge review

Hacksaw Ridge opens with a striking sequence. We hear the end of Isaiah chapter 40 recited over brutal images of war. We hear about God giving strength to the weary and allowing those who call on him to soar on wings like eagles. At the same time, we see charred and battered bodies flying through the air as they’re torn apart by the ruthlessly efficient weapons of war.

It’s a jarring juxtaposition, to be sure, but one director Mel Gibson knows well. The Passion of the Christ director has always been fascinated by religion and violence, and these motifs pushed to their limits in a film that bleeds passion from every pore. It has been 10 years since Gibson last directed a film, and by all accounts, Hacksaw Ridge was worth the wait.

The voice over we hear in the beginning belongs to that of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, giving the best performance of his career), a true-life WWII soldier who was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor for courage on the battlefield (he saved more than 75 men as a combat medic). Those don’t seem like terms that naturally go together, but Doss’ life was a true example of living what you believe and sticking to your principles, no matter the cost.

We first see Doss’ aversion to violence as a child after he settles a scruff with his brother by whacking him in the head with a brick. Realizing his brother was nearly killed, Doss vows right then to honor God’s sixth commandment never to murder.

The film is essentially split into two halves, and the first deals with Doss’ relationship with his alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), a veteran of WWI, and mother (Rachel Griffiths), as well as his courting of nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). After the bombing of Pearl Harbor (and after learning his brother has signed up), Desmond decided he must enlist for his country. But there are two inviolable conditions: he will never touch a gun, and he will not serve on a Saturday (as a Seventh Day Adventist, Saturday is his Sabbath). He will instead save lives as a combat medic.

Hacksaw Ridge is a stirring testament to the power of faith and the hope that endures even in the midst of horror.

Hacksaw Ridge is a stirring testament to the power of faith and the hope that endures even in the midst of horror.

Doss’ unwavering commitment to his pacifist principles obviously don’t sit well with his fellow soldiers. He draws the particular ire of Smitty (Luke Bracey), who sees him as a coward. Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) and Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) attempt to get Doss to leave voluntarily and, when that fails, Court Martial him (“You are aware quite a bit of killing goes on in war?” Glover asks Doss). But Doss does not back down from either his principles or commitment to serve honorably.

The film’s second half chronicles the battle of Okinawa and the U.S. military’s attempt to take it by securing Hacksaw Ridge. Here, we’re rather jarringly re-introduced to Gibson’s penchant for incredibly gory violence. Okinawa was true hell, one of the most violent conflicts of the war, and the depiction here pulls no punches. It is here we see the manifestation of a question Capt. Glover asks Doss earlier in the film: how can you stick to your principles when the only way to ensure your continued freedom to practice them is to kill those who are putting them under siege?

The battle sequences are truly horrifying, but they’re also some of the best ever put to screen. Gibson knows a thing or two about large-scale epic conflicts, and the chaos of battle is almost beautiful in its brutality. These sequences are bolstered by Simon Duggan’s crisp cinematography and Barry Robinson’s gritty production design. But make no mistake: the imagery here is particularly graphic; those with weak stomachs may want to sit it out.

Amid the insanity of war, it’s downright refreshing to see a man who “wants to put a little piece of [the world] back together again,” in Doss’s own words. His heroics are truly inspiring, but what raises the film to a higher level is the way it treats Doss’ commitment to his faith. Screenwriter Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkann do a bang up job of balancing the need to tell the full story of Doss’ devotion to God without getting preachy. But Gibson’s direction sometimes tips the film’s hand; he’s never been much for subtlety, and there are a few scenes that feel a bit overbearing in their religious imagery.

But, even in its most bombastic moments, Hacksaw Ridge is never anything less than riveting cinema. It’s a war film with a true conscience, made by a true craftsman. It’s inspirational without trying too hard. And, most importantly, it’s a passionate Christian work of art, the kind that we’ve been praying for. People don’t need a theatrical Sunday sermon; they need examples of men and women who served their God and their fellow man with unwavering devotion, humility and courage. This is about the finest example of that rare kind of life I can imagine.