FIlmWatch Weekly: “Arrival” and the importance of intelligent escapism

The new Amy Adams-Jeremy Renner sci-fi film offers both distraction from dark days and inspiration for those beyond

As the country continues to step gingerly through the looking glass into a world that’s more unrecognizable and intimidating than many Americans could have imagined, there are two types of films that can help the disoriented and the dismayed.

One type is the social-issue drama, exemplified by Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” which tells the true story of interracial couple Mildred and Richard Loving. Their ACLU-funded legal fight against the Virginia law that made their union illegal ended with the Supreme Court’s judgment that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional and that marriage is a fundamental civil right. The film doesn’t open until November 18, so a full review will have to wait until next week, but the Lovings are real-world reminders of that fact that justice may be deferred (in their case, until 1967) but it can never be forever denied.

Of course, movies also offer opportunities for escapism, a necessity for mental health maintenance in trying times. But cheap escapism, whether in the form of car chases and gun battles or pratfalls and raunchy jokes, won’t really do the trick. When I need both inspiration and distraction, I look for entertainment that engages with my intellect and my emotions, and tosses in some visual pizzazz when it can.

Amy Adams (right) as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures

Amy Adams (right) as Louise Banks in ARRIVAL by Paramount Pictures

Which brings me to “Arrival,” the biggest and best film opening in Portland this post-election weekend. It’s a science-fiction story about the first contact between humanity and a race of mysterious extraterrestrials. But it’s about the furthest thing from the drive-in laser-blast concussions of something like “Independence Day.” It’s a hard film to describe too fully without ruining its surprises (something its marketing has done a good job of avoiding), but with a brilliant, female, nonsexualized linguist as its hero, a story that requires you to reimagine the way the universe works, and a resolution in which, it’s fair to say, love trumps hate, “Arrival” has, um, arrived at just the right time.

We learn in the opening scenes that Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has experienced the loss of a child. (This will be important later.) When 12 enormous, black, concave structures suddenly appear at various spots around the globe, hovering a few meters off the ground, she is summoned by the military—specifically, one Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker)—to lead the communication effort at one such site in Montana. Banks is paired with a physicist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and before you can say “beam me up,” they’ve entered the thing and started trying to figure out how to talk to its inhabitants.

In typical genre fashion, it’s a race against time: other teams around the world are trying the same thing, and some (notably the Chinese) take a more aggressive tone. The American military, too, is just waiting, finger on the trigger, for the first sign that the visitors are a threat. As in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” it’s up to one principled individual to ensure that the most momentous event in human history doesn’t end in cataclysmic destruction.

Yes, there are aliens, ingeniously designed on both a physical and cultural (for lack of a better term) level. There are snazzy, gravity-defying special effects, but they never overwhelm the human elements. And there are those terrible hazmat suits that actors always have to wear in these kinds of movies, but they’re dispensed with before too long.

The plot, based on a novella called “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, is almost impossible to describe beyond what I said above without eroding the movie’s appeal. I’ll just say that it was intricate and surprising enough that I immediately ordered a copy of the book that contains it. The director is Denis Villeneuve, who made the accomplished, but dark, drug-war thriller “Sicario,” and before that, the intense, even darker, child-abduction thriller “Prisoners.” With that resume, you might go into “Arrival” expecting a downbeat, even nihilistic ending to this cosmic encounter. My only spoiler alert: You’d be wrong. You’ll likely leave “Arrival” with a slightly more hopeful vision for the future of humanity, which these days is a significant blessing.

And if you don’t like the movie, at least you spent two hours in a dark room with your smartphone turned off. Which may be an even more significant blessing.

(“Arrival” opens November 11 in theaters nationwide.)

Also happening this week in Portland theaters:

 

The 43rd Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival continues through Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the Whitsell Auditorium and other sites downtown. It’s a cinematic and social feast for anyone keeping an eye on regional moviemaking. I ran down the highlights for OregonLive here.

The idea of time travel seems to be in the zeitgeist, whether people wish they could go back to Monday, Nov. 7 or some other era. James Gleick’s new book “Time Travel: A History,” offers a rambling cultural history of the concept, which was essentially invented by author H.G. Wells in “The Time Machine.” The 1960 big-screen adaptation starring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux screens on Friday, Nov. 11, at the Hollywood Theatre. Meanwhile (whatever that means…), Terry Gilliam’s whimsical tale about history-hopping little people and the boy who joins them, “Time Bandits,” plays all week at the Laurelhurst Theater.

The documentary “Peter and the Farm” profiles a Vermont organic farmer whose hard-drinking exterior and punk-rock attitude belie his deep attachment to his land and his skepticism about the future of the planet. It plays Saturday, Nov. 12, at the Hollywood Theatre.

 

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