Tag Archives: Amy Adams

Arrival (2016): the most humanist sci-fi film of the past decade

Science fiction is a genre too often misunderstood as something entirely fictional and futuristic. But if we dig deep and undress the carefully constructed metaphors (such as the presence of aliens, monsters and human mutants) we will find that the foundation of such films is always a commentary on our contemporary world. Somewhere under the surface, between the lines, science-fiction is always addressing our political, socio-economic or environmental situation, tapping into our collective fears and with a cathartic ending reassuring us that, no matter what dangers the humanity faces in a certain socio-historical moment, everything is going to work out just fine. Whether it is a sci-fi movie from the Cold War era, influenced by the nuclear threat and fear of communist Russia taking over the world, a post 9/11 alien-invasion movie that taps into people’s fear of terrorist attacks, or an environmental catastrophe movie from the early 2000’s when the reality and undeniable threat of global warming entered into our collective consciousness – there is always an important correlation between a science fiction story and an era in which it was made, even if such films do not always approach these subjects in the most impartial and non damaging way. But this is where Arrival so extraordinarily stands out from alien films that we have seen in the past, proving itself to be one of the most outstanding and humanist science fiction films of the past decade.

Denis Villeneuve, who is proving himself to be one of the most interesting and thought-provoking “mainstream” directors with films such as Enemy (2013) and Sicario (2015) under his belt, remains faithful to his slow-pacing tone, extremely rich symbolism and multi-layered (as well as non-linear) story that makes every further re-watch an extremely insightful and rewarding experience. He takes his time building up the story and it is not until the end (if not until the second viewing) that we can fully apprehend (and appreciate) this film’s brilliance and the powerful, unique message it delivers.

As a series of pod-shaped crafts (that seem to be greatly influenced by the monolith from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odissey) lands on earth, hovering just above the ground in 12 different locations, everyone starts to wonder what is going to happen. And while most people immediately turn to fear and start to panic (as many of us would when confronted with something unknown; something for which we have no means to understand), the fact remains that nothing is actually happening; there are no attacks, no attempts at taking over the world. They simply arrived – but why? And why are they staying here?

Instead of preparing to attack and destroy the mysterious objects, the military contacts two established scientists in hope that they would manage to establish a communication with extraterrestrial species living inside of each craft. A linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and quantum physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are therefore brought to the site and introduced to heptapods living inside, but the usual science-duo gets an interesting twist by Banks being the who ends up calling all the shots and taking over the control of the situation. Amy Adams does a stellar job at portraying this brilliant and daring character that, even though is portraying a woman in power, does not end up being a stereotype of a woman who found herself lost in a man’s world and is desperately trying to stay there by acting like one of them. Dr. Banks instead has all the best qualities from both sides of the gender dichotomy spectrum: she is highly intelligent, rational, brave and uncompromising, but she is also intuitive, understanding and emphatic, which is why she has the least trouble in reaching out to foreign species and beginning a communication even though she does not speak their language.

Since their vocal communication is incomprehensible, she focuses on their written components; on symbols that resemble an ancient ouroboros – a symbol representing an infinite cycle of nature’s endless creation and destruction, of life and death. But little does she knows how learning this new language will help her entering into a whole new dimension of thought and how it will ultimately change her whole life: her perception of time, the whole meaning of her existence. It is here that the film enters into the field of linguistic relativity – into a theory that believes that the structure of a language in which we were born and which we speak shapes and affects our world-view and cognition. With each new language that we learn, we gain new knowledge, we enter into a new reality, and as a result we start to see and perceive the world differently.

By fearlessly engaging with the unknown Banks enters into a whole new reality and gains knowledge she never thought was within her reach (or even existed). Everything she needed to do to gain access to it was to open her eyes, her mind, her heart – and this is where the main beauty of this film lies. It is not enough to simply learn about existence of other cultures, languages, religions, traditions. It is not enough to unreflectively learn the information, the history, the grammar. We need to really absorb a different way of seeing; of seeing beyond of what is known, of what feels comfortable and safe. We need to not only acknowledge, but really see and understand everything and everyone that is foreign and unknown to us. No matter where we come from, of what is our nationality, gender, race, religion or sexual  orientation – we all have a lot to learn from one another, for we all see and experience the world differently.

If we watch the film closely we can see that this simple message is there from the very beginning: from the first time that Baker and other members of her team enter the craft, it is as if they are approaching a window that will give them knowledge to a new dimension. And if we look at the shape of the craft when shown from afar, we can see a vague resemblance to a contact lens; to something that brings our gloom reality out of the blur and helps us seeing the world more clearly. To something that provides us a new eye-sight, a new perspective, a new world-view, and with it a new level of consciousness, connectedness and collectivity.

The Basics:
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Eric Heisseres (based on the short story by Ted Chiang)
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Running Time: 116 minutes
Year: 2016
Rating: 8

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Her (2013)

Her is Spike Jonze’s fourth feature film and the first film where he wrote the screenplay entirely by himself. But even though this is considered to be one of the best films of 2013 (that brought Jonze nothing but praise and won him the Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay), I can’t really share any enthusiasm about it. I think that, while visually stunning, greatly directed and wonderfully acted (with always brilliant Joaquin Phoenix), the screenplay was weak and – in some aspects – a bit problematic.

The story is set in a pastel-coloured dystopian future, where almost all human connections are replaced with technology. The city, even though highly populated, seems empty and cold and people, who seem introverted and lonely, spend most of their time talking to their computer programs instead to each other. One of those lonely people is soon-to-be-divorced Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) who purchases a talking operating system with artificial intelligence that is designed to adapt and evolve. Within seconds Twombly’s OS knows his likes, dislikes, Mommy issues and insecurities. But he’s desperate to have someone in his life, which is why Samantha (that’s how OS names itself after he decides he wants it to have a female voice) soon begins to control him; she controls every bit of his hard drive, she even watches him sleep. But Twombly doesn’t mind this invasion of privacy – instead he falls in love. When they start having cyber sex, Twombly moans: »I’m inside you«. But in reality, it is Samantha who is inside of him, recording his every move, his every thought as data for her own development. Since Her was released almost the same time that Snowden leaked informations about NSA collecting our data, it amazes me that more people didn’t drew any comparisons between the two – instead, most people viewed this film as one of the most romantic films of 2013.

This is not the first time in film history where a man tried to replace his human relationships with a machine – just remember the 1975 cult film The Stepford Wives where women were turned into perfect and submissive housewives/robots who were only concerned about how to satisfy their husband’s needs and had no intellectual interests of their own. It’s also kind of an unwritten rule that this »female machines« have to be extremely good looking. Samantha Morton was the one who originally gave voice to the OS, but was later replaced with Scarlett Johansson. Even in a film where female is an actual object (and not just an objectified subject, as is usually the case) and doesn’t have a body, she still needs to be sexy and good looking for viewer’s imagination – and who’s voice is more sexy and easily recognized than the one from Scarlett Johansson?

This film had a great potential and could go in many other directions – but Jonze decided to write a movie about a narcissistic, emotionally immature guy who isn’t capable to deal with any real emotions – and an OS is actually a perfect girlfriend for a guy like that, considering it’s always in a good mood, smart, funny, without any ups and downs – just trying to satisfy his every need.

However, there is one scene that stands out from all the rest – it’s when Twombly meets with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). It is her character that brings some realness to the table. When Twombly tells her that he’s been seeing someone for the last few months and how »it’s good to be with somebody that’s excited about life« (which means with somebody without any existential problems or doubts and insecurities about oneself) and when the waiter walks to the table, interrupting them by asking how they’re doing, she responds with: »We’re doing fine. We used to be married but he couldn’t handle me. He wanted to put me on Prozac and now he’s in love with his laptop.« And this is it: this is what this film is all about. It’s about a man who couldn’t handle a woman with an existential crisis that probably ended in depression. It’s so much easier to fall in love with a computer that is designed exactly for you – whose job it is to satisfy your every need and desire – and without expecting anything in return.

Breathtaking cinematography is the work of Hoyte Van Hoytema, best known for his work on Swedish masterpiece Let the Right One In and on British thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The pastel colouring of the surroundings, as well as the people’s clothes, brilliantly emphasize the melancholy feeling of Twombly, or rather of the entire city. This is Jonze’s best directed film to date and all the performances are nothing short of perfect. There’s no doubt that this film is visually stunning and in every way nearly perfect – but the story lacked any real depth and it was impossible to connect to it.

The Basics:
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt
Running Time: 126 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 6