Tag Archives: Denis Villeneuve

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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Most anticipated films of 2015

A fellow blogger Keith inspired me to make my own list of the most anticipated films of 2015. Here are some films that deserve your attention this year:

  1. The Trap: Harmony Korine’s new film. Do I need to say more? Anyone who knows his work understands my excitement. And if you by any chance haven’t heard of this genius yet: go watch Spring Breakers this instance!
  2. Mistress America: Noah Baumbach is back! And so is the adorable Greta Gerwig. And because I’m pretty sure that much of Frances Ha‘s charm and accurateness about female friendships came from Gerwig and not from Baumbach, I’m excited to see that they continue to collaborate as co-writers. Alex Ross Perry already demonstrated how much better the film works if it’s co-written by a man and a woman (his The Color Wheel was co-written by Carlen Altman, while his latest film, Listen Up Philip, written by Perry alone, seriously lacked some female perspective). Baumbach’s films are much more charming and optimistic since Gerwig entered the picture. I really hope their collaboration will continue in the future (it’s a little nerve-racking since their creative partnership depends on their personal one, but I hope they manage to make it work).
  3. The Lobster: Greek New Wave is returning, but this time with an international cast. After Yorgos Lanthimos’s great success with Dogtooth and Alps, finding producers for new projects doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore. The Lobster was co-produced by Greece, UK, Ireland, Netherlands and France and it’s cast includes (wait for it!) Léa Seydoux, Colin Farrel, Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw and John C. Reilly. After reading film’s summary, I got a feeling that it will be just as weird and disturbing as his previous work – and this couldn’t make me happier.
  4. Flashmob: I can’t even begin to imagine what will Michael Haneke do this time. The title definitely sounds intriguing.
  5. Louder Than Bombs: after his heartbreaking 2011 drama Oslo, 31. august, Norwegian director Joachim Trier is returning with a film that was co-produced by Norway and USA and stars Jesse Eisenberg and Isabelle Huppert.
  6. Umimachi Diary: new film by one of the greatest contemporary Japanese filmmakers, Hirokazu Koreeda. For those not familiar with his work, I strongly suggest you watch his latest film Like Father, Like Son, or some of his older masterpieces, like Still Walking from 2008, or After Life from 1998.
  7. That’s What I’m Talking About: Richard Linklater’s next project. It most definitely won’t be as great as Boyhood, but still… it’s Linklater and he hardly ever disappoints.
  8. Sicario: Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is an expert for haunting and twisted dramas, and I expect this one to be no different from his previous work. If he didn’t get your attention yet, go watch last year’s Enemy, or his 2010 film Incendies.
  9. Knight of Cups: Terrence Malick’s new film, starring Christian Bale and Natalie Portman. With filmography that includes masterpieces such as Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life, Malick’s easily one of my favourite currently working American directors.
  10. Love in Khon Kaen: film by Thai independent film director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who’s probably best known for his film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, that won him Palme d’Or at 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
  11. The Revenant: after last year’s success of Birdman I think we’re all in anticipation of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s next film with Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio in the main roles.
  12. Macbeth: Shakespeare’s drama directed by Australian director Justin Kurzel, best known for his 2011 crime/drama film Snowtown. And if that doesn’t sound exciting enough for you, here’s another great news: Michael Fassbender will play Macbeth, and his wife will be no other than the exquisite Marion Cotillard.
  13.  La La Land: Damien Chazelle, whose second feature film Whiplash is currently still playing in the theatres, is soon coming back with another musical drama: this time about a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress, played by Miles Teller and Emma Watson.
  14. La giovinezza: Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, who won last year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film for The Great Beauty, is returning – and this time with no other than Jane Fonda, Michael Cane and Harvey Keitel in the main roles.
  15. Bessie: Dee Rees’s second feature film. After her promising 2011 debut Pariah I can’t help but be excited about this biopic about blues performer Bessie Smith (although biography films aren’t really my thing). The fact that she’s an African-American female director makes it even more exciting.

Films I’m least looking forward to?

Fifty Shades of Grey and everything that David O. Russell plans to do in the future.