Tuesday, December 27, 2016

REVIEWS: "Arrival" and "Midnight Special" Redefine the Science-Fiction Genre


There seems to be a trend growing in science-fiction so far this decade. Not only have several filmmakers from Alfonso Cauron (Gravity, 2013) to Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, 2014) to Ridley Scott (The Martian, 2015) resurrected interest in the space race, but this year alone seems to see a return to extra-terrestrial activity. And we're not talking about pot-bellied botanists or men in black. (Okay, maybe a little on that last one.)

Netflix's smash-hit series "Stranger Things" centers on the disappearance of a boy, as well as a mysterious girl and a malevolent creature, while police, government agents, and friends pursue them all. The series is a clever and engrossing homage to 1980s pop culture, particularly the sci-fi/horror films of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, the novels of Stephen King, and "Dungeons & Dragons". (You can read my post on the series here.) Now there's director Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, which stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner as a linguist and a theoretical physicist who make contact with aliens. And earlier this year, director Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special featured Michael Shannon as the father of a young boy with mysterious otherworldly powers, and who's being pursued by government agents and cult members.

Amy Adams in Arrival
The premise of Arrival involves mysterious spaceships that land in twelve different countries around the world. As the film opens, we glimpse moments in the life of linguistics professor Louise Banks (the always incredible Adams, in perhaps her best role to date), specifically her life from her young daughter's birth up until her unexpected death, leading to a life of loneliness and bleakness. (The accompanying string score is profound and emotional.) Even her lakehouse home is dark, bleak, and lifeless (a color scheme that seems to permeate most of the film).

The film jumps to a lecture hall Louise teaches at, with a clear lack of communication among her students--that is, until news spreads about twelve mysterious egg-shaped spaceships that land in different areas around the world. Military specialists soon arrive with a recording they need Louise's expertise on, and eventually she's shipped to a base in Montana, where one of the ships (known as "shells") hovers nearby. The military's objective (as any person or organization or government branch would want to know) includes finding out what these beings want, where they're from, and why they're here? Theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner, in an equally engaging role) wonders, "Are they scientists or tourists?" How do they communicate? How do they think?

Jeremy Renner in Arrival
This is a classic and engrossing storytelling devise of ordinary characters thrown in extraordinary situations. The transition and character development throughout the film is partly shown in the way Louise breathes as she initially approaches contact with the extra-terrestrial beings (whom she and a colleague name, amusingly, Abbott and Costello). And when Louise exposes herself physically and consistently to the aliens, she begins to see images (possibly or apparently memories of her daughter), leading her to wonder what they mean, as well as what the aliens' intentions are. They also soon provoke various questions: Are these things/memories that have happened? Or are they premonitions of what will happen? But when news spreads from other base sightings around the world of a possible war spreading, it creates fear amongst several countries. "We're in a world with no single leader," says one character.

All political controversy aside, the shot of the UFOs is one of the most unforgettable images on screen this year. The same for the crew's containment suits (rivaling what Ridley Scott did in The Martian and Prometheus). Even the sight of the aliens (called "heptapods") is a cross between squids and trees, with foggy, cloud-like symbols that represent their language. And the score by Johann Johannsson is haunting and mysterious, just as it is evocative.

Amy Adams makes contact in Arrival
Most surprising is that this film is not what you expect it to be. For some, they may be expecting a slam-bang sci-fi thriller with high-octane action and gripping drama a la District 9 (2009). For others, it may be an entertaining journey a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). But Villeneuve (Prisoners, 2013; Sicario, 2015) is more interested in the human aspect of his first-contact story. His main objective (as well as unconventional approach) is the illustration of communication, language and understanding, as well as regret, memory, time, and learning to live again. As one character says, "There are days that define your story beyond your life, like the day they arrived." That same character later asks, "If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?"


Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special
Midnight Special opens in a hotel room, with tape and cardboard covering the windows. A boy hides under a blanket, wearing blue goggles and reading a Superman comic book. Two adult guardians (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) get ready to go late at night and hit the highway, in a sequence that set the stage for the gripping, intense, and engrossing events on the way.

This science-fiction drama about a father (Roy Tomlan) and son (Alton Meyer) on the run from government agents as well as cult members has the elements that make up a worthy chase movie, as Alton shows he has extra-terrestrial powers (light beaming from his eyes and hands, hence the goggles, and catching radio signals), and Roy's objective is to get him to a specific place at a specific time on a Friday ahead.

Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, and
Joel Edgerton in Midnight Special
Other characters besides Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and Roy (Shannon, in a riveting and devoted performance) include his friend and former officer Lucas (Edgerton), the ranch leader (Sam Shephard), NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), and Alton's mother (Kirsten Dunst). This is a terrific, impeccable cast in a provocative story of faith, fatherhood, and pursuit of the unknown. In fact, as Arrival is, at its center, a mother-daughter story, Midnight Special is very much a father-son story, with real human drama and mystery that is perhaps stronger than the equally brilliant dialogue and script.

The motif of light is prevalent throughout, and suggests many different meanings, such as how it tells of people's places in the world, as well as what man-made religions (like the cult/ranch) make of it. (In fact, one interrogator in a scene makes an accusation that the ranch's "sermons" contain mysterious encryptions and/or coordinances to the aforementioned time and place.) The way Alton reveals light in his eyes and hands illustrates the intense phenomena that occurs, as it does when meteors crash at a totally unexpected moment, and the way he reacts to the sun. It's also interesting the way Nichols (who also directed Shannon in Take Shelter, 2011, and Mud, 2013) incorporates Superman comics into this story and raises all kinds of questions. Is the sun Alton's "kryptonite"? What is the significance of the date and time they are heading towards? Is there a place beyond our own where there are others like Alton? Perhaps guardian angels? What will happen when Roy lets his son go?

Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special
This theme of new life and a world beyond our own (and perhaps facing fears) recalls the type of world Gandalf describes to Pippin during a moment of doubt in The Return of the King. Furthermore, it exemplifies the question of what doesn't last long and what does (this world or our own?). There are certain elements from E.T. and Close Encounters that Nichols pays subtle homage to, yet he makes them completely his own, especially during what many may perceive as a pretentious moment. Yet, said moment illustrates this aforementioned theme very well. It's as if M83's track (and accompanied music video) "Midnight City" were made into a feature film. And a very restrained and mysterious one, at that.

WRITER'S NOTE: A featurette for this film can be found on YouTube titled, "Shine a Light" (watch here) while a track over the credits, titled "Midnight Special," contains the lyrics, "Shine a light on me."

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