By John H. Foote
In 1977 my younger brother Steve and I made the trip into Toronto to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) opening day at the old York Cinemas. Over two hours later we emerged from the theatre into the warm winter sun, stunned by what we had just experienced. TV cameras were everywhere as interviewers were talking to people outside the cinema and we overheard a lady say, “it was like seeing God” and we looked at each other and nodded, she had summed up the film. Perfect. Spielberg’s film was a superb work about aliens contacting man, to let us know they are there, to return those they had abducted, and to communicate. The last 40 minutes of the film are filled with awe and wonder, I remember watching through a haze of tears as man made a connection with little aliens whose intelligence vastly surpassed ours.
Think about that for a second. For a race to find us, their intellect would be far superior to ours because we have not come close to finding them yet, hell, there are still people who do not believe they even exist. For mankind to be the only intelligent species in the vast universe, does that not seem like a colossal waste of space to you? And how unspeakably arrogant to even think that. My thoughts? Hang on to your hats, and no, I am not loopy. I have been reading the works of Von Daniken since I was twelve. I believe intelligent alien beings have already been here, centuries ago, putting in motion the building of the pyramids, which even today our greatest minds cannot build, the Aztec pyramids, and for whatever reason they stopped coming, maybe they had done all they could us and left us to screw things up on our own, wanting no part of the small minded human beings they tried to help. Who knows? Ancient writings on walls, sketches by early civilizations that resemble todays astronauts, beings descending from the heavens in fiery chariots, think on it and give it its due. How did they conjure these things? Plain and simple, they drew what they saw.
Most films that deal with aliens, show them as humanoid beasties coming here to kick our ass, mine our planet and exterminate us. The original War of the Worlds (1953), and Steven Spielberg’s terrifying remake of that film with 9/11 allegorical messages, both versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956/1978), Independence Day (1996) and its recent terrible sequel show the creatures as malevolent, evil and hellbent on wiping us out.
It has been just three years since the release of Arrival, a film I first screened at TIFF in the opulent Princess of Wales Theatre. It was the second of two Amy Adams I saw that day, the first being Nocturnal Animals. I have never shaken Arrival, and after pulling it off the shelf a couple of nights ago, had to revisit the picture.
Arrival, the haunting and powerful film from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, is similar to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, yet in many ways more intelligent, realistic and a deeper, more resonant experience. I am not sure it as awe inspiring, but it does inspire reverence and wonder, and is a very human experience. Where Spielberg’s fine film was a visual effects show for the last third, Arrival never is, the effects are subtle, the sound haunting, the creatures not the least bit humanoid but rather large, lumbering tentacled beings who make sounds like a whale and write their language with an ink like substance that is ejected from their tentacles.
Louise (Amy Adams) is a gifted linguist, one of the most respected in the world, and who has worked for the military from time to time. When 12 alien crafts land on earth, actually hovering a few feet above, she is asked by the army to help decipher their language. Apparently reeling from the wound of losing a daughter to cancer, she is not sure she is up for it, having also lost her husband, who could not deal with her pain, or his, and left. However, she agrees and terrified, she is flown to the site where the craft has landed. Briefed quickly when she gets there, she is told the craft has a door that opens every eighteen hours for the humans to go in, but only for a short time. They think it is to make the air breathable for the humans though they are not sure. Hyperventilating, scared out of her mind, Louise is taken to the ship with a science expert portrayed by Jeremy Renner, they go up so far and then levitate the rest of the way to an area set up like a viewing window, a thick piece of glass separating them from us.
And then they come, large lumbering creatures, who work with Louise to communicate. The men watch in wonder as she slowly breaks down their symbols, and breaks down their language. Fascinated with them, the question on everyone’s mind is why are they here?
Amy Adams has been a force of nature in the acting world since breaking through in Catch Me If You Can (2002) for director Steven Spielberg. Academy Award nominations for Junebug (2005), Doubt (2008), The Fighter (2010), The Master (2012), American Hustle (2013) and Vice (2018) with performances that should have been nominated in the wonderful Enchanted (2007), Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008) and Big Eyes (2014), she is among the most celebrated actresses of her generation. Her performance as Louise is magnificent, her eyes seeing what we see, hearing what we hear, and feeling what we feel. She never telegraphs what we are supposed to feel, hear or see, instead she just inhabits the character in every way, reacting to the circumstances beautifully. It is a complex and rich performance, among the year’s best and should have landed the actress in this year’s Oscar race.
Watch closely for clues about a connection she has to those around her and the creatures and the bending of time, it really is quite extraordinary. There is so much more going on than one expects. Is it a thinking film? Absolutely, but not in a condescending manner, you simply must listen and pay attention. Nothing is quite as it appears to be, time is altered and bent throughout the film.
Villeneuve, who directed the superb drug cartel thriller Sicario (2015) creates a film that is both wonderous and yet oddly disturbing. What is it they want? Why are some of the soldiers so concerned and genuinely worried? Why is Louise not? The little moments he creates are what make the film and gives it its intense humanity; the way Louise gently strokes the outside of the ship, touching something created by a race millions of light years away from us, the manner in which she suddenly takes off her mask, to reveal herself to them as they have to us, displaying to them great trust, and her genuine joy at mastering their language bring such a welcome realism to the film we are drawn in with her. The director does a masterful job creating realism surrounding what would be the greatest event in the history of the human race, yet also allows for the fantasy element and for us to experience wonder.
Jeremy Renner is fine as the scientist who means more to her than we realize, and Forest Whitaker is terrific as the head of the military operation, but the film belongs to Adams who anchors it with her fine, intelligent performance.
The score is less music than a series of sounds, tones almost that often make the movie a tone poem, if that makes sense. There is so much going on within the film, underneath the narrative, it might take two viewings to understand all that is left unsaid or to be figured out.
Arrival is a breathtaking film that gently strokes our souls with its heartfelt humanity…a masterpiece and easily among the decade’s best films. I cannot close the piece without stating Amy Adams was snubbed for a Best Actress nomination for her riveting performance, one of the most significant snubs in modern Oscar history. While the film received nominations for Best Picture and Director, the performance which was its heart and soul was ignored.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.