Review of “Arrival”

Are we alone in the Universe? It’s a question that has been asked practically since the first conscious human looked up at the night sky filled with stars. Throughout history the answer has varied between “we are alone” to “maybe there’s someone out there.” Now after the discoveries of thousands of planets orbiting other stars by the Kepler space probe the answer is almost certainly “there must be other intelligent life out there.” With hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable universe each with hundreds of billions of stars the probability of at least one world with intelligent life must be high. It makes speculating about what that life might look like, how it would communicate, how far has their technology advanced and the myriad other questions rather overwhelming. Just as head spinning is contemplating how our world would react to the sudden appearance of intelligent extraterrestrial creatures landing in various locations around the planet. Would we welcome them with open arms? Would we prepare for war? Would there be panic in the streets and suicides of those that see the visitors as harbingers of the End Times? With the vast distances between stars and the apparent impossibility of faster than light travel we’ll probably never know for sure if there’s someone up there looking back in our direction wondering if there’s anyone else in the universe. But what if that question was answered for us with the appearance of 12 otherworldly spacecraft showing up in random places around the world? What would we do?

The world is thrown into a panic by the appearance of 12 unidentified flying objects landing in 12 different areas on the planet. Every 18 hours a door opens at the bottom of each craft allowing access to the interior. A breathable atmosphere and appropriate gravity is provided for those that wish to enter. One of the spacecraft has landed in Montana and the Army and CIA have set up a research base nearby. Linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is approached by the Army’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help the government decipher the strange language of the aliens. They bring her and astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to the site and tell them to get to work on figuring out why the aliens are here and what they want. Starting slowly with simple words and concepts, Banks and Donnelly begin to figure out the complicated symbols the aliens use for communication. Other countries around the world are also working to figure out how to communicate with the creatures, referred to as Heptapods because of their seven legs, and all the scientists are connected and sharing information. When the Chinese translate a message from the Heptapods as “use weapon” they take it as a threat and plan on destroying the ship. Other nations also begin preparations for an attack and communications is cut off amongst all the scientists. Banks believes the alien language is far more complicated and “weapon” could mean “tool” depending on the context. Banks is also experiencing vivid dreams and hallucinations. She must work fast to decipher what the aliens mean in order to prevent a possible war.

“Arrival” is a complex film that almost defies description. This is in part because too much information about the story will ruin what is a deliciously complex narrative structure. While it seems perfectly normal to start, the longer the movie goes the more confused you may get. All I can do is encourage you to stay with it and pay attention as the payoff of all the twistiness is well worth it.

“Arrival” has no death ray guns and no space battles but what it does have is the kind of speculative and smart science fiction that is difficult to pull off and far too rare. This is the kind of movie that knows it will split the audience into two camps: Those that love it and those that hate it with very few people in the middle and I definitely fall on the love it side.

For all the scientific mumbo-jumbo, the story is far more personal and down-to-earth than one might expect. The focus of the film is how this experience is taking an emotional toll on Banks and in a broader sense the rest of the world. Banks is buried in her work and ignoring all the political pressure building around her until the world is about to boil over in violence. Fear of the unknown other also affects the soldiers at the base leading to an act of violence. It is a less than subtle metaphor for the political situation in some countries forced to deal with the realities of Syrian civil war refugees, terrorism and the rise of nationalism. If filming hadn’t taken place in mid-2015 you’d think it was a product of the times.

Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are all fantastic in their roles. None is flashy or over the top in their portrayal of people faced with a situation for which none of us could be prepared. The acting is subtle, controlled and believable. You may not like the decisions or attitudes of the characters all the time but you can’t argue that any of them behave in a way that isn’t consistent with the story or with what we know about them.

“Arrival” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. There is only widely scattered foul language.

I like how the story of “Arrival” doesn’t explain everything even when we reach the end. There are questions to contemplate about how any of us would deal with the outcome of our first alien encounter as well as the larger questions posed by the movie. A person in the audience at the showing I saw asked the people she was with, “What was this movie about?” If she had asked me I would have said it’s about practically anything your mind wants to construct from what you’ve seen. For many far less well constructed films that would be a negative; but with “Arrival” it is a compliment. It’s the kind of film that could have multiple meanings figured out with each viewing. A movie that makes you think beyond its running time: What a bizarre concept.

“Arrival” gets five guitars and I insist you see it immediately!

There are five new movies in theatres this week running the gamut from coming-of-age angst to post-war stress. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—

Bleed For This—

The Edge of Seventeen—

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—


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Review of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”

After witnessing the massive destruction in Metropolis and aiding in the rescue of some of his employees, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) who also fights crime across the bay in Gotham City as Batman, decides measures need to be taken to protect the citizens of Earth from a being who could conceivably destroy it. Alexander “Lex” Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) agrees and uses his considerable power and wealth to gain access to the spaceship that brought General Zod (Michael Shannon) and the other Kryptonians to Earth believing there may be a way to defend against Superman (Henry Cavill) amongst its technology. Lex has also been scouring the sights where other alien technology crashed and has discovered a large glowing green rock of kryptonite. Lex knows it will weaken and possibly kill Superman and so does Batman. Meanwhile, Kentucky Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter) is holding hearings on Superman and his actions, caused by his rescue of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from an African warlord and the deaths of several innocent villagers. Looking to gain information about Lex and his involvement in criminal activities, Bruce Wayne attends a reception at Lex’s home. While there he runs into Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) who has taken a piece of technology Bruce was using to spy on Lex. With Bruce distrustful of a super powered alien and Lex Luthor plotting and pulling strings in the background, the stage is set for a showdown of massive proportions with the last son of Krypton.

Very few movies have been as highly anticipated as “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Ever since it was announced at San Diego Comic Con in 2013, fan boys and the internet clamored for the tiniest nugget of news, set photos and fuzzy cell phone footage. The film, the kickoff of DC /Warner Bros. Pictures extended movie universe, was obviously an attempt to cash in on the comic book movie craze started by Marvel/Disney. However, instead of introducing one character at a time in their own stand-alone movies like Marvel/Disney did, DC/Warner Bros. decided to give us three of the heaviest hitters in their line up in one movie: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. These characters and the story of the movie are meant to set up 10 or more films featuring Aquaman, Cyborg, Flash, Green Lantern and Shazam along with the super team of Justice League. I expected tons of CG special effects, explosions, destruction and the titular fight between Batman and Superman; but what I didn’t expect was such a plodding, tedious, convoluted and largely ineffective goulash of a movie.

While there isn’t much that’s good about “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” I will start with what I liked. All the worries about Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman were unfounded. Affleck handles the dual role as well as a script this bad can allow. Affleck treats both Bruce and the Bat as individuals. His performance is nuanced in a way that creates a clear division between the two even when Bruce is doing some detecting and Batman is trying to be caring and compassionate in a scene near the film’s end. Affleck may not have been everyone’s choice when his casting was announced (myself included) but he shows he’s worthy of the cape and cowl.

Gal Gadot’s casting as Wonder Woman also received a fair amount of fanboy hate; however, she also is very good. Able to be sultry as Diana Prince and a kickass warrior as Wonder Woman, Gadot’s performance should silence most of her critics. While she doesn’t have that much screen time as either character she makes quite an impression nonetheless.

Not everyone comes off as well as Affleck and Gadot as Jesse Eisenberg makes some odd and unfortunate choices in his performance as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg, either by choice or direction, turns Lex into something of a rambling madman. He gives a nearly incoherent toast at a fundraiser held at his home that sounded like he was having a mental breakdown or a stroke. His interactions with people are filled with odd and inappropriate gestures, such as putting a piece of candy in a senator’s mouth. Lex is super intelligent and obscenely wealthy but he has some serious daddy issues and a wildly inflated sense of self-importance. All these things go into making an interesting super villain but the external choices made in playing the role turn Lex into mostly a distraction rather than a threat.

Henry Cavill continues to play Clark Kent/Superman as seriously as he did in “Man of Steel.” His role in this film is nearly relegated to that of supporting player as the movie focuses primarily on Batman. Cavill is a perfect physical choice to play Superman. He may not be the best actor but he certainly has the face and body for the role. Cavill and Amy Adams still share absolutely no chemistry as a romantic couple. Their one scene where they are supposed to be playful together in a bathtub is rather uncomfortable to watch. Adams sometimes looks like she isn’t sure what to do despite her role largely being limited to either that of a supportive or concerned girlfriend to an alien.

The rest of the cast does as well as can be expected with the only standout being Jeremy Irons as Alfred. Irons manages to be a voice of reason and snark to Bruce Wayne. While Bruce usually ignores Alfred’s advice Irons delivers his lines with both a sense of concern and thoughtfulness.

The story of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is extraordinarily complicated. What it boils down to is Batman doesn’t trust Superman, Lex doesn’t like either of them so he plots to insure they battle and kill each other. That simple plan gets rolled up into congressional hearings, human trafficking, African terrorists, Russian mobsters, alien monsters and more. Wading through the labyrinthine plot will test the attention and endurance of most moviegoers. The jumpy editing doesn’t help make the story any more coherent. Scenes start and end abruptly with sudden changes of location, tone and character. It makes it so the audience is getting yanked in multiple directions for no apparent reason. It all combines to turn what should have been a fun and exciting movie into a torture test that takes childhood memories of our heroes and grinds them into dust.

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality. There are numerous fights of various types throughout the film. Some are more violent and graphic than others. Guns and knives are uses and we see people shot and stabbed but there is no blood or gore. We see Superman use his heat vision to kill people in a dream sequence but that is also not graphic. One character is shown being impaled through the chest. The bathtub scene is the sensuality of the film although Gal Gadot does wear some revealing dresses as Diana Prince. Foul language amounts to two instances that I remember and both are mild.

I generally base my reviews on how entertaining I found the film. In this instance, I am tying my level of entertainment to a bodily function that I will keep as clinical as possible. When I saw “The Dark Knight” with a running time of two hours and 32 minutes I needed to go relieve myself pretty urgently by the end but wasn’t in any hurry for the movie to be over because I loved it so much. When I saw “The Avengers” in 2012 it clocked in at two hours and 23 minutes and by the end I had a full bladder. While I could feel the need to go to the bathroom, I didn’t care as I was mesmerized by what I saw on screen and didn’t want it to end. By the end of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” my bladder was again full but I was more than grateful for the film to be over so I could take care of business. If a film can’t take my mind off the need to go to the bathroom then it doesn’t have my attention and it hasn’t been entertaining. It may be a crude method of determining the quality of a movie but it is rather accurate.

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” gets one star.

This week there is only one new film in wide release so a couple of art house movies are on the radar. I’ll see and review at least one of these:

God’s Not Dead 2—

Hello, My Name is Doris—

Knight of Cups—

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