Arrival

I don’t know’s on third

arrivalDenis Villeneuve’s Arrival is probably the best first contact movie I’ve ever seen.  There’s no abduction, no galactic civil war, no silly “grays,” and no sainted white man who has to save the Earth.  In fact, there’s only one real character: Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is summoned to translate the language of an alien race that has recently landed spacecraft in disparate locations across the globe.  Despite the fact that the militaries of every nation have more or less quarantined the “shells” from the public, conflict doesn’t seem imminent; everyone still thinks it would be a good idea to see what the aliens want first.

Louise’s present narrative, in which she teams with physicist Ian Donnelly  (Jeremy Renner), straightforward military grunt Weber (Forest Whitaker), and antagonistic CIA stooge David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) to communicate with the aliens before the rest of the world – particularly China and their de facto leader, hair-trigger General Shang (Tzi Ma) – decides that it would be less trouble to open fire, is percussed by intermittent visions of her daughter’s life.  The flashbacks (or are they?) begin with a joyous birth, meaningful moments, and all the stuff you expect from movies-apologizing-for-reality montages, but then it becomes clear that Louise’s daughter, Hannah, died in adolescence from an inoperable cancer.  The past seems to weigh heavily on Louise, who struggles for the freedom to work in the quarantined shell zone, which is kept air-tight by the army.

The aliens themselves, called “heptapods” for their seven limbs, are one of the film’s greatest achievements, visually and in terms of originality.  Absent are the expected bipedal war-monger aliens who either possess convenient translators or just want to rip into us instead of talking.  The heptapods, who are so alien I can barely describe them (maybe picture a benevolent, organic version of Mass Effect‘s “Reapers”) speak in some kind of starfish language, but actually communicate via their writing system, which is more or less a magical ink that hangs in the air for a moment, and then vanishes.  Louise, chosen for a reason, slowly begins to break down this system and learns to introduce herself to the aliens, then to ask them simple questions, deciding to hold off on the “big one,” which is of course “Why are you here?”

I call Louise the only character because the others, while competently performed, exist to provide assorted foils to her.  She’s the one whose thoughts matter, whose struggle is real, and whose painful memories we have access to.  Whitaker’s character just wants to get this job finished and go home, preferably without getting court-marshaled for letting Louise go too far (though it is a bit convenient that she ended up supervised by someone so understanding, rather than Petraeus or Major Paine or some shit).  Stuhlbarg’s character is there because there needs to be an asshole government employee who reaches his boiling point before anyone else (and if Boardwalk Empire taught us anything, it’s that Michael Stuhlbarg is good at being reserved for a long time and then exploding).  Jeremy Renner isn’t actually in the film too much, which isn’t a bad thing, as his character isn’t important (honestly, for all Donnelly is good for, he could have been played by an extra whose face you never see – he serves the same purpose as Topher Grace’s character in Interstellar, although that movie seems extraordinarily silly compared to this one).

The titular “arrival” really has nothing to do with aliens.  Consider the fact that the source material is a novella called “Story of Your Life.” As it turns out (spoilers ahead), the heptapods do not even experience time the same way we do.  Instead, they experience all time periods at once, knowing from the time they are born exactly how and when they will die.  They’ve come to Earth because they have foreseen an undisclosed cataclysm that will impact them in three thousand years, and already know that they will need the help of humans to deal with it (sidenote: I’m not sure they should bank on humans being around for that long).  Therefore, they’ve come to Earth to gain our trust now.  In order to communicate this to the rest of the world, however, Louise needs to absorb this ability from the heptapods, and essentially travel to the future to stop Shang from obliterating China’s heptapod shell.  The kicker: that’s what we’ve been experiencing the whole time.  The visions of Hannah haven’t happened yet.

While the film is saying something about free will, it isn’t just asking whether you’d take the same path if you knew what was going to happen to you in the future (although it asks Louise to make that choice).  In a film like Another Earth, where a mirror planet’s versions of all of us have followed the same narrative right up until becoming aware of one another (essentially saying that we were all slaves to our destiny until that moment) Arrival (and its source story) assert that free will means not changing the timeline when tempted to.  In the original story, these ideas are conveyed via tenses – future tense for the daughter visions, past tense for the heptapod interactions – but you don’t have to study Fermat’s Principle to get it: Louise’s choice to conceive Hannah despite knowing how the girl’s life will end confirms the existence of choice itself, and that such a thing can seem monumental in the face of an inevitable future space war is amazing. Would we call it a “pro-choice” film, then?

arrival2c_movie_posterArrival (2016); based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang; screenplay by Eric Heisserer; directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Amy Adams.

 

 

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The Bourne Legacy

Nobody makes it over the mountain

The Bourne Legacy is a better film than the trailers may let on.  In fact, it’s a good deal better than either Supremacy or Ultimatum,wherein Matt Damon ran from one obscure European locale to another to escape something, presumably the contrived writing that resulted in the unforgivable demise of his romantic partner (Franka Potente) after the sweet and satisfying ending of the original film (which, for the record, also resulted in Damon claiming there wouldn’t be another Bourne film – just sayin’) as well as the inexplicable casting of Karl Urban as a Russian killing machine whom Bourne can’t bring himself to finish off even to avenge his girlfriend, adopting an attitude not so different from Bruce Wayne’s in The Dark Knight Rises, which materializes over and over again in the tiring finale of the trilogy.  Things went differently than I’d anticipated this time.

Legacy‘s Boring Hero is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), one of the nine super-soldiers in the same program as Bourne – Blackbriar, Treadstone, Outcome, one of those.  There’s a lot of nonsensical jargon between the CIA characters, present only to make the film seem heady and important, but since this is a summer blockbuster, it can’t be too overbearing and the audience’s understanding of every detail doesn’t much matter (including memories of the original trilogy, since Damon’s character is only mentioned twice and wasn’t acquainted with Cross).  The film begins with Cross climbing over a snow-scalped mountain and attempting to survive travel through a winter-bitten forest while a pack of wolves follows him; his reasons for being in the wild are never completely explained, but he soon meets a character credited as Number Three, played by Oscar Isaac, probably pound-for-pound the film’s best actor despite being even more underused than he was in Refn’s Drive from last year.  Number Three is an operative also in the program, and Cross, who has lost his supply of the medicine on which his kind depend for physical ability and mental clarity, seeks help.  Unbeknownst to either of them, however, the CIA has decided to shut down its black ops programs after the Jason Bourne debacle, and begins eliminating its field agents one by one by way of a dubious operation led by Eric Byer (Edward Norton).  This is Aaron Cross’s cue to continue Bourne’s tradition of running away from stuff for two hours.

But wait.  The film stars an effective deuteragonist named Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor who researches and administers the program’s meds without any knowledge of what her subjects (people like Bourne and Cross) actually do.  Unfortunately, part of the CIA’s initiative is to eliminate doctors like Shearing along with the agents they medicate, and one of her coworkers, Dr. Foite (Zeljko Ivanek, to whom I frequently refer as “The Canadian” after his In Bruges character), goes berserk (likely under the CIA’s orders) and executes everyone in the lab in an effectively harrowing display of violence.  After a great scene in which a CIA “psychiatrist” comes to Shearing’s house to finish the job, Shearing meets up with Cross and they travel to the manufacturer of the program’s meds (arbitrarily located in the Philippines), where Shearing will be able to relieve Cross of his drug dependency for good.

To the film’s detriment is the juxtaposition between fake-brainy dialogue and pure spoken exposition.  When a character we’ve never seen before panics about the situation, another answers, “You’re the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.  Act like it!”  These scenes are wedged between the important ones, which feature the thinly-developed relationship between Cross and Shearing, saved by Weisz’s superb dramatic acting and Renner’s occasional attempts to appear as though he gives a damn.  Everything in between is overwritten and the numerous CIA characters wear out their welcome and usefulness very early on, and putting the effort into keeping track of who they are results in very little payoff (personally, I couldn’t shake how much one of them looked like Rush Limbaugh).  There are confusing jump-cuts during fight scenes (such that which arms and legs belong to whom becomes a bit of a mystery) and the shaky-cam technique is consistent with the most dizzying cinematography from the originals.

But wait!  The movie uses supporting characters (aside from Isaac) well, and the colorful queue of assassins who comes after Cross and Shearing brings back pleasant memories of The Bourne Identity, wherein a pre-stardom Clive Owen played a ruthless killer called The Professor, who has become a fan favorite of the series.  The denouement includes a tender (but non-romantic) scene between Cross and Shearing in which Cross becomes a protagonist we can actually root for, and the extended chase climax with Cross’s final foil, an operative from a rival program called LARX (Louis Ozawa Changchien) is thoroughly exciting and has an ending perfect enough that I forgave the more preposterous motorcycle antics.

The Bourne Legacy serves the same purpose as the fourth Pirates of the Carribbean film did: a final breath/second wind for a franchise bloated by Hollywood execs and studio overwriting.  This is a rare case, though, in which the breath is actually satisfying.  Renner’s character is less boring and loud and confused than Damon’s, and a tough, intelligent woman participates in the action (not to mention saves Cross’s life multiple times).  Ed Norton’s one-note government villain wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it weren’t for his own versatility as an actor: look at his performance as the lovely, sympathetic scout leader in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, also from this summer’s lineup.

The film has a definite ending.  Our heroes are safe, Cross seems to stop thinking long enough to relax, and the credits roll over a refreshing shot of a sparkling harbor.  The final scene offers a sequel possibility, but it doesn’t much feel like it wants or needs one.  As the true spiritual successor of the first Bourne film, Legacy truly feels like a bookend; any more and you’re just spilling ink on the back cover.

The Bourne Legacy (2012); written and directed by Tony Gilroy; inspired by Robert Ludlum’s novels; starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Wiesz, and Edward Norton.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

What happened to Maggie Q?

Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol makes a few more good moves than it does bad ones. It’s funny in the right ways, well-paced, well-acted, jives with the series’ continuity (mostly), and its length makes you feel like you’re in it for the long haul with its characters.  And as I said in my Knight and Day review, Tom Cruise and I are “okay” now, so I felt like I could go in with an impartial mind (despite, as always, knowing what I was getting myself into).

The film begins with a Surprise Demise when IMF agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway, in his first film role since starring on Lost) is whacked by femme fatale Sabine Moreau (the prolific Léa Seydoux) in Budapest in the midst of recovering nuclear launch codes.  Hanaway’s supervisor and lover, Jane Carter (Paula Patton) then runs an operation to rescue IMF frontman Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from prison.  Why he’s there, we’re not yet told, but he seems to know exactly what’s going on.

In an effort to regain the launch codes from projected terrorist Curt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), Hunt reassembles his IMF team while being pursued as a criminal by Russian intelligence.  Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who debuted in Mission: Impossible III, returns, and along with William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst who doubles as a super-agent, joins Hunt and Carter as a four-member rogue cell determined to stop Hendricks from starting nuclear war.

The global stakes are higher than they’ve been in any M:I, and somehow things seem personal, too.  Hunt and Carter have both lost friends.  The team’s exploits take them to the beautiful Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, where Tom Cruise performs a stunt that may qualify him as clinically insane.  The film continues the traditions of the “face maker” device and the in-and-out-without-anyone-knowing-we-were-there schemes of the TV show, which didn’t truly surface in the films until the third installment.

The most egregious offense the film commits is cast abuse, which is par for the course when an action movie is given an ensemble cast.  Michael Nyqvist, one of Sweden’s great actors (who starred as Mikael Blomqvist in Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) plays the main villain, but is given less to do than his henchmen.  Josh Holloway, who won a Saturn Award for Best Actor on Television, is given a character we’re allowed to grab hold of, but is eliminated before the opening credits.  Léa Seydoux plays the most interesting villain, a French assassin with whom the film’s deuteragonist has a vendetta, but she’s disposed of halfway through the film, leaving us with the underdeveloped “main” bad guys, who, after the amazingly well-crafted, acted and edited scene on the Burj Khalifa, seem like leftovers.  None of them compare to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain, Owen Davian, from the third film.  Ving Rhames, the only actor to appear in every M:I film aside from Cruise, thankfully appears, but only in a cameo, as does Michelle Monaghan, who plays Hunt’s wife, Julia, a major character in film three and a plot device in this one.  Tom Wilkinson appears as the IMF Secretary, a character never seen before, who gets one short scene.  Again, why?

In addition, the continuity takes a turn for the confusing when Hunt claims “the four of us are all that’s left of the IMF.”  You can chalk it up to the entire team being disavowed because of certain spoilery events, but what happened to Laurence Fishburn’s IMF boss from M:I 3?  How about Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who played Hunt’s loyal team members in that film?  The movie seems to want us to remember them, going so far as using the exact same shot for Paula Patton getting out of a car that J.J. Abrams used in the previous film when Maggie Q, in an equally eye-popping getup, exited a car to perform very much the same role in the operation that Carter does here.

Some have complained to me about the overt humor and gadget absurdity, but lest we forget, the linchpin of the TV series was the sci-fi gadgetry.  When a film in the action genre tries to take itself too seriously, it begins to skirt self-parody, and Bird wisely avoids this, though it’s easily achieved by giving Simon Pegg tons of lines.

In a nice twist, the film also refers even to the first film in the series.  Somehow, Bird found the actor who played Max’s (Vanessa Redgrave) Fabio-lookalike bodyguard in the original movie, who forced Hunt to wear a black mask while meeting with his boss, an arms dealer.  Hunt meets with a different arms dealer in this one, and is confronted with the same black mask by the same bodyguard, who regards Hunt with a charmingly knowing eye.

Stumbling here and there, the film is worth its run time.  The actors don’t all get their due, and the tone is sharply changed from that of the first film, but it’s the only installment in the series to feature a fight between two important female characters (a barefoot scrap on the umpteen hundredth floor of the Burj Khalifa).  The wisest move in the film, though?  Using a hyphen instead of two colons.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol; written by André Nemec and Josh Applebaum; directed by Brad Bird; starring Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner.