Nocturnal Animals is a well-acted character study with an unconventional structure

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On its surface, Nocturnal Animals is telling two different stories. The primary story takes place in reality, wherein Susan, a successful artist, is going through a crisis as she begins to question the life she’s chosen to lead. Her marriage is falling apart, and a chance to rekindle with her ex-husband brings back painful memories for her. The secondary story is about a man seeking justice for his murdered wife and daughter, which is entirely fictional within the context of the film. Both stories are vastly different in ways that are both obvious and not.

It’s clear that the two stories are driving together to reach a point. In Susan’s story, we explore her relationship with her first husband and how exactly it fell apart. It’s shown that Susan and Edward are two completely different people who have fewer things in common than they would like to admit. In spite of this, they get married, but it isn’t long before Susan begins to get frustrated with the situation. She takes a drastic step to officially end her marriage to Edward by having an affair with another man and doing something unforgivable.

The secondary story comes in the form of a manuscript entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ sent to Susan by Edward. It is violent, disturbing, and intense, which feels at complete odds with Susan’s own story. It isn’t until the end of the film, however (or earlier if you’re perceptive) that it becomes obvious that the two stories are somehow one instead of two separate entities altogether. Earlier in the film, it’s shown that Edward has dedicated the tragic story of a man’s suffering in the face of violence to Susan, which is a bit odd. But when we discover their entire history together, it becomes clear. Susan didn’t just end her marriage to Edward by having an affair. She also ended it by having Edward’s child inside her aborted. Although she had no intentions of ever telling this fact to Edward, he discovers it anyway.

In the film’s last scene, Susan waits for Edward at their agreed meeting place. Edward never shows up. She has finished reading the manuscript at this point, but it’s only in the face of Edward failing to show up that Susan understands why the violent story was dedicated to her. Susan has never truly understood the full extent of how much she hurt Edward until that very moment. It’s why it’s no accident that Susan imagined Edward in the role of the husband in the story, who eventually kills himself after finally taking justice in his own hands. All along Nocturnal Animals was an allegory to Edward’s marriage to Susan and how it ended. It sounds extreme and melodramatic, but it rings true for both of them.

This is why Susan’s crisis begins almost immediately after getting the manuscript. Having indirect contact with Edward after so many years brings up not only the painful memories, but the guilt that she buried as well. And although the film doesn’t paint her in a sympathetic light, we understand her character fully. We might vehemently disapprove of her actions and her selfishness, but we can understand why she chose to do these things.

But despite the film’s excellent character study of Susan, it falls flat in some of its execution. Having an entirely different story serve as an allegory sounds good on paper, but the film falls a bit short in this regard. For one thing, the fictional story of Nocturnal Animals never really draws you in. It’s well-acted and intense, but you can never shake off the feeling that you’re watching something completely made up that ultimately has no impact. There are times when it feels superfluous, managing to distract from the far more interesting story of Susan’s regrets about her past decisions. Perhaps the Nocturnal Animals story isn’t really  meant to be treated as seriously as the “real” story of the film, but it takes up such a significant portion of the film that it can’t really be ignored. There’s a sense that this allegorical tale is getting too unwieldy and complex for the film’s own good.

Even worse, I don’t think the dramatic point of the Nocturnal Animals story was even worth it. I can’t help but wonder what a film that entirely consists of just Susan would look like. I feel as if there was enough material for her character to support an entire movie by itself. It doesn’t help that the Nocturnal Animals story was so straightforward and simplistic. Maybe I had unrealistic expectations of a story within a story, but it was simply too one-dimensional. This wouldn’t have been too much of a problem but the film is structured in a way that makes you see the Nocturnal Animals story as standing on its own, which doesn’t really work.

Still, it’s refreshing to see a film with an atypical narrative structure like Nocturnal Animals. For all its shortcomings, it’s an experience that challenges the conventional and largely succeeds at it. Most noteworthy of all are the performances that bring the two stories to life in intensely memorable ways. The cast manages to bring a grounded realism to a film that doesn’t necessarily have all the tools and expertise to achieve its lofty ambitions.

7/10

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Hidden Figures is a good, if unremarkable, biographical film of an important piece of overlooked American history

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It’s easy to dismiss Hidden Figures as just another manufactured but effective way to grab some awards attention. In many ways it is, because the film hits all the right marks that would make it a strong contender for garnering nominations in major award shows. It’s pleasant, inoffensive, and safe. There’s a clear struggle in the film that the characters must overcome, and they do so in a way that is genuinely inspirational instead of cynical. Hidden Figures is definitely all of these things, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Perhaps the biggest praise that can be given to the film (apart from the performances) is what it isn’t. First and foremost, it isn’t preachy. It comes close to it, but just when you think it’s going to jump over that thin line between being meaningful and being forced, the film shows restraint at just the right moment. Similarly, it provides just the right amount of sentimentality without going into melodramatic territory. All of this might sound like praises with huge caveats attached to them, but for a film like Hidden Figures that’s trying to send out an important message, it’s high praise indeed. No one likes being preached to, and  Hidden Figures thankfully doesn’t do that. It realizes that its message is already important and doesn’t feel the need to overdramatize things, thereby insulting its audience and overshadowing its message at the same time.

It should also be taken into consideration that Hidden Figures is almost like a family film for all ages. If there’s one demographic that could benefit greatly from the film’s message, it’s the children, particularly African American girls. But at the same time, the film is about mathematicians doing complicated calculations at NASA, which is hardly the type of story that would keep a child or teenager’s attention. There will be exceptions of course, but in general the film isn’t necessarily friendly to a younger audience in terms of its premise. What’s obvious is that the filmmakers have tried to make Hidden Figures at least appeal to them by giving it a more upbeat and heartwarming tone, which they succeed at.

All his, unfortunately, comes at the price of the film being unable to take the story a step further due to its self-imposed limitations. It gives enough gravitas to the more adult themes of racism that can be easily grasped by children, but this sometimes results in oversimplifying its themes to achieve the goal of being accessible to people of all ages. The final product is an overbearingly safe but pleasant film that neither fails nor succeeds at being extraordinary. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means that Hidden Figures is hardly going to become a memorable piece of cinema for years to come.

Maybe this is what the film needed to be in order to achieve all of its important goals, but I don’t think a film has to be average in order to be inspirational for all ages. Regardless, Hidden Figures does manage to be inspirational, because the struggles of the three lead characters can be universally understood. And the film’s success will hopefully mean that more overlooked stories of its kind can be told in the future.

Still, Hidden Figures feels a bit two-dimensional because in its aim of being accessible to as many people as possible, there ultimately isn’t much depth or subtlety to the film. What you see is what you get, and the film doesn’t really aim to be more challenging than that. Of course, not every film needs to be a thought-provoking piece of character study, but just because it doesn’t need to be doesn’t make it any less impressive compared to films that manage to be dramatically graceful while still being compelling. Being simple doesn’t have to automatically result in mediocrity. Ultimately Hidden Figures is innocuous without being trite, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

6/10

Moonlight is a stunningly poetic and complex film with extraordinary performances

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Taking place in three distinct, formative time frames of a young man’s life, Moonlight is primarily a film about identity and the important part that it plays on a person’s life. When we first meet Chiron, he’s only a child, running away from bullies in a less-than-savory neighborhood. He meets Juan, a drug dealer, and forms a paternal relationship with him. Although it doesn’t become apparent until the last third of the film, this relationship will play a significant role in Chiron’s sense of identity later on.

Apart from finding comfort away from his neglectful mother, Juan and his girlfriend Teresa provide something even more important for Chiron: guidance. For all his faults, Juan becomes an important father-figure for the child. With Juan, Chiron can actually enjoy being a kid while getting positive attention from someone who seems more equipped to take care of him than his own mother can. But Juan’s line of work directly affects Chiron’s mother Paula and her addiction. As Juan finds out for himself, Paula is a frequent customer at Juan’s corner, and whatever moral high ground Juan has is dashed as Paula taunts him about being partly responsible for her own neglect to Chiron. It might not be a fair accusation, but it rings true enough.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, as well as being the climax of the first act, Chiron confronts Juan and asks him if he sells drugs. Juan, shame-faced, reluctantly admits the truth. It’s a painful scene to watch because it’s clear that despite his young age, Chiron understands enough about the situation as we see him walk away from Juan. Chiron’s trust in the only positive figure he’s had so far in his life is forever changed, and not for the better. It’s also in this scene that Mahershala Ali truly shines in the film, because despite his limited screen time, Juan’s brief presence in the film is felt all throughout thanks to Ali’s ability to give Juan a profound emotional depth that’s hidden behind the character’s surface.

The next time we see Chiron, he’s a teenager, and his life has become even more complicated. Paula is consumed almost entirely by drug addiction and Chiron is struggling at school with an aggressive bully that taunts him about his sexuality. In a brief, almost throwaway line, it’s explained that Juan died fairly recently, and although Chiron can still find comfort in Teresa (Juan’s girlfriend), it’s clear that he’s not comfortable imposing on her despite her insistence.

A key moment happens in this time, as Chiron becomes sexually intimate for the first time with his childhood friend Kevin. Much like his relationship with Juan, this plays an important part in Chiron’s development and sense of identity beyond just losing his virginity. It’s the first time that Chiron manages to be completely open and vulnerable with someone else who can understand him in a deeper manner than any guardian or parental figure ever could. This makes it all the more heartbreaking when the very next day, Chiron is once again betrayed as Kevin is pressured into beating him up at the school. Newcomer Ashton Sanders is astonishing as the teenaged Chiron, delivering an emotionally impactful performance as he completely breaks down in front of the school principal, saying amidst tears how no one understands him. It’s Chiron at his lowest point, suffocated by his own helplessness as he remains trapped in an environment that is aggressively hostile to someone like him.

The next time we see Chiron, he’s a young adult and practically unrecognizable. Not simply because he’s so far removed from being the scrawny teenager that we’ve just seen, but because of the way he acts and presents himself as well. Gone is the awkward image of a skinny Chiron that screams out his low self-esteem. In its place is an aggressiveness that intimidates others, along with flashy accessories that proudly shows off his thuggish lifestyle. In short, Chiron is Juan when they first met all those years ago. And just like Juan, there is also an unmistakable emotional depth and sensitivity that’s hidden beneath the surface.

Clearly tired of being punished for being himself, Chiron has closed himself off by adapting a fake persona. It works to an extent, because clearly Chiron’s life is more stable than ever now that he’s independent, but it comes at a price of constantly rejecting and hiding his true self. He’s merely acting for the benefit of others, afraid of getting inevitably hurt if people around him find out who he really is. This act, however, is dropped when he meets with the people who know the real him. He talks to his mother Paula, who’s been recovering from her drug addiction and is planning on helping others at the rehabilitation center where she’s staying. Naomie Harris is excellent in all of her scenes, being the only actor to appear in all three different time frames of the film. Her transformation from being a neglectful mother, to a drug addict, and finally to a repentant mother trying to make up for her failures is nothing short of extraordinary.

The film slowly moves to its conclusion as Chiron and Kevin reunite, both leading completely different lives compared to when they last saw each other. Kevin is of course surprised by Chiron’s appearance, but he can still see the trademark body language that Chiron possesses regardless of his change in look. Throughout their reunion, they continue to ignore the elephant in the room regarding the time when they got physically intimate with one another. This is ultimately broken by Chiron as he finally admits that Kevin has been the only one to ever be intimate with Chiron in all his life. It’s a breathtaking moment because Chiron truly opens up for the first time, laying out all of his vulnerabilities and breaking through the façade that he’s come to wear.

It’s a poignant and powerful conclusion to the film that remains fairly open to interpretation. While I saw it as leading to a hopeful future where Chiron can finally be truly himself, the opposite can be true as well. Regardless of what happens beyond the credits, Chiron’s arc is satisfyingly complete as we get to see him reach an emotional catharsis with his mother and a positive reunion with someone who knows his true self. It’s the mark of an incredible film when we find ourselves wanting to continue following the characters in their journey after getting so involved with them, which is something that Moonlight excels at.

Beyond the film’s complexity and its beauty, Moonlight is refreshingly unique in its subject matter. It’s a film that makes us wish that more films like it were made every year, and director Barry Jenkins handles the material with such a refined and compassionate vision that makes the film so meaningful. Moonlight is an endlessly rewarding film that will leave you thinking about it for days after watching it.

10/10

Manchester by the Sea is a masterfully executed and deeply moving film about loss and grief

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Films that are driven solely by their characters always gamble when it comes to casting. It’s not enough to find good actors to fill the roles; they have to be right for the part as well. They can be great actors but if they somehow don’t fit the role, then the film won’t work as well as it should, regardless of how well-written or how well-directed it might be.

Manchester by the Sea is primarily carried by Casey Affleck, but the film doesn’t rely on just him. Although he is undoubtedly the lead, the supporting actors play just as vital a role in making the film work, which is why it’s so impressive that there is not a single weak spot in the entire film. Manchester by the Sea is such a tremendous accomplishment in that everything seemed to fit in the right place when it was being made. The cast is not only excellent, but they inhabit their respective characters so completely, making them feel alive and relatable in spite of the horrible tragedies they’ve experienced that most people can’t fathom going through.

Nothing about Manchester by the Sea feels artificial. From the dialogue to the performances, and even in the way it’s shot and edited, everything works in complete harmony to deliver the full range of emotions and realism that the story requires. There is so much authenticity in the film that it never needs to resort to melodrama or cheap theatrics to make its point. It’s a very human film that is dedicated in showing the truth of the situation in every scene. There is not one moment in the entire film where you feel like you’re being emotionally manipulated or even that you’re watching a drama movie. Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan manages to accomplish what few filmmakers do: completely immerse the audience in such a way that we forget that we’re watching actors play pretend onscreen.

When we are first properly introduced to Lee, we find a man living a lonely life working as a handyman for numerous tenants. He’s quiet, reserved, and aloof, snapping at customers and starting fights at bars before going home to his studio apartment. As told through the use of flashbacks, we find out that Lee once had a family of his own. Three kids, a wife, and a large group of friends. We start making guesses as to what could’ve happened between then and now, and as the film progresses we slowly dread finding out the exact events that lead to Lee in his present circumstances.

It’s a stunningly tragic past that manages to bring clarity to what should’ve been obvious from the start. Lee isn’t just some lonely man who lost his family through a messy divorce. He is a broken man who’s going through the motions of his life, watching it pass by him and not really caring. That is, until he gets a call that forces him to go back to his hometown to take care of his orphaned teenage nephew. The same hometown where he lost his once beautiful life.

It all sounds very depressing, and the film is appropriately low-key in terms of tone and atmosphere, but the film doesn’t suffocate you with all the doom and gloom of grief and tragedy. There’s also a surprisingly charming and witty aspect to the film, which is the relationship between Lee and his nephew Patrick. This is what lies in the heart and soul of the entire film as we watch two people who are unequipped with dealing with loss try to support one another as best as they can. Watching their attempts at building a relationship because they have no choice in the matter is both delightful and moving. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges have such a lively chemistry that brings authenticity and levity to the film that you can’t help but get committed as to what they’ll choose to do next.

But as the film reaches its end after a breathtakingly powerful scene between Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, Lee admits to being incapable of taking care of Patrick regardless of how much he wants to. Watching Lee find a bittersweet compromise in their situation is so utterly heartrending because we’ve come to understand him so deeply. Most important of all, we also understand that he’s done the best he can in the situation, and that admitting his shortcomings, no matter how difficult, is ultimately a triumph for both Lee and Patrick. The film ends on such a pitch perfect note, choosing to focus on neither the somber aspect of the situation nor the hopeful promise of the characters’ uncertain futures.

In many ways films are like an orchestra, and director Kenneth Lonergan has conducted his musical piece with such a refined confidence. Manchester by the Sea is, without a doubt, a masterful piece of filmmaking wherein every element works together to express the truth in such an eloquent and poignant way.

10/10

Hacksaw Ridge fails to live up to its promise due to its unrelenting sentimentality

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Creating an emotional scene is easy. Make the actor cry, zoom the camera on his face, queue the dramatic music, and there you have it. Those are the three main ingredients in creating an emotional scene. There are other ingredients to be considered of course (and many different approaches) but those are the bare essentials. Lots of movies do this. Some of them are great films. Some of them, not so much. The difference between a good emotional scene and a bad one is how effective it is. Does it stir emotion in the audience? You don’t necessarily have to make them cry, but as long as they get involved in the moment, the scene works. But when it becomes obvious that the audience is being manipulated instead of being gently lead to feeling emotion, that’s where the scene breaks down. It falls flat, and instead of making us cry, it makes us groan at how corny the whole thing is.

Hacksaw Ridge manages to do both. There are corny scenes and there are emotional ones. I wish I can say that the latter outweighs the former, but it doesn’t. I spent more time groaning while watching this movie than getting emotionally involved. In some ways, this imbalance is worse than if the scales were mostly tipped on either end. There are moments in the film that are so emotionally affecting, which makes it all the more frustrating when the film fails to live up to its extraordinary true story.

Desmond Doss’ experiences during World War II is already so compelling by itself that you really don’t need to add too much of a flourish to make it work well onscreen. Unfortunately, director Mel Gibson sprinkles the film with so much melodrama that it manages to distract from an already interesting story. There is no subtlety or grace when it comes to how the film is handled. It’s mired in so much clumsy sentimentality that makes the whole thing feel forced and inauthentic, almost as if a title card appears during crucial moments instructing the audience to start crying in 3, 2, 1….

Another aspect that the film falls short on is in the action scenes. It’s appropriately brutal and relentless, but it feels like a hollow spectacle instead of a harrowing ordeal. The carnage and violence don’t carry much weight since we don’t really care (or know) about the characters who are in the middle of it. There’s also an unmistakable sense of “Been there, done that,” to the violence being portrayed onscreen. There have been so many World War II films over the years that the genre feels stale and overdone at this point. Saving Private Ryan’s astounding D-day opening scene has managed to overshadow the many different depictions of World War II battles ever since it was released almost twenty years ago, and Hacksaw Ridge is no exception from being found wanting compared to it.

Even worse, the violence being portrayed sometimes feels like it belongs in some schlocky B-horror movie instead of a gripping war drama. There’s virtually no emotional impact with the violence because it looks like the film is more concerned with showing off how much blood they can spray onscreen. It’s not even disturbing. It just looks silly and amateurish.

The film’s saving grace is Andrew Garfield’s astonishing performance as the conscientious soldier who refused to compromise on his beliefs while serving his country. Garfield brings his trademark sensitivity to the film and excels at making Desmond Doss feel like a real person with emotional depth and clarity, even though the film is trying so hard to undermine any sense of dramatic authenticity that should’ve come with it. Even more impressive is his ability to make Desmond so likeable in spite of his bullheaded stubborness in the first half of the film. Desmond Doss is a difficult character to like, specifically in the first hour of the film when his refusal to even hold a gun brings so much unnecessary trouble for himself and his family. But Garfield’s performance makes you empathize with him even if you are aggressively disagreeing with his ludicrous decisions.

I’m not in the habit of declaring which films are worthy or aren’t worthy of awards and recognition, but I sincerely believe that had a lesser actor portrayed Desmond Doss, I think Hacksaw Ridge would’ve been summarily dismissed by a not insignificant number of critics and audiences. In many respects Andrew Garfield absolutely carries the film by himself, but a single talented actor can only do so much to lift up a film that brings itself down.

5/10

Elle breaks the rules of film storytelling while still being utterly entertaining

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In the very first scene of Elle, we are introduced to our lead character being raped inside her home as her pet cat looks on. After the masked offender walks out, Michèle cleans up the mess and calmly takes a bath. You would think that the next few scenes would involve Michèle going to the police and eventually taking matters into her own hands once the investigation goes nowhere, but you’d only be half right. Not only does Michèle not even bother going to the police, but she continues on with her life almost as if nothing really happened. Just a few hours after the attack, we see her ordering food and meeting up with her son Vincent at her home. When Vincent asks how she got her bruises, she waves it off and makes up a lie about falling on her bike.

And this is where the film truly begins. This is not some simple tale about revenge nor is it a melancholic character study of a victim trying to deal with a traumatic event. It’s a story about a complicated person living a complicated life, and if you were assuming that she would react in any logical way after getting attacked, it becomes clear very early on that this will not be the case.

It’s not even a matter of Michèle being in shock or in a state of denial. Apart from suspecting one of her disgruntled employees as being her attacker and buying weapons to defend herself (a pepper spray and, unusually, a small axe), her life goes on normally. This is only interrupted at times when her attacker sends her lewd, taunting messages, which she treats almost like messages from an annoying telemarketer instead of a violent rapist.

The brilliance of Paul Verhoeven’s psychological thriller is that it goes in completely unexpected territory. The film does this by not ignoring the rest of the people in Michèle’s life. We find out that she’s still in friendly terms with her ex-husband, that her son is moving into a new place with his girlfriend, and that her mother is dating a significantly younger man. But most importantly, we also find out that Michèle is by no means a saintly, innocent figure. She casually destroys her ex-husband’s car, is actively having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and is slowly forming a plan to seduce her married neighbor. The film doesn’t treat the revolving door of supporting characters as mere B-storylines. They are every bit as important to the film because in many ways, this is a slice-of-life film about Michèle. It just so happens that the slice of her life that we’re seeing starts with a violent attack.

Most films follow a straightforward narrative path. Every character or storyline that doesn’t directly affect the main plot is excised out of necessity, but Elle approaches filmmaking in the opposite direction. It actively includes all the seemingly unnecessary parts of the story and shines the light on them, which adds so much depth and complexity to the entirety of the film. We don’t just follow Michèle’s strange sexual journey. We also follow her son’s denial about taking care of a child that isn’t his, her husband’s new relationship, her employees’ frustrations at her, and her struggle to face her serial killer father who’s rotting away in prison.

You’d think that following a series of storylines that don’t necessarily have much to do with one another would result in a disjointed mess of a film, but this is where the biggest surprise of the film comes: it isn’t a mess. Nor does it feel like a stilted experimental film that’s more interested in breaking the rules than telling a good story. It’s a brisk, versatile film that is brimming with so much life, energy, and humour. Even more impressive is how director Paul Verhoeven seems to do it with such an easy confidence, as if this was actually the normal way that every film story is told. Most films only show supporting characters that are relevant both to the lead and to the story. In Elle, we follow everyone around Michèle’s life and none of them exist solely to serve as a plot point.

This method of storytelling obviously won’t work for just any other movie. There’s a reason why Elle is an exception and not the rule. Not even simple character dramas can effectively do what Paul Verhoeven does in this film, because Elle is about a person whose motivations are a complete mystery to us. Following the other people in Michèle’s life and seeing how she interacts with them works as a way to give us a hint as to what her motivations could possibly be. If we see what she’s like with other people, perhaps we can understand why she’s reacting the way she does after getting raped. Maybe we can understand why she still doesn’t go to the police even after she finds out who her attacker is. Moreover, maybe we can understand why she actively seeks out her attacker’s company after she discovers his identity and starts a twisted affair with him. Is it because she was already attracted to him before she found out that he was the masked rapist? Is it because getting raped awakened a sexual fetish in her that only her attacker can fulfill? Perhaps it’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome? Or was she just biding her time until the right moment to get her revenge?

The answer isn’t simple. It could be for all those reasons. It could be none. The film doesn’t make it clear, and even analyzing the series of events that lead to the climax from a logical point of view results in a muddled non-answer. This is why Isabelle Huppert’s performance has been so rightfully praised numerous times over. It is undeniably the work of such a skilled performer to be able to convey everything and nothing at the same time. Huppert plays Michèle in such a way that not even her performance gives the answers away. Despite getting to see her in intimate moments and how she treats the people around her, we ultimately don’t know much about her at the end of the day.

When the film ends, we are left with only questions, but still utterly satisfied at the whole experience. As we see Michèle and her best friend figuratively walk into the sunset, almost hand-in-hand and still best friends even after Michèle’s tactless admission of sleeping with her best friend’s husband, we can’t help but realize that the people around Michèle are almost as mysterious as her. We’re not really meant to understand why anyone chooses to do anything or act the way they do. We can empathize and develop close relationships with others, but that’s as far as we can go. After all, if someone can understand all of your own thoughts and motivations, you probably won’t be too eager to spend much time with them for fear of discovering what they might find.

9/10

Arrival is an astonishing testament to the power and importance of the sci-fi genre

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From the very beginning it becomes clear that Arrival’s primary focus is to slowly drive both the characters and the audience towards an important revelation. The film’s set-up is simple, asking just one question throughout its duration: What is the purpose of the aliens visiting Earth? This single question carries the entirety of the film, which could’ve been a recipe for disaster had it been tackled by a less talented filmmaker. But in the hands of director Denis Villeneuve, Arrival manages to stand out in a genre that commonly prioritizes iconic imagery over thoughtful narrative.

Whereas most sci-fi films involving aliens landing on Earth result in mayhem and destruction, Arrival is instead introspective and pragmatic in its depiction of the world finding out that we are not alone in the universe. Louise Banks is a linguist hired by the American military to help understand the aliens’ language. Together with physicist Ian Donnelly, they strive to understand the otherworldly language and writing that the aliens (called ‘heptapods’) are trying to communicate in.

Despite its grand scale, Arrival belongs in the so-called ‘lo-fi’ subgenre of science fiction, wherein ideas take front and center behind the flashy window dressing of CGI and bright technology. Director Denis Villeneuve deliberately emphasizes this by filming Arrival in a way that seems more appropriate for a crime drama than a science fiction film. This is not a crticism, because Villeneuve’s grounded stylistic choices along with Bradford Young’s cinematography only serve to make the film even more visually striking. The extraordinary spaceships and aliens have more visual impact because they exist in the same practical present-day world that we do, which highlights their otherworldliness.

There is also a conscious effort to stand out from the familiar designs of space invasion movies in the past. The heptapods in Arrival have more in common with the Cthulu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft than the familiar imagery of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and blockbuster films like Independence Day. To go even further, the heptapods also don’t belong among the horrifying psychosexual monsters that exist in the mind of H.R. Giger. In other words, Arrival focuses on the awe that comes with making first contact with aliens from outer space. They are suitably mysterious and remarkable, while never forgetting the potential danger that they pose to the humans.

But apart from the film’s visual and stylistic accomplishments, at the heart of the film is a gripping message that manages to be relevant at any point in time. Arrival skillfully uses the science fiction genre to present a compelling concept that, once revealed near the end, is breathtaking in its profoundness. The answer to the film’s singular question is enormously satisfying because it’s presented in a way that isn’t just important to the film’s story, but to the film’s characters and overall message as well. The film isn’t just concerned with shouting, “Gotcha!” once the answer comes. There’s a crucial emotional and philosophical aspect to it, which, once you realize it, is astonishingly powerful in its meaning and signficance.

This is where the film’s structure and direction truly shine, because the realization that you’ve essentially been tricked the entire time should feel cheap and gimmicky. However, thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s deliberate directorial choices all throughout the film, the magic act manages to be awe-inspiring instead of moronic. Most important of all, the surprise doesn’t overshadow the rest of the film. Although it’s been made clear from the very start that an unexpected answer is going to make or break the entire film, the journey of discovering that answer is every bit as important (probably even moreso) as the pulling of the curtain.

Arrival belongs among the select few films that manage to delve deep into the true potential of the science fiction genre. Thanks to the skillful direction of one of the most talented filmmakers working today, along with yet another riveting performance from Amy Adams, Arrival’s sleight-of-hand storytelling and emotional depth is a compelling experience from beginning to end.

10/10