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Posts Tagged ‘Forest Whitaker’

I suspect that if you chose the right ten people and asked each of them to name a great SF film, then you might not just end up with a list of ten different films, but ten films so wildly different they might not even seem to belong to the same genre, let alone all be exemplars of it. I’m not suggesting that any or all of these people would actually be the kind of morons who think Transformers actually qualifies as an SF film, but simply that you can honestly believe that Primer is the kind of film that epitomises great science fiction, and not be wrong, while someone else can opt for a film like – I don’t know – Gamera: Advent of Legion, and equally be taking a completely defensible stand.

I offer this to you not as some great new insight – the final paper edition of the Encyclopedia of SF had an entry on ‘Definition of Science Fiction (Difficulty of)’ – but because you should, of course, be wary when someone informs you that a new movie is ‘the best SF movie in years’ or something of that ilk. This sort of cachet is being widely applied to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and I would have to say that it is by no means entirely unjustified. But, you know.

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Amy Adams plays Louise Sands, a top linguist and translator whose life, along with that of everyone else in the world, is thrown into turmoil by the appearance in the skies of the planet of twelve vast alien objects, their origins and intentions unknown. The alien presence remains inert and enigmatic, and Louise’s special skill set and a pre-existing connection with the US Department of Defence results in her being recruited to a special project: she is flown to the site in Montana where one of the alien craft has (nearly) touched down, and put in charge of a team attempting to either decipher the aliens’ own baffling language or teach them to communicate in English. Working a parallel project is top physics boffin Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) – yes, it’s a miracle, Jeremy Renner is in a film with a military element and he’s not playing a special forces soldier – and the two forge a close working relationship. But their de facto boss (Forest Whitaker) is desperate for results – other world powers are working equally hard to make contact with the aliens in their own territory, and there will be obvious political and military advantages to the first nation that succeeds…

Arrival kicks off by playing with one of SF’s killer ideas: they arrive. It’s a mesmerising notion, not least because, well, you never know. They may really be coming. They may be here tomorrow, or next week, or… and if they do, well, no-one really knows what will happen next. You could probably do a whole movie just on the ramifications and details of how that event plays out.

However, the movie doesn’t just settle for that, but goes on to tackle a whole range of other concepts, most of which are slightly stronger meat than you generally find in what is laughingly referred to as a Hollywood SF film: the neuro-linguistic hypothesis, the nature of our perception of time, free-will and determinism, and the nature of xeno-linguistics. I mean, I can ask the way to the bathroom in Klingon, but even so, I still thought this film wasn’t afraid to be a bit thinky.

Lest all this should make you blanch, I would advise you not to worry. At least, not much. All of the above is folded into a properly impressive and actually slightly spooky tale of vast, incomprehensible, quasi-Lovecraftian extraterrestrials, that often feels – and I don’t wish to appear to be slighting Villeneuve – very much of a piece with Christopher Nolan’s excursions into the SF field (and regular readers will know that is meant as the highest of compliments).

Of course, part and parcel of this is the way that the film gets rather tricksy and clever with the narrative structure of the story, because not all that’s going on is quite as it first appears. The movie achieves one magnificent, quintessentially science-fictional coup about two thirds of the way through, when the true nature of what’s been going on suddenly becomes clear, and the sense of conceptual breakthrough is dizzying. (However, this is very difficult to talk about in detail without ruining the plot, so I shall move on.)

In short, if you’re starting to get the impression that this is a film with a notable lack of chase sequences and upbeat music cues on the soundtrack, you’re absolutely right: while it certainly seems to be set in the same sort of narrative space as old-school charmers like Close Encounters (lots of people in rubber suits and numerous scenes of the army getting grumpy), it probably goes even further in terms of sheer thoughtfulness and… well, maturity’s not quite the right word, but I’m struggling to find the right one that doesn’t have an off-putting connotation to it. Arrival is a film with a lot of cello music and many moments of the lead character silently contemplating both the value of their life and the nature of existence, which I know is not some people’s idea of a relaxing night’s entertainment.

Nevertheless, it stays very watchable throughout, mainly due to confident, unflappable direction – Villeneuve doesn’t allow himself to be rushed into wheeling on his aliens, and the slow gravity-warping journey into the heart of their craft acquires enormous tension as a result – and very intelligent performances from Adams, Renner, and Whitaker, who carry most of the movie between them. Like nearly all of the film, they are of the highest quality without seeming overly flashy or pleased with themselves – this is a really classy film, the kind of thing that might well win Oscars if it wasn’t saddled with the usually-insuperable problem that it’s obviously science fiction. (The Academy hates science fiction.)

Of course, one way in which Arrival is very much of a piece with numerous pieces of great SF from the past is that it is not exactly a barrel of laughs. It’s not totally po-faced or lacking in warmth, but I thought that the main thrust of the story and particularly the conclusion was not an optimistic statement about the ineffable pleasures of living in the moment, but carried a rather bleaker message about what it means to be a conscious living entity. Yeah, like I said: not exactly your classic popcorn movie, this one.

Still, I’m on record as bewailing the near-disappearance of the classic intelligent SF movie, and so of course I’m not going to complain when something like Arrival comes along. Let’s not worry about its place in history just yet, and settle for saying that this is an extremely thoughtful and inventive SF movie made for grown-ups who aren’t afraid to use their brains, but at the same time aren’t totally out of touch with their emotions. If that sounds like your sort of thing, this film is pretty much an unmissable treat.

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There comes a moment in the career of every bona fide screen legend – provided they live long enough, of course – when both they and their fans are confronted with their Norma Desmond moment. They may still be big and famous, but the pictures in which they are appearing have inexplicably become somewhat smaller. Not necessarily badly-made or objectionable, but just – small. Like, for example, Kim Ji-woon’s The Last Stand.

This film was allegedly written by someone called Andrew Knauer, but I suspect this is just a codename for a new software package which assembles completed screenplays from pre-existing bits of genre formulae. In Las Vegas, tough-talking FBI guy John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) is in the process of transporting straight-out-of-Central-Casting slimeball drug baron Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) to prison, when the villain executes a frankly ludicrous escape plan involving an electromagnet, a 200mph car, a small portable bridge and the Dutch national football team, and heads for the Mexican border at high speed. Only the small and sleepy town of Sommerton Junction stands between him and freedom, and the personnel of the sheriff’s department there are not exactly guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. Well, with the possible exception of the sheriff himself, who is a big old lad with a funny Austrian accent…

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Yes, this is what I suppose we must call Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big comeback – although, as I’ve already said, this is not really what you’d call a major movie. If Arnie was replaced as the star with a less iconic presence you could quite easily imagine this going DTDVD, because the story really is slight and in many places rather silly.

It doesn’t help that the film really struggles to find a consistent tone throughout its first half – the narrative cuts back and forth between Cortez making his escape, and Arnie’s relaxed and somewhat bucolic routine as a small-town sheriff (it turns out he used to be a supercop in LA who’s retired to the sticks, of course). The former is glitzy and outrageous, and has a hard, gory edge to its frequent violence, which is very much at odds with the mildly comic and low-key material with Arnie and his various sidekicks. In the end the full-on violent stuff becomes predominant – if the intent was to strike a contrast between the two, it doesn’t really work, as there just isn’t enough small-town-routine stuff, and most of it is blatantly laying in plot for the second half of the film.

That said, the movie is competently executed and usually quite well played. None of the good guys or bad guys actually turn into what you could honestly call three-dimensional characters, but then again this isn’t the kind of film where you would expect them to (not that it wouldn’t have been nice if they had). The good guys are mostly quite appealing, with the exception of Johnny Knoxville, who plays an annoying, over-the-top character… actually, this is Johnny Knoxville we’re talking about, so you can take the annoying and over-the-top parts as read, obviously. No surprises there.

One thing which did surprise me was my own positive reaction to seeing Arnie back in action on the big screen. He may not open up at the bad guys with a Vickers machine gun or wrestle somebody off the roof of a building with quite the same speed or fluidity as back in his heyday, but he acquits himself very respectably. It’s easy to make jokes about Arnie’s choice of comedy roles or his political career, but this is a guy who made some absolute classic action movies once upon a time.

And his acting is certainly as good as ever it was – those familiar features reconfigure themselves to suggest Shock, Concern, Anger, and Determination much as they ever did, which is to say one is reminded of someone operating a slightly sticky gearbox. The big guy still has charisma by the bucketful, particularly in the climax of the film. There’s a bit where the villain has had the temerity to suggest Arnie’s past it, tried to bribe him, and then resorted to fighting dirty. Schwarzenegger, pausing only to beat him (somewhat laboriously) to a pulp, responds rather gently with ‘My honour is not for sale.’ And it’s a lovely moment, worthy of the genuine star he remains.

Now, the script here is brave enough to acknowledge not only that Arnie is an immigrant, but also that he is knocking on a bit, and it’ll be interesting to see whether his future projects continue to play with this. By the time Clint Eastwood had hit his mid sixties he was making films which engaged with and made use of his iconic status and history. If Arnie attempts something similar we could end up with films which are at least interesting – but, disregarding rumours of new Conan and Terminator movies (oh, Lord), the only leading role on Arnie’s slate of upcoming projects is in an Agatha Christie adaptation (he’s not playing Poirot, in case you were wondering).

Oh well, judging from this movie Arnie’s got quite a few more movies left in him (some of those will probably turn out to be future episodes of The Expendables, but you can’t have everything), and I’ve no doubt some of them will be enormous monster trucks of films of the type we would expect. The Last Stand is a much more modest vehicle, and hardly very memorable, but as a way of getting reacquainted with Schwarzenegger it does what needs to be done efficiently enough.

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