Since no studio executive can see into the future, it is impossible to to know if the right date has been selected to launch a film. Sure, 4th of July weekend was a pretty savvy time to release Independence Day back in 1996, and you can consider that a safe bet, but there are moments when news headlines trump Hollywood offerings that no one sees coming. The high school-set dark comedy Election had the misfortune of being released days after the Columbine massacre shocked the nation; just this year, The Birth Of A Nation was sunk by bad press surrounding Nate Parker’s rape allegations. (Because if there’s one thing Americans won’t stand for, it’s letting influential men get away with sexual assault… right?) The Birth Of A Nation might have been a massive hit if released last winter, on the heels of its Sundance breakout buzz, or maybe even this weekend, when a story of black Americans rioting against cruel and bigoted white oppressors might resonate. But that’s not how it happened.
For the next several months, at least, every film released will grapple with what’s going down in the United States right now, in some way or another. It’s nigh impossible to watch anything and not think about how it reflects the chaotic political landscape of our woebegone times.
And that’s especially true of a movie like Arrival, which feels like it was cobbled together by extraterrestrials specifically to be observed and discussed by Americans in November 2016. Like the aliens it depicts, Arrival has a critical message for the people of Earth, and it is absolutely imperative that they take it to heart. The question, then, is this:
Will anyone listen?Arrival stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks, one of the nation’s top linguists and a college professor, who we observe at the beginning of the film grieving for the teen daughter she loses to an unstoppable disease. In a chilling sequence set in a lecture hall, Louise’s students all learn of a global phenomenon at the same moment through urgently chiming cell phones, asking her to turn on the news. Twelve oblong spacecraft have arrived on Earth in seemingly random spots across the globe. Just waiting. This is, of course, reminiscent of the setup of Independence Day, but the similarities mostly end there. Arrival is more thoughtful sci-fi than we usually get, with few moments of true peril. Dr. Banks is summoned to the site of the only spacecraft on American soil by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), where she will work alongside scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to try and figure out what these foreign beings want.
Arrival is directed by Denis Villeneuve, who brought stylish menace to such films as Prisoners and the mind-bending Enemy (one of my favorite films of 2014). Last year, Villeneuve also gave us the haunting drug war drama Sicario, which it is most reminiscent of. Both films revolve around women who are very good at their jobs, but find themselves overwhelmed and out of their element, clashing with the men who outrank them (and may not be so trustworthy). Like all Villeneuve films, Arrival is a gorgeous piece of work, and if it can’t quite match Sicario‘s nerve-rattiling visuals, well, that’s because Sicario was shot by Roger Deakins. 9Don’t get me wrong — Bradford Young’s cinematography is nothing to sneeze at.) Arrival also has an unsettling soundscape orchestrated by Johann Johansson, the man behind last year’s best score, the bone-rattling war drums of Sicario. Arrival‘s score is less intense but equally unnerving, not a far cry from Mica Levi’s Under The Skin.Arrival has roots in so many sci-fi movies — most obviously, the granddaddy, 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The alien ships here are acutely monolith-like.) For its emphasis on a capable female and grounded science, Arrival can easily be compared to Contact also; more recent sci-fi like Prometheus and, especially, Interstellar will also come to mind. Arrival is a bit different for remaining earthbound — though we see quite a bit of its extraterrestrial beings, the story remains focused on humans, both the handful of characters at its centers and, moreso, humankind in general. As often happens in these kinds of films, various military powers are eager to fire some weapons at the “monsters” and see what happens; the United States president is mentioned, though not by name, which forces us to cringe at the thought of Donald Trump’s response to such an event. (My guess: a string of petulant tweets in the dead of night, followed by a hasty nuclear strike.)
Without giving anything away, ultimately, Arrival ends up being a film about communication. Its tagline could easily be “Stronger Together.” (No, there’s nothing in it that revolves around making America great again.) These extraterrestrials know that humans have a tendency to quarrel with one another, which tends to distract from more pressing global concerns. (Like, I don’t know… perhaps climate change?) If we could stop being each other’s own worst enemies, we might actually reach a higher plane of existence.
That’s a nice message, isn’t it? Given the state of the union over the past year, it feels impossible that we’ll ever get there — or, at least, I don’t welcome the apocalyptic phenomena that could force us to. Arrival packs an emotional wallop that works completely outside of its call for solidarity on Earth, but in these dark days, Arrival has landed at a time when unity is the most alien concept we can conceive of in America. Unlike Villeneuve’s past works, Arrival ends up being an optimistic film; I suppose that’s because it was made several months ago, and the people who made it couldn’t foresee America’s grim future.
This weekend sees another Amy Adams-starring drama, albeit a very different one: Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, in which Adams plays Susan, an artist who has doubts about her own talents despite her success. She’s in a flailing marriage to Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer), who jets off to New York too often to close deals… both of the business variety and with pricey-looking hookers. Susan isn’t happy and hasn’t been, very often, except in the early days of her romance with Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aspiring novelist whose talent doesn’t quite match his ambition. Then Susan hears from Edward out of the blue, as he sends her a draft of his latest novel, titled Nocturnal Animals.
Susan begins reading the novel, which takes up roughly half of the film. The lead character is Tony, also played by Gyllenhaal, while his wife Laura is played by Amy Adams doppelganger Isla Fisher. The couple takes a road trip through West Texas with their teen daughter, encountering a trio of red necks who run them off the road, leading to a tense evening with a violent end. In the aftermath, Tony meets Bobby Andes, an old school hard-boiled police detective who cares about nothing besides seeing justice done. The book within the film is intercut with Susan’s story, both her present day marital woes and flashbacks to her courtship and eventual fallout with Edward. Susan’s story is presented mostly as melodrama, with pastiche elements reminiscent of Hitchcock and other old-fashioned entertainment.
Many high-caliber actors pop in for a single scene, including Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Jena Malone, and Andrea Riseborough, though we also spend a lot of time watching Adams read the book, or ponder its themes and how they relate to her own failing marriages. The film’s stylish opening features a quartet of middle-aged overweight women dancing in slow motion, shamelessly displaying that full-figured full frontal nudity. Unfortunately, Nocturnal Animals doesn’t quite match the daring of Susan’s artistic work, coming across as more muted than it needs to be. It would have been nice to see how Edward’s novel interacts with her artistic spirit, maybe informing her work somehow. The final scene makes a powerful point, willfully leaving so much unresolved, but it might have been nice if we’d been given a little more to chew on first, as both of Susan’s love stories come across as fairly mundane. Though the starry cast makes for a pleasant distraction, Nocturnal Animals misses the opportunity to say more about the way art opens up our memory and emotions, at times perhaps even acts as an instrument to help us fall in and out of love. It certainly falls short of the pained nuance of Ford’s debut masterpiece, A Single Man.
The story-within-the-story fares slightly better, despite following a largely predictable revenge thriller template. If Arrival is very much a blue state story about the importance of communication and teamwork in solving global crises, Nocturnal Animals continues the cinematic tradition of upstanding, educated people being menaced by stupid sexist bigots. Yes, the trio of deplorables that senselessly terrorizes the Hastings family (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, and Robert Aramayo) are definitely the very worst kind of Trump voter, taking out their economic frustrations on those they consider to be the enemy, the elite. In this kind of story, of course, communication is far from the most effective way to solve a problem. Grabbing a gun tends to be a lot more satisfying, though it doesn’t lead to a happy ending for anyone involved.
Neither Arrival nor Nocturnal Animals is overtly political, but it’s hard not to view them through the prism of America’s current disarray, with one offering hoping and solace for the future of the human race and the other exploring bitter chasms between characters who are too damaged to reconcile their differences anymore. There are several characters in Arrival, too, who would rather solve a problem by attempting to blow it up than through patience and understanding. It’d be nice to believe that smart people like Louise will triumph over the hotheads with all the badges and power, but for the moment, at least, that’s not the country we live in anymore. We’re left feeling more like Susan, realizing too little, too late, that the sins of the past can’t be undone, and maybe there’s no way to move forward together.