Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
My favorite film of the last few years is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, a masterpiece of captivating storytelling, non-stop excitement, and revolutionary special effects. The film features the career-best performance of my favorite actress, Sandra Bullock, and most remarkable of all, it takes space seriously. The film’s massive box office success allowed for other films in the same vein to be made, like Interstellar and The Martian, movies that don’t treat space as a mere backdrop for but as something worth marveling over. It’s become almost expected now to get at least one intellectually satisfying science fiction movie each fall, and in 2016 we got Arrival, from Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario).
Arrival is a strange beast of a movie. The first hour encompasses some of the most compelling scenes and moments of any film I’ve seen all year. The set-up is fantastic, beginning with glimpses of the lead character Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) dealing with her sick teenaged daughter Hannah, who ultimately dies from cancer. She’s a linguistics professor who’s going about her normal teaching day when she and the rest of the world discover the unimaginable: twelve giant spaceships have landed on different spots of the Earth. And most surprising to her, she’s called upon to lead an expedition into one of the ships to decipher the aliens’ language.
There’s not a false move in that first hour, the pacing slow and steady, the tone ominous, the terror of what’s happening in the world incredibly effective. The cinematography by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Selma) is exquisite, no shot in this movie ever wasted. The first long glimpse of the spacecraft, shot from the helicopter as it lands in the nearby vicinity, is one of those awe-inspiring movie moments that causes chills. Villeneuve is such a confident director, always with a clear vision in his work that makes this film a joy to watch.
Unfortunately Arrival does not stick the landing, so to speak, and I found myself more dumbfounded and confused in the last thirty minutes than emotionally satisfied. The end of the movie offers more questions than answers, and a twist involving the narrative structure feels manipulative. There are elements about the ending I like, especially something that’s learned at a fancy dinner party, but I sat in the theater during the end credits disappointed I wasn’t feeling the love for the movie I so wanted to. There’s always been a coldness to Villeneuve’s films, never a sense that he wants to go for the easy wrap-up at the end, and that I admire. But when I’m left questioning so much as I walk out of the theater, the experience can be frustrating, even though there’s so much about this movie to love.
I love the look, the tone, the pacing. I love the sound design and the music, always slightly sinister, always keeping the viewer on edge. And the performances, as expected in a Villeneuve film, are top-notch. He always gets great performances from his actors, like Hugh Jackman in Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy, and Emily Blunt in Sicario. Here, Amy Adams is the star, and this is her best performance in years. She’s believable as a linguistics professor, and in her quest to bond with the aliens, and with her grief surrounding her daughter. It’s a subtle performance, but also a great one. Jeremy Renner is also strong, if not particularly memorable, as her right-hand man Ian, and Forest Whitaker is always a welcome presence in a movie, here playing the stern and humorless Colonel Weber.
Based on the terrific short story, “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Arrival is absolutely a film that’s worth seeing. It’s spectacular in its big moments, but even more so in its quiet moments. Adams creates a great female protagonist the audience can get behind every step of the way, and it’s her journey that stays compelling all the way through, even if the screenplay offers one too many head-scratching twists at the end. Arrival proves that science fiction doesn’t just have to be shoot-outs and chase scenes and big, revolting monsters. Science fiction can also make you think, and think hard.
Watching Like a Writer
One aspect of Arrival I haven’t discussed is that this is a movie about work. Despite this being science fiction and full of twists and turns, the film is essentially about a person trying to do her job to the best of her ability. This got me thinking about writing about work in fiction and how important it is to get both the large and the small details right. There’s a line in Stephen King’s On Writing, and I’m paraphrasing, where he says, “People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do,” and it’s true! There’s something compelling in fiction about exploring the various jobs that people hold, especially ones far outside our own.
Look at your current work-in-progress and consider the profession of your protagonist, or one of the major characters. What does that profession add to the overall story? Could it be changed to something else? Why or why not?