Arrival

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Writer: Eric Heisserer


One of the lesser cinematic experiences I had this year came from watching Independence Day: Resurgence, a shameless crash grab that was stupid, dull and nonsensical. Now, as we approach the end of 2016, comes the movie’s perfect antithesis. Arrival, also a movie about aliens coming to Earth (whether or not it’s an invasion is unclear), is everything that Resurgence is not. I don’t only mean this in terms of quality, although it is to be sure a superior movie in every way. I also mean this in how the film chooses to approach its subject. While Resurgence follows the typical Hollywood formula of casting the aliens as generic, faceless baddies who are defeated in the end through force and might, Arrival is a film that celebrates reason, thought and empathy. Rather than having the American military leading the charge and saving the day, the solution is instead found in science and communication and is implemented through the careful and challenging process of collaboration. This is a great film with a great message and I am so glad it came out this year.

When twelve extra-terrestrial spacecrafts appear all around Earth, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), one of the Earth’s foremost experts in linguistics, is enlisted by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to help the US military. Working with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, she must establish a system of communication with the aliens and find out who they are, where they come from, and why they are here. When they enter the craft they are greeted by two squid-like aliens whom they christen Abbott and Costello (whose most famous sketch is appropriately about a linguistic miscommunication). Banks discovers that the aliens have a written language in the form of circular symbols and uses them to establish a basic vocabulary. As she becomes more versed in the language Banks starts having vivid dreams, most of them about her daughter whose tragic death is a source of great pain and sorrow. As the perception of the alien threat grows and draws humanity closer to declaring an all-out war, Banks and her team must take a desperate chance in order to find the answers that they seek.

Arrival is a thinking man’s sci-fi that stimulates and astounds as it challenges its viewers with deep and thought-provoking questions. We are invited to consider the psychology of thought, reason and morality, the philosophy of faith, knowledge and meaning, and the very natures of time, language and the human mind. It approaches its story with the utmost sophistication as the characters set out to meet this ambiguous presence with logic and caution. While the apprehensive Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) would prefer to know straight up who these aliens are and what they want, Banks explains that such questions are useless without an understanding of how these beings think. Do they have a concept of purpose and intent? Do they consider themselves as individuals or as a collective? Do they even understand what a question is? Such questions are paramount when the risk of even the slightest miscommunication could have disastrous global consequences.

In this role Adams continues to prove why she is one of the best actresses in Hollywood today. In Banks she conveys a quiet yet strong sense of fascination and determination that becomes more potent as her search for knowledge and understanding intensifies. The more she learns about the alien language, the more it affects her way of thinking and perception of reality. There is also an affective emotional core tying her to this task as her work evokes tragic memories of her daughter. Villeneuve does a particularly good job of representing the distortive state of Banks’ mind as her present, memories and dreams all seem to blend into one another. His use of CGI is modest, allowing the film to feel all the more authentic, and his handling of the suspense is expert (with one particularly explosive scene that no doubt would have impressed Hitchcock).

Arrival is a smart, layered and moving film with echoes of Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that thrills, stimulates and inspires. It is a subdued and contemplative form of science-fiction of a calibre that we only get to see one or two times per year (Midnight Special is the other one). The moment when this film truly shines is in the climax following a revelation which turns our very perception of the plot upside down. This is a film that will certainly benefit from multiple viewings and I suspect it is one that will be studied by students of the social sciences as well as film students for a long time to come. Furthermore Arrival is a film that encapsulates the intrinsic values of knowledge, compassion, faith, cooperation and understanding, ideals that seem more distant with each passing day. It raises many challenging and important questions but does not try to answer them all because otherwise there’d be no room for contemplation. This film believes in humanity’s ability to change and adapt, something we can only do if we are willing to listen, consider, and be challenged. This is a great film that came out at a time when it was most needed.

★★★★★

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The Accountant

Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Writer: Bill Dubuque


Autism is both a tricky and sensitive subject to portray in cinema and it can lead to much umbrage when done badly. Even Rain Man, a movie that was praised for opening the door to serious and thoughtful depictions of ASD, is problematic in its misleading suggestion that those who fall on the autistic spectrum are likely to be savants. Efforts have been made over the last few decades to represent autism as the complex, multifaceted condition that it is (X+Y is one recent movie that was audacious and touching in its portrayal) but there are still movies today that fall victim to the stereotypes associated with ASD. As someone who neither is nor knows anybody on the spectrum my take on The Accountant cannot help but be limited. I do however know when a film provides a problematic depiction of its subject and when it defeats its own message and can verify that this film struggles on both counts.

As a child Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) was diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism, a condition that has allowed him to become a highly capable accountant whose practice is actually a front for several criminal enterprises.. He is hired by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), the CEO of a cutting edge robotics company, to inspect their finances when a discrepancy is discovered by their accounting clerk Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick). Meanwhile Raymond King (J.K. Simmons), the head of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Agency, is investigating Wolff’s accounts and blackmails data analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into helping him. When Wolff’s investigation uncovers evidence of foul play, he and Dana suddenly become the targets of a hitman (Jon Bernthal), forcing them to go on the run. As the body count continues to rise Wolff must use the military skills he learned from his father to keep Dana safe and learn the truth behind this conspiracy.

The movie’s problem is that it wants to advocate the cause for autism, that being the idea that different abilities can come in different forms and that we need to reconsider what we deem to be “normal”, but doesn’t know how. I’m sure the gestures and expressions Affleck provides are accurate given the research he conducted but the story he’s in doesn’t know how to treat his character. Autism is used in this film as a plot device, making Wolff a savant so that he can be the great accountant the movie wants him to be, and it’s used as comic relief, as in the awkward interactions with love interest Dana Cummings. That the movie wants to try and normalise autism is all well and good, except that it goes so far out of its way to remind us of how abnormal Wolff is and laughs at his expense. What’s even more problematic is the movie’s message about victimhood being a choice. Wolff’s condition, so his father believes, makes him a victim but only if he lets it. Instead Wolff exposes himself to deafening heavy metal music and bright flashing lights while rolling a dowel along his calves every day or so, a painful experience for him, to keep his nervous system in check. As far as this movie is concerned autism is not a condition to be managed but one to be beaten into submission.

It seemed to me that the movie thought of Wolff’s autism as more of a concept than a subject. That is, the film wanted an action hero with a mental disability because it wanted an action hero with a mental disability. By giving ASD to a character of Jason Bourne-like skills (or Batman if you prefer), it almost seems like the movie is giving itself a licence to depict Wolff as an inhuman killing machine. Using what can only be described as a “superpower” Wolff can quickly aim a gun with mathematical precision, fight as if impervious to pain, and shoot a man in the face with cold indifference. Although we do get some pretty intense action scenes out of it, they come at the expense of a meaningful, substantive exploration of a real condition that millions of people all over the world live with.

Without the autism, The Accountant would just be a standard action movie with a convoluted plot and underwritten characters. The film underuses the talent at its disposal, most notably John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor. The FBI subplot has, in the grand scheme of things, nothing to do with the main story. There is a plot twist in the third act that is beautifully underscored in its absurdity by Lithgow’s dumbfounded expression. Affleck does give a technically good performance, but does so for a character that the movie doesn’t respect. The action scenes are very good indeed and they might have been enough to make this movie had they not enabled the disrespectful (or maybe misguided is the word) treatment of this character and his condition. There is a positive to be taken away which is that this film is, I think, sincere in its attempt to become a part of the conversation taking place. It fails, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it means that Hollywood is trying. This failure could end up being the motivation that inspires other filmmakers (perhaps even those who actually are on the spectrum) to do better.

★★