Click audio player to hear Tim’s review of “Arrival” on “The KQ Morning Show” with Tom Barnard.
The space alien genre gets a seemingly new twist in “Arrival,” a thinking person’s sci-fi thriller that ultimately is more about questions of humanity than it is the otherworldly beings that initiate first contact. But while “Arrival” feels fresh in comparison to several alien thrillers recent years – it’s about aliens that invade, but don’t attack – it ultimately comes off like a smattering of similar films.
In fact, it doesn’t take long to realize the touchstones of “Arrival” seem to borrow from the plot points of “District 9” (which features hovering ships), “Gravity” (about a protagonist dealing with loss), “Contact” (about a scientist decoding alien messages), “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (about aliens warnings to Earthlings) and “Interstellar” (about the transcendence of space and time).
That’s not to say that “Arrival” isn’t fascinating and thought-provoking. It just can’t seem to get over the hump to approach the greatness of any of its equally-smart predecessors.
Amy Adams is brilliant as Dr. Louise Banks, an expert linguistics professor, who, along with and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), is recruited by a military colonel (Forrest Whittaker) to attempt to communicate with the beings in an alien spaceship that lands in Montana. A saucer-shaped ship that appears to be levitating sideways, it’s one of 12 massive vessels hovering over different parts of the world that gives no clear indication of its intentions.
Louise’s task is to decode symbols that the aliens are seemingly communicating with, trying to figure out why they are here and what they want; and Ian wants to figure out where they came from and how they got here. The problem is the messages of the beings – dubbed “heptapods” (they resemble octopuses, but are one leg short) – are so complex that Louise and Ian may not have enough time to stave off a festering global war. It turns out that countries like China and Russia are perceiving the heptapods as a threat, and an attack on the ships is imminent.
“Arrival” not surprisingly arrives just in time for awards season, and thanks to the brooding tone and atmosphere set by gifted director Denis Villenueve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”), the film manages to be cerebral without being pretentious. From the very first frame, Villenueve masterfully constructs a plot of misdirection, which ultimately results in one of the most satisfying payoffs on the big screen this year.
The problem is, up until the big reveal in the film’s third act, “Arrival” plods along and may feel like a bait and switch to moviegoers expecting much more based on the film’s tantalizing trailers. In the end, “Arrival” comes off as a studio-backed sci-fi art-house movie that doesn’t deliver any of the sorts of scenes moviegoers associate with the genre. On one hand, the less is more approach is completely welcome for those pining for originality; but on the other, the film just feels too uneventful running up to the unexpected, hard-hitting climax. In the end, “Arrival” is satisfying, but ultimately underwhelming.
This week I had the wonderful opportunity to see filmmaker Christopher Nolan in Dialogue with Variety’s Scott Foundas at the Walker Art Center’s film retrospective “Christopher Nolan: Moving Through Time” in Minneapolis.
In conjunction with the event, where all nine of Nolan’s films are playing through May 24, I had the opportunity to write for the Walker a retrospective piece on the director based on the interviews I’ve done with him over the years. Here’s an excerpt:
It’s only appropriate that Christopher Nolan’s May 5 visit to the Walker Art Center came on the heels of the dizzying release of the latest teaser trailer for “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.” Fresh off his own trek to the outer reaches of space with the spectacular sci-fi adventure drama “Interstellar,” Nolan 38 years ago was, like countless moviegoers worldwide, forever impacted by the George Lucas’ 1977 space opera. But unlike most starry-eyed fans, Nolan was inspired to expand the “Star Wars” universe in his o
wn cinematic way, and in doing so, he was inadvertently laying the foundation for a legendary, Lucas-like career of his own as a writer, producer and director.
“I started making Super 8 films when I was 7 years old,” Nolan told me in 2006, in the first of four conversations we would have about his films over the next eight years. “My first few films were little action-figure extravaganzas, and soon, as ‘Star Wars’ came out and changed everything, my movies were ‘Star Wars’ ripoffs for years, with spaceships and action figures. They were little, mini-epics. It was great fun.”
If you found yourself desperate to watch “Interstellar” again after you caught the sci-fi epic on the big screen, Jonathan Nolan is thrilled to reopen up the rocket hatch for another ride on home video.
In fact, the heralded screenwriter, who co-wrote the critically acclaimed blockbuster with his director brother, Christopher Nolan, told me that the two crafted the screenplay as such so movie fans would want to see the film again, hoping they would absorb even more details the second time around.
“That’s the way my brother and I grew up watching movies. If we found one we liked, we watched it obsessively,” Jonathan Nolan, who goes by Jonah, said in a phone interview Monday. “If we found more detail in the second and third viewings, that really became the hallmark of a great film to us.
“With ‘Interstellar,’ there were extra challenges there involving mind-bending physics and the science that we grounded the film in, and that took us years and years to figure out on our end,” Nolan added. “It’s a film that has a density to it on that level, and hopefully it will be enjoyed more and more on that level as you begin to understand the rule-set and some of the concepts t
hat are quite alien the first time through them. Space-time curvature and time warps are a lot to wrap your head around.”
New on Blu-ray and DVD (Paramount Home Media Distribution), “Interstellar” stars Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a former pilot and engineer-turned-farmer in an unspecified time in Earth’s future. Climate conditions reminiscent of the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s have eliminated much of the world’s food supply, and blight has eradicated wheat and farmers can only grow corn.
Following an odd ghost-like occurrence involving his youngest daughter, Murph (MacKenzie Foy), Cooper finds his way to the now secretly-funded NASA, which tells him that his children’s generation will be the last to survive on the dying planet. Prompted by his old colleague, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Cooper is asked to pilot an interstellar mission to another galaxy in hopes of finding a world where the human race can survive. The catch is, the widower will have to leave Murph and her older brother behind, perhaps never to see them again.
“Interstellar” also stars Anne Hathaway as Brand’s daughter, Amelia — a doctor on the spacecraft whose emotional vulnerabilities cloud the mission — and Jessica Chastain as the adult version of Murph, who has grown up resenting her father because she felt abandoned.
With a narrative that ties together such elaborate concepts as wormholes, black holes and the idea of love transcending the boundaries of space and time, Nolan no doubt tackled with his brother their most ambitious project to date with “Interstellar”; and we’re talking the same brothers who brilliantly penned mind-bending complexities into such films the last two chapters of the “The Dark Knight” trilogy, “The Prestige” and “Memento” (Jonah penned the original short story, while Christopher wrote the screenplay).
“For me, and I can’t speak for Chris, the ambition was to try to tell a story that certainly wouldn’t encompass, but pointed to the full scope of the human experience,” Jonah Nolan explained. “Most of the films you watch, with a handful of exceptions — ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ being one of them — concentrate on one protagonist and one storyline. But really, the human story for me — especially when I looked at the achievements of NASA and the scientists involved, and the scientists from Newton onward, building the work of the work of ones that came before them for thousands of years — was really a generational story.”
So, Nolan said, while McConaughey’s Cooper is “one protagonist in the piece,” there’s ultimately something going on that’s much bigger than him.
“The real protagonist is humanity, and the work that we do that we hand from one generation to the next in the hopes that we might survive and maybe even prosper,” Nolan said.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of “Interstellar’s” history is that the film did not originate as a project for the Nolan brothers. In fact, one of the film’s producers, Lynda Obst and world-renown theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (who was a consultant on the script and was an executive producer), first hired Jonah Nolan to write the script with Steven Spielberg attached to direct.
Once the opportunity came for Christopher Nolan to direct the film, Jonah Nolan said his brother didn’t scrap what he started to build things from scratch, but continued to add layers to the foundation of his younger sibling’s narrative.
“When I worked with Kip, Lynda and Steven, I brought some ideas to the table and they brought some, and when Chris came to the project, he brought some of his own,” Nolan said. “Often what happens with my collaborations with Chris is, he gets in there and takes one of my ideas and puts his own inimitable spin on it, or adds a beautiful idea of his own.”
One of the biggest changes Christopher Nolan made to the script, Jonah Nolan said, came with a recalibration of the ending of the screenplay, giving it a much more powerful emotional punch.
“The ending to my script was quite pedestrian in comparison to his, and what Chris added to it had the scope and scale of the emotion in the film. It was so beautiful,” Nolan observed. “We have a really fun relationship because he gets to take my ideas and twist them around, and I get to take his ideas and twist them around. We surely think alike in a lot of ways, but he has his own unique perspective.”
And in the case of “Interstellar,” that perspective of being a parent drove Christopher Nolan and eventually, Jonah.
“Most of the work I did on ‘Interstellar’ happened before I was a parent or even married. But when he started working on the script, he had lots of kids and brought that perspective to it,” Jonah Nolan said. “He was bringing the perspective of a father to the storyline, where I was kind of guessing the emotions you would feel with a real acuity. The script clearly benefited from that. It’s always a great experience collaborating on a project with him for that very reason.”
While Christopher Nolan has yet to announce his next project, Jonah Nolan is well into his. The filmmaker wrote and directed the pilot episode of his new HBO series “Westworld,” starring the likes of Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden, Ed Harris and Thandie Newton. Created by Nolan and his wife, Lisa Joy, the re-imagining of the 1973 sci-fi favorite starring Yul Brynner film will debut sometime this year.
Celebrated filmmaker Christopher Nolan will be the subject of the Walker Art Center’s Dialogue and Retrospective series in May in Minneapolis, the museum announced this week.
Nolan, who most recently directed and co-wrote with his brother, Jonathan, the sci-fi blockbuster “Interstellar,” will kick off the retrospective, “Christopher Nolan Through Time,” with a Dialogue with Variety’s Scott Foundas May 5 at the Walker.
The Nolan retrospective is a huge deal for the Walker, which kicked off its Dialogue series 25 years ago with Clint Eastwood, which I attended. Since then the movie program at the museum has hosted career retrospectives with the likes of Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks, Joel and Ethan Coen, and most recently, “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen.
Read more about the Nolan retrospective here. In addition, check out the interview I did with Nolanfor the theatrical release of “Interstellar” last November. The film, which is now available on digital platforms, will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray (Paramount Home Distribution) next week. Also, look out for my interview with Jonathan Nolan for the home video release next week.
See below more about the Christopher Nolan retrospective on the segment I did Friday on KARE 11 in Minneapolis.
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers