“An instant classic.” Arrival DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

Those who have given up on ever seeing an original film again may take comfort from the presence of director Denis Villeneuve, who has carved himself a niche somewhere between well-trodden territory and new ground. His next release is Blade Runner 2049, which sees him in the tricky position of following Ridley Scott‘s futuristic masterpiece. What presumably got him there was Arrival, an assured and powerful sci-fi epic that amazingly is Villeneuve’s first attempt at the genre.

Amy Adams plays grieving and disconnected linguist Louise Banks. Now if you think linguistics isn’t going to make the most compelling subject for a story think again. Her recruitment into a multi-government effort to communicate with the occupants of several large, monolithic objects which have appeared over skies across the globe forms the basis of an instant classic. As she and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) gradually begin to piece together the purpose of the octopus-like “Heptapods” visit, they feel the weight of world expectation behind them. Meanwhile US Army bigwig Weber (Forest Whitaker) is being leaned on by his superiors to obtain fast results.

This push and pull illustrates one of the film’s big questions – are the superpowers capable of understanding the mysteries of the universe when they can’t trust each other for five minutes? Crucial to the struggle at the heart of Eric Heisserer‘s screenplay (based on a short story by Ted Chiang) is Adams’ lead performance, another effortless example of her star quality. She was the filmmaker’s only choice for the role and you can see why. Renner, Whitaker and the under-used Michael Stuhlbarg are decent, but merely incidental in a narrative that Adams dominates from start to finish. Finally we have a major genre movie that does everything AND has a female perspective.

For an alien encounter story, the feel is surprisingly intimate. Much of the action takes place either within the network of tents where the military have set up shop, or the interior of the spacecraft, a design triumph that acknowledges the likes of HR Giger but which also has a stunning simplicity. This is a sparse and elegant production of looming shapes rather than slithering monsters. It’s intelligent and complex but also accessible and moving. The increasing public disquiet is only shown via screens, ramped up by a deluge of media speculation, reinforcing the idea of a bubble.

Aside from an actress in charge of proceedings, there’s nothing that new on display: like Interstellar, Arrival pays tribute to 2001, both in terms of the central character’s personal odyssey and the striking black shapes heralding the appearance of an alien civilization. However, while Christopher Nolan‘s film boggled your eyes and shattered your eardrums with its central concept, Villeneuve delivers something more nuanced and distinctive. His take brings us familar subject matter in a way that hasn’t quite been seen before, derivative yet challenging. The reveal of the Heptapods’ ship fuses extraterrestrial engineering with nature in an astonishing helicopter shot which marks him out as a visual stylist to match Blade Runner‘s Ridley Scott. On the audio side, composer Johann Jóhannsson‘s score is a stirring mix of deep, Inception-style tones and intricate, exotic composition.

Unusually for a DVD, the extras are quite meaty, befitting the weighty ideas behind the tale. The main featurette – Xenolinguistics: Understanding Arrival – is an absorbing overview. At one point Villeneuve tells the interviewer he felt he couldn’t make a sci-fi movie in Canada… the home of David Cronenberg! How times have changed. But then Arrival rewrites the laws of time altogether. Like the best entries of its type it is a strong comment on humanity and how being confronted with something truly other uncovers the best and worst in us all.

 

This review appeared on THN.

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‘Jason Bourne’ DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

jb-1The last entry in the Bourne franchise was 2012’s The Bourne Legacy starring Jeremy Renner. While that became a one-off, it’s worth examining the character’s true legacy before diving in with this review. The original trilogy helped cement Matt Damon‘s position in Hollywood. Paul Greengrass‘s involvement from part two onwards gave the series an additional layer of quality. More than anything, the films had an impact on movie action in general. When Daniel Craig took the role of 007, it was no coincidence his adventures were “back to basics” in nature, a single shot saying more than a million bullets out of a machine gun ever could.

Identity through to Supremacy appeared to offer a complete journey for Jason Bourne. Despite this, Damon and Greengrass have got the band back together for their riskiest mission yet: an extra helping that tries not to tarnish what has gone before. Have they succeeded? Well, on the whole yes, though there are a few bumps on the road as they go.

Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse have developed their hero’s personal odyssey further by revealing hitherto-unknown information about Bourne’s involvement in Operation Blackbriar (the covert assassination league he blew wide open during his last outing). When former ally-turned-Snowden-esque-hacker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) contacts a broken-down Bourne about this explosive development, the scene is set for him to return from his exile as a bare knuckle boxer and set the world to rights one more time. It’s a logical but well-worn approach, though in fairness the strength of the franchise was the way it put a new spin on hackneyed spy thriller clichés rather than innovate itself.

Drawn back into the fray like a chiselled moth to a flame, Damon’s Bourne runs up against an impressive trio of villains. Tommy Lee Jones‘s weathered CIA chief Robert Dewey wants the rogue operative permanently erased. Alicia Vikander‘s ambitious and fetching Heather Lee represents the changing face of intelligence, believing Bourne can be brought back into the fold. Meanwhile Vincent Cassel’s “The Asset” becomes the latest relentless Euro-henchman to be put on Damon’s tail, a man of steel with old scores to settle.

Inevitably it’s more of the same controlled chaos, with Greengrass’s handheld camera roving amongst the fist fights and destruction at breakneck speed. The unflinching pace doesn’t make up for repetition and an overall lack of meat. However some intriguing snippets of Bourne’s character are in evidence – most notably the way he distances himself from Nicky’s counter culture activities. He may be fighting the system, but at heart he’s an establishment man, a strand which gives credence to Vikander’s belief he secretly wants to return to duty.

She is the film’s strongest element, Lee possessing equal capacity to wear either the white hat or the black. Damon can do this sort of thing in his sleep and the same can be said of Jones, who is a welcome presence. Cassel’s ageing hard man is also highly watchable. Like a lot of these big action projects, it could have done with being a bit shorter and not all the fresh ingredients work. Riz Ahmed‘s social media mogul doesn’t add much to the narrative, aside from making the basic point that Dewey’s world is changing.

Ironically the climactic chase has all the extravagance of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond, a sign that maybe the series is running low on inspiration. The team have had a good run, and made a sizeable mark on the genre – as Moby’s excellent Extreme Ways kicks in over the end credits, it might be time to admit those ways are now the old ways.

 

This review first appeared on THN.