Those Wondrous Powers

Those Wondrous Powers

What Arrival offers is so valuable that you might almost choose to pretend that someone knew we were going to need this picture after Trump’s election.


I couldn’t wait to see Amy Adams talk to extraterrestrials in Arrival. Who else could make such a good first impression for us? The American president who evidently stills holds office in the movie—and is excoriated by talk-radio bullies for not declaring all-out war on space travelers—would certainly be a first-rate spokesperson for earthlings, but he’ll soon be unavailable. And America’s actual president-elect? I don’t think he’d be the best choice in a situation that demands tact. The obscurity of purpose of our otherworldly visitors and the unfathomability of their minds would best be met by someone who’s a human light source. Send Amy Adams to shine at them.

There’s a climactic scene in Arrival in which Adams, as the linguist Louise Banks, stands in the immediate presence of an unimaginable being, with the floating red tendrils of her hair and marine blue of her eyes the only areas of strong color in a visual field transformed by cinematographer Bradford Young into an ophthalmologic aura, such as you see when your pupils have been dilated; and though the billows of light on-screen may cloak the alien, it’s the unclouded surface of Adams’s face that spreads the glow. Write off the effect, if you like, to mere cinematic technique combined with cultural prejudice, which sees in Adams’s physiognomy a storybook princess or well-scrubbed hometown girl. You’d still need to account for the surplus of illumination—candor and intelligence made visible—that Adams can project the way Aroldis Chapman pitches fastballs. Her professional capability saves this scene from being just another episode of sci-fi transcendence. Her force of personality makes you proud to see the hand-lettered sign she holds up, earlier in the movie, to identify herself: “Human.”

Adams is directed in Arrival by the Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who has previously alternated between artfully brutal suspense pictures (Prisoners, Sicario) and narrative conundrums (Enemy). Here he works in both modes at once, giving a bang-up staging to the military and popular response to the alien landing (high alert, total panic) while also evoking the increasingly odd psychological effect of the visitors on Dr. Banks. She already appears to be drifting emotionally at the start of the movie, holed up alone in a tasteful waterfront house (nice woodwork, picture windows, and wine glasses) and brooding over dreamy, discontinuous scenes of the life and death of her daughter. Banks’s inner state becomes even more unsettled, understandably, when the US Army shows up in the form of Forest Whitaker and whisks her away in a helicopter to an impromptu base in Montana, where she’s expected to interpret the rumbles, booms, and crackles that presumably serve as speech among the recently landed aliens.

A conventional theme of humanism versus hard science labors into the film during this sequence, announced loudly through a rivalry between Banks and a new colleague, Ian Donnelly; and because this physicist is played by the studly Jeremy Renner, the extraprofes­sional destination of the characters’ sentiments is also thuddingly obvious. These stumbles are the exceptions, though, in a picture that usually moves lightly and with refreshing subtlety. Villeneuve uses only a few economical strokes to establish the mood after the extraterrestrials appear: the sound of unseen fighter jets roaring across the sky, while in an almost deserted parking lot, one car backs into another. Ville­neuve is similarly understated in the setting he constructs for Banks once she reaches Montana: a labyrinth of low, narrow, dimly lit military tents, which looks realistic enough but also seems like the outward, visible sign of the heroine’s inner maze.

When Banks and her team proceed into the alien craft—the galaxy’s biggest skipping stone, you’d think, which stands upright while hovering 20 feet over the ground—Villeneuve continues his labyrinth and elaborates on it. The investigators enter another tunnel, which is longer, darker, and even more suffocating than the ones in the tent city. It’s more disorienting as well, since it starts out being vertical and unitary but then branches out by overcoming gravity and multiplying the possibilities of “up” and “down.” There is light at the end of this tunnel: a bright rectangle with the unmistakable proportions of a movie screen. Just like you, Banks and her new colleagues are going to a show.

What they see when they get there is familiar enough to qualify as a traditional viewer attraction. The aliens who put themselves on view are variously reminiscent of tentacled monsters in horror movies, creatures floating behind the glass of a giant aquarium, and (in Donnelly’s opinion) Abbott and Costello. At the same time, they so impressively defy expectations—especially in their means of communication—that I should cut short the description. It’s enough to say that Banks has to work, mentally and physically, to follow the show she’s watching, and can’t succeed without instilling her own feelings into the production.

So is Arrival just another movie about watching movies—another roundabout trip through a self-enclosed system that ends at its own beginning? Yes, and no. We count on films, if they’re any good, to be about something beyond themselves; and although the “sci” half of the sci-fi is thoroughly pseudo in this instance, and the linguistics more attuned to Robert Heinlein’s dopey fantasies than Noam Chomsky’s research, Arrival nevertheless succeeds in making terrestrial contact. It does so partly by deploying the unfailing Adams; partly by using aliens to direct our attention toward a real problem (the political division of Earth into competing national interests); and partly by treating the screen as a space for displaying continually changing possibilities—­some that a smart, ethical woman would resist and some that she might joyfully embrace, whatever sorrow comes with them.

That’s the agenda: Confront xenophobia, save Earth from itself, elevate movie-­watching into intellectual struggle, and attain the peace that passeth all understanding. From these goals, you get artsy mishmash, which is how I’d characterize Arrival at its worst. At its best, which is considerable, you also get astonishment, awe, and tempered optimism (which is always good to have), along with respect for the female Homo sapiens and pleasure in the filmmakers’ powers of invention.

It was purely by accident, of course, that Arrival’s release immediately after the election brought these qualities into theaters at a time of great darkness. What the movie offers is so valuable, though, that you might almost choose to take the story on its own goofy terms and pretend that someone, somewhere, knew we were going to need this picture.

* * *

Despite all temptations, I had much too good a time watching Doctor Strange to belittle Benedict Cumberbatch as the Donald Trump of November’s fantasy movies. In contrast to Amy Adams, with her reasoned, communitarian approach to issues like Chinese military unilateralism, Cumberbatch does indeed deliver a Trumpian extragovernmental promise of protection from all manner of bogus threats. Emphatically masculine and uniquely talented (or so they say), the Sorcerer Supreme and Master of the Mystic Arts dwells in luxury in New York City, and when he explains what he intends to do, gives out a mouthful of gibberish. On the other hand, Cumberbatch diverges sharply from Trump by looking good, being genuinely witty, and starring in a first-rate production. Give him a chance.

It’s remarkable enough that his Stephen Strange should be in theaters at all. This spell-casting traveler through the many dimensions of Marvel Comics attracted his most avid followers in the 1960s, among readers in a highly illegal state of mind. I wouldn’t have thought today’s moviegoers would thrill to his psychedelic mumbo-jumbo; but now that Marvel has gone from being a comic-book publisher to a multiplatform conglomerate that systematically builds out its old properties (formerly known as characters) into an ever-expanding geodesic dome of interconnected money-makers, a place was open for Doctor Strange, with millions of viewers trained to want the slot filled.

So here you have it: one act of origin story, two acts of CGI delirium, and a teaser at the end of the credits to prepare you for the next big-screen appearance of the Sorcerer Supreme, when he’ll meet Thor. I could have dispensed with the teaser, but thought the rest of Doctor Strange—directed by Scott Derrickson, and written by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill—was more fun than I’d had any reason to expect.

Cumberbatch is exceptionally good at playing brilliant, arrogant, isolated characters—­look at his Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing—and so is right at home as Strange, the most preening medical genius to come along since Steve Martin, as neurosurgeon Michael Hfuhruhurr, performed dual operations ambidextrously with a cat underfoot. When self-inflicted hand injuries end Strange’s career—a little matter of his having driven a cliffside road at top speed, in the rain and at twilight, while studying CAT scans on his smartphone—he desperately undertakes a pilgrimage to Nepal, hoping that an Eastern healer will succeed where Western medicine has failed. In Kathmandu, behind a shabby door that he thinks is beneath his dignity, he finds a serenely bald Tilda Swinton, and the adventure begins.

Strange plummets, screaming, into a purple galaxy of fuzzy pom-poms, shoots through the flaming wind chimes of God, feels his face open outward like a telescoping Gothic wainscot, watches little hands grow from the tips of his fingers and then sees them all sprout even tinier hands. Is that supposed to make him feel better? It convinces him to apprentice himself to Swinton’s Ancient One, at any rate, after which he’s thrown prematurely into magical battle against a deadly Mads Mikkelsen—you know he’s evil because of the layers of glitter and smeared mascara around his eyes— and plunged into still more cauldrons of warped space-time.

It’s a busy life; and one of its running gags is that while these furious astral battles are being fought overhead, ordinary people in their obliviousness proceed as normal. You might say the same about the fundamental movie-making that goes on in Doctor Strange. The actors say their lines as if they mean them, sometimes in shots that would be ambitious even in a realistic drama; casual jokes—good ones—are tossed off to punctuate the scenes; moments of mischief or pathos come along to vary the tone; and all the while the wonders of CGI keep blasting through. They wouldn’t be half as enjoyable if the underlying basics weren’t so solid.

But for all the excitement and laughter, is Doctor Strange about anything beyond itself? If it is, I think the meaning lies in the story’s Mirror Dimension: a simulacrum of the real world, accessible behind a prismatic wall, where magicians can practice their skills without disturbing anybody. Some people would describe the world of the arts in the same way: as a mimetic space, separate and distinct from life, where we have freedom to play out our thoughts and feelings. Yet it turns out that the Mirror Dimension can be invaded, with dire consequences for the people trapped there and with real repercussions for those outside.

One possible moral of Doctor Strange, at a time when so-called reality TV has bled so disastrously into real life: Be careful about those wondrous powers you imagine. There is no safe space for their use, nor does everyone have the humility to wield them.

* * *

Meanwhile, amid our mundane existence, we are fortunate to have a new movie about people who work with their hands—people who build houses, fix cars, harvest crops, iron clothes, help women give birth, and put food on the table for children. Sometimes these people get married. They consider it a normal thing to do. And yet when Mildred and Richard Loving did it, they needed to secure a Supreme Court ruling before they could live peacefully as husband and wife in the place where they were born.

Jeff Nichols’s Loving is a quiet, sober fictional retelling of the lives of the Lovings, from the day in 1958 when they decided to marry, despite the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, to the 1967 Supreme Court decision that overturned all statutes against miscegenation. This is not the first film about the couple’s long struggle—Nancy Buirski made a fine documentary on the subject, The Loving Story, released in 2011—but it’s a deeply moving one, in touch with the physical texture of the rural South and alive to the unspoken feelings of ordinary working people who turned out not to be ordinary at all.

Nichols, who is himself a Southerner, stresses the simplicity of the Lovings: the near silence of Richard (a blond, crew-cut Joel Edgerton, keeping his features bunched up and his hands hanging awkwardly when they’re not doing something useful) and the gentle inwardness of Mildred (Ruth Negga, whose face has the elegance and repose of a Botticelli). There’s no defiance in them; all they want is to stay close to home and be ignored. When they finally win the right to do so, after nine years of pursuit by the police and the Virginia courts, there are no cheers or hugs, no fists pumped in the air. Mildred simply comes onto the porch and smiles, a little, and Richard turns around and notices. They’ve made history; but it’s the mere fact of their being together, in quiet satisfaction, that brings the tears to your eyes.

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