Catholic News Service Movie Reviews


By John P. McCarthy

NEW YORK (CNS) — Humankind has an extended encounter with aliens from outer space in “Arrival” (Paramount). 

This unusually intimate science-fiction drama finds profundity on a human scale as well as in the cosmos. Hypnotic and melancholy, the trenchant film probes the human capacity for awe and the benefits of being vulnerable and brave at the same time.

Based on a Ted Chiang short story entitled “Story of Your Life,” “Arrival” is both vividly realistic and mesmerizingly dreamlike. At its centre is Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist mourning a personal loss, who is enlisted to communicate with extraterrestrials that have descended upon Earth in a dozen ovoid spacecraft.

One of these charcoal-hued vessels hovers above a Montana field and the U.S. government, represented by Col. Weber (Forest Whitaker) of Military Intelligence, enlists Banks and a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to determine what its occupants want and, most urgently, whether they pose an existential threat to humankind.

Step one is to find a means of communication and somehow decipher their language — either the sounds they make or, more probably, the symbols they produce. Basically it’s a code-breaking exercise, albeit one that requires Banks and Donnelly to enter the spaceship and come face-to-face with their potential interlocutors.

Although we’re only privy to the American efforts, experts from the 11 other countries where the ships have alighted attempt similar projects. Not surprisingly, the advent of the otherworldly visitors has triggered panic and significant geopolitical instability. Eventually, several nations led by China abandon the slow process of establishing meaningful contact and, fearing annihilation, threaten to attack the aliens pre-emptively.

Interlaced throughout the film are snippets of Banks’ personal life — ethereal flashbacks to moments when she’s conversing with her young daughter.

These transfixing scenes evoke the recent films of director Terrence Malick, especially “The Tree of Life.” And because they ultimately dovetail with Banks’ interaction with the aliens on both a material and metaphysical plane, they give “Arrival” a pronounced mystical quality.

Revealing anything more about the plot or the aliens could spoil viewing. But the film deploys elements commonly found in science-fiction tales in a novel and ultimately uplifting — if decidedly sombre — way.

Director Denis Villeneuve and his cohort of designers and craftsmen do a splendid job of generating an alternately frazzled and eerily calm atmosphere. Without diminishing any of their technical, behind-the-scenes work however, Amy Adams’ performance leaves the most lasting impression.

Tough, tender and intelligent, she translates the dramatic cadences of the story in gripping fashion and will surely win accolades, including, quite possibly, her first Oscar after five previous nominations.

It’s difficult to assess whether the science underlying the narrative holds water or makes complete sense from a logical point of view. What’s clear is that the film coheres artistically and emotionally.

The movie proffers a message about the necessity of accepting pain and sorrow in order to enter a more enlightened state of being. And it highlights the wisdom of not succumbing to fear by letting our bellicose instincts override our capacity for open communication and acceptance.

As a bonus, there’s no sexuality or violence — and only one lapse into vulgar language — in “Arrival.” Accordingly, most parents will probably consider this fundamentally moral work acceptable for mature adolescents.

The film contains some potentially frightening scenes and a single instance of rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.


Shut In
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — When a film’s dramatic highlight is the wonderful line “Just put the ax down so we can talk,” and it’s not, say, a drama about Canadian lumberjacks, the story may be in a little trouble.

Such is the case with “Shut In” (EuropaCorp), a weak and sometimes confusing psychological thriller that unfortunately blurs the line between mental illness and murderous activity, reviving a stereotype that should have expired decades ago.

Naomi Watts plays Mary Portman, a widowed psychologist with a home practice in rural Maine. Her husband died in a car wreck while taking Stephen (Charlie Heaton), his troubled son from a previous marriage, to a boarding/reform school.

Stephen survived as a non-verbal quadriplegic. So now Mary takes care of him — inexplicably, by herself. In reality, of course, this highly unlikely situation is demanded by, and complies with, an all-too-familiar formula for the genre.

Being the sole caretaker is stressful, naturally, and there comes a time when Mary dreams about drowning Stephen in the bathtub. Less desperately, she also has discussions about moving him into full-time nursing care.

As though she didn’t have enough to cope with already, Mary decides to take in Tom (Jacob Tremblay), a deaf boy with psychological issues of his own. Tom goes missing one night and is presumed to have died of exposure. In short order, Mary starts having elaborately terrifying dreams — and thinks she’s seeing Tom’s ghost.

Director Farran Blackburn and screenwriter Christina Hodson try to give the story a fresh twist. But their ideas are all as cold as the movie’s snowy setting.

The film contains brief partial nudity and fleeting rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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