Movies Like Close Encounters

Arrival

arrival

Arrival (2016) – Science Fiction | Drama

Directed by: Denis Villenueve

Starring: Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner

How I Watched: Theatres

Best Line: “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

The events of the last two weeks have been rough on a lot of us. No matter which way you would like to slice it, the truth is that the world has fundamentally changed. Some of us are clinging to reality in a strange existential fog while others are sitting back and waiting to see what will happen. I’m not suggesting that writer Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villenueve saw the future when making Arrival, but I think it’s safe to suggest that they did a good job tapping into the anger, frustration and confusion floating like a cloud above our planet right now.

On the surface, Arrival is a pretty hard Sci-Fi film, borrowing elements from some of the most revered movies in the genre. For those who don’t know, the movie begins with an “arrival” as 12 mysterious and enormous objects suddenly appear across the globe without any apparent intentions. The US government enlists the help of language expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to perhaps obtain this intent. The film is unapologetic with its use of aliens and these are some of the better aliens I’ve ever seen. When it comes down to it though, Arrival  is a pretty great drama.

Those that have seen Amy Adams in movies like DoubtThe Fighter and American Hustle know that she can handle herself in a dramatic role. This however, is something different. Adams absolutely owns this film, delivering an incredibly heartbreaking performance that is both devastating and thought-provoking in the most mind-fucking way possible. We’ve all seen Inception and we’ve all experienced the occasional Shyamalan twist, but what Arrival gives us is a whole new meaning to crazy.

I’ve only seen a couple of Villenueve’s movies (I haven’t seen Sicario yet – I know, I’m just the worst), but Prisoners rocked my world with its twist-filled darkness. Enemy with Jake Gylenhaal is probably more closely related to Arrival with its utterly bothersome climax. Something that Villenueve is definitely great at though, is using darkness to stun his audience. Like David Lynch, his movies are dark, muted and a bit relentless in the shock value. There’s plenty of shock in Arrival so be prepared.

Speaking of shock, holy shit, the aliens. I won’t go too far into it, but the Lovecraftian brilliance that they put into these things was astounding. I talked to a friend last night that also saw the movie and he described them as “a big bucket of nope.” While I can see why someone would say that, I wanted to see more of them. Perhaps though, how Villenueve presented them was perfect, as their appearances did not take away from the incredible storyline either. However, if aliens frighten you, I’d stay away from this one.

The most important part of Arrival to me was the narrative concerning international relations. Amid the invasion, the countries in which a ship landed each investigated the ships in their own way. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that each country does not agree on how these ships should be handled, which leads to an all-out international crisis. This hit way too close for home for me, as my fears for how the world is currently treating itself looked a lot like this. I know, I know, it’s a movie about aliens, but this really struck a chord in me that I was not expecting walking into the theater.

I was a little stunned to find as much meaning as I did from Arrival. While it’s a really cool science fiction movie about aliens making first contact, it cleverly delivers a statement about the shape the world is in right now. I enjoy the way Denis Villenueve works and absolutely expect Arrival to shake things up this awards season. Science-Fiction is not generally treated very well at the Academy, but movies that have something to say with relevance about us as a species generally do. So don’t be shocked when this one gets heaped up toward the top.

Final Score: 4/4

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Similar Films: Enemy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds

Midnight Special 

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Midnight Special (2015) – Drama | Science Fiction 

Directed by: Jeff Nichols 

Starring: Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton 

How I Watched: Amazon Instant Video

Jeff Nichols makes a habit out of taking his viewers into a different dimension. Take Shelter lifted Michael Shannon into an otherworldly acting status and Mud further solidified this decade’s Matthew McConaughey dominance. In both of those films, it was easy to get completely absorbed into the stories. His characters, often seemingly simple people, can be frustrating, yet immensely likable. Shannon is fighting paranoid schizophrenia in Take Shelter, stricken with visions of an imminent worldwide storm threatening his family’s safety. In Mud, McConaughey quite literally takes shelter in the forest on an island in Arkansas. While both stories stay grounded, there are times in each which border on the unbelievable. I don’t want to say this film is unbelievable, but Nichols definitely has jumped into another genre with this effort.

Midnight Special tells the story of a young child with extraordinary powers and his father (played brilliantly by Nichols alum, Michael Shannon) who does everything he can to protect his son from all those who threaten his existence. From the beginning, the film is exciting, unnerving and incredibly mysterious as it ramps up toward the heart of the movie. There’s a creepy religious cult, car chases, shit crashing to earth from space and some breathtaking CGI that is refreshingly done right in today’s world of graphic overabundance. While it might not reach the emotional levels that Nichols’ previous two offers do, Midnight Special has earned its place in the world of modern Science Fiction.

The film’s ensemble is one of the most impressive elements of Midnight Special. Joel Edgerton shines as Shannon’s old friend, driving and protecting the father and son throughout the film. Adam Driver is not a huge part of the movie, yet provides some of the little humor that pops up. Kirsten Dunst makes an appearance, which seems questionable at first, until I remembered when she rocked the hell out of the transcendent Melancholia. This is not quite the emotional rollercoaster that Melancholia is, but it’s easy to compare elements of the two. I get annoyed by child actors quite often, but Jaeden Lieberher does a great job as Alton, the film’s focus as the young boy with supernatural abilities. Whenever I see Sam Shepard’s name in the credits, I know I’m in for a treat. He does not let down in Midnight Special, as the leader of the cult. His character is unsettling, and walks the tightrope that begs both empathy and hate.

As I mentioned previously, Jeff Nichols has a knack for creating his own worlds. Like Steven Spielberg, you know when you’re watching one of his movies. David Wingo (who has worked with Nichols on all three of his features) and his music in the film, oppressively drones at your emotions, only ramping up when the action does. The beginning of Midnight Special is strange, but delivers an important sense of wonder, much like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Not much is said for quite a while and we as the viewers are left wondering where the story might move next. Little by little, the story comes together and is pieced together much like a 1980’s sci-fi flick (ala Spielberg) would be. Nichols ultimately abandons his typical penchant for leaving us suspended by the time the film comes to an end, but it still leaves enough to probably require a second viewing.

Midnight Special is the ultimate display of just how much Nichols is capable of with the appropriate budget. With more than three times the amount of money he was given to make Take Shelter, Nichols created a golden Science Fiction film that does not forget to keep the human element an active part of the story. While I feel it does not quite reach the level of Take Shelter and MudMidnight Special is a spectacular visual treat that lovingly takes from exciting sci-fi of yesteryear. If you haven’t yet experienced Jeff Nichols’ cinematic worlds, do yourself a huge favor and soak all of these in.

Final Score: 3.5/4

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Similar Films: Melancholia, Take Shelter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind