An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


Arrival. What could be less likely than a cerebral thriller about space aliens? Is there such a thing? Ted Chiang wrote a story; Eric Heisserer did the screenplay, and Denis Villeneuve directed. Yes, it features space aliens but instead of the expected battles in the sky against monstrous beings, the story focuses on Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an accomplished, respected linguist in the academic world.

Twelve space pods have landed in various parts of our world, and the world is scared. Ignoring the temptation to become a blockbuster cliché, Amy Adams plays Dr. Banks as the serious professor determined to approach the aliens peacefully. She and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are summoned by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to use her language skills to discover whether the spacemen have come for peace or war.

As the movie cuts frequently to newsreels of a country hunkering down in fear and preparing for battle, Banks is determined to discover motivation before the politicians assume deadly intentions. When she succeeds in coaxing the aliens to come closer and they respond, we’re hooked. Credit the filmmakers with extraordinary inventiveness in creating the aliens and their language as art forms instead of monstrous images. This is something different, and it is good.

Although most space movies unfold in the world of the impossible, this one hits different chords because recent scientific advances are already planted in our heads. A recent PBS documentary about the possibility of visitors from other planets said the probability is high for visits within five years. That surreal possibility injects a morsel of reality that makes the arrival a symbol for global interaction and quiet negotiating rather than military strength and tests of will.

In the early scenes, Director Villeneuve made sure we knew the degree of Dr. Banks’ experience with languages and Amy Adams never undercuts the image of the serious linguist in any way. She creates a grand study of an expert challenged beyond her field with nothing less than the safety of the world at stake. For probably the first time, an audience is actually at the shoulder of a subtle, intelligent actor as she explores contact with an alien culture. Nothing happens on screen to undercut the feeling that we will one day be edging up to this situation in real life. This is a space fantasy with one root planted deeply in the ground.

This movie is a grand combination of fun, curiosity, and adventure that plants a whole new attitude about space stories. Some very inventive minds put it together and it would be a shame to skip it as I almost did when I thought it would be another monster bashing explosion in the sky.

The creators of this film have made a plea for understanding that global communication, not global war, will one day be our essential tool. Let’s hope an Amy Adams is on hand to help us.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Arrival
Word count : 492
Running time : 1:56
Rating : PG-13
Date : December 11, 2016


The Martian

An Exciting Tech Lesson

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

The Martian

When things go wrong for the Aries III mission on Mars, the crew takes off for the long journey home without Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who is presumed dead by the others after being hit by debris. Half buried in the grainy red soil, he recovers consciousness and becomes The Martian – sole resident of the planet and sturdy carrier of the whole movie.

Mark faces two imperatives: he must connect with NASA to let them know he is alive and he must learn how to grow food in barren soil. In a welcome rejection of imagined impossibilities, the filmmakers kept an astrophysicist on the set to keep them within the realm of the possible. His verdict: the details are accurate.

We watch Mark explore his options, step by step, in an extended technology lesson courtesy of director Ridley Scott. Even if Mark reaches NASA, it will take a rescue mission four years to reach Mars. He faces thirst, hunger, and cold, but as a botanist, he manages to channel whatever fear he may have into meeting the challenge.

After focusing on Mark’s efforts for the bulk of the film, we finally meet the crew (Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Jeff Daniels). Sunk in remorse, they are unanimous in their determination to rescue their teammate. In keeping with the technical thrust of the movie, we watch them consider every possible way to reduce the time of the return rescue trip. At a crucial point a scruffy young tech genius in a t-shirt (Donald Glover) steps in with a solution that astounds the assembled experts. It’s a lovely touch that reflects the reality of a world where progress is being invented and implemented by the young. We live in a time where experienced professionals are being eclipsed as they learn that only the very young can understand the language of the new world. The generation of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who started it all is being replaced by kids who have mastered an even newer language that the entire world is learning to speak.

Matt Damon is terrific as a thinker in a cerebral movie. Showing no fear, just acceptance and determination, he is thoroughly convincing as a scientist who is both brave and resourceful. Given the technical demands and the fact that he must act alone through most of the movie, he succeeds in a very difficult role.

If you have no interest whatsoever in how things work, you may tire of phrases like”degrees of arc, telemetry, MAV, SOL, and HAB,” but you can still enjoy the extraordinary visuals and a masterful sound track that enrich the explosive story.

Just hang in. The final section addresses the emotional needs of the audience just as they have gotten to know all the players. If the wrap up is pure Hollywood, we have earned it by paying such close attention to the absorbing technology. At last, we have been given a blockbuster with substance.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : The Martian
Distributor : 20th Century Fox
Running Time : 2:21
Word Count : 498
Rating : PG-13