Short takes:

Arrival

Directed by Denis Villeneuve 

Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker 

Rated PG-13

View the trailer here.

A dozen enormous alien spacecraft converge on Earth, hovering just above a series of sites that seem to have been chosen at random.  (Quick: name another SF movie set in rural Montana.)  The visitors make no hostile moves nor any other evident attempts to communicate.  Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, is dragooned into helping the military find out what the aliens want, and whether they represent a threat.  Theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) is also part of the Montana team, which answers to Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker).

This movie’s aliens turn out to be quite alien, in the sense of not being bipeds with pointed ears or some other man-in-a-costume option.  At our first glance of them, my initial thought was that H.P. Lovecraft might be on to something.  Still, the “heptapods” ultimately aren’t utterly unlike any earthly life form; they’re multi-legged cephalopods that communicate through patterns of squirted “ink.”  It’s quite a challenge for Louise and the rest of the team to crack, and they’re in a race against time because the presence of the aliens is causing worldwide rioting among a fearful populace—and the Chinese are getting itchy trigger fingers concerning the alien craft within their borders.

What Louise ultimately learns about the language of the aliens is interestingly linked to a number of apparent flashbacks to her deceased young daughter that appear throughout the story.  Arrival is just shy of 2 hours long, but its deliberate pace makes it a seem longer; it’s well made and has a strong cast, but in the end may be a tad touchy-feely for some tastes, including mine.  It’s a science fiction movie that may make you scratch your head and want to talk about it afterwards.  For a science fiction movie that you’ll want to see a second time, there’s always Rogue One.

***

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Directed by Gareth Edwards

Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, and Alan Tudyk

Rated PG-13

View the trailer here.

This unnumbered episode of the Star Wars saga is, for our purposes, where the story begins, which is why it’s the only one of the series not to have an introductory scroll at the beginning.  Star Wars (1977), subsequently numbered IV and subtitled A New Hope, starts with Princess Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) smuggling the plans for the Death Star, a planet-killing Imperial weapon, into the hands of the Rebel Alliance.  Rogue One is the backstory that tells how those plans were obtained, and how Leia got hold of them.

Rogue One takes a while to get going: it starts out with episodic scenes on this and that planet, setting up all the pieces that will soon come together.  Once it starts rolling, it doesn’t let up.  The vivid cast of new characters includes the heroine, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), intrepid Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), and the scene-stealing robot K-2SO (voiced by a motion-captured Alan Tudyk).  Also on the mission to steal the plans are Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a guy with dreadlocks and a machine gun; and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), a Zatoichi-style blind swordsman immersed in the Force.  A knocked-apart Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) puts in an appearance. 

Once the final battle is joined, the action is spectacular and unrelenting.  Make no mistake: these characters are on a suicide mission, and they know it.  Not to be a spoiler, but there’s a reason you don’t remember seeing any of them in the first Star Wars, which follows the end of this story in sequence by a matter of minutes. 

Lots of references to the 1977 original in the background of Rogue One for fanboys to pick up on—a familiar alien here, a particular computer screen image there—as well as some familiar faces.  A particular pair of droids have a cameo, as does Darth Vader (still voiced by James Earl Jones).  The commander of the Death Star, Grand Moff Tarkin, has significant screen time, even though Peter Cushing, the actor who created the role, has been dead since 1994.  His face, a CGI mask, is pasted onto Guy Henry, who does a serviceable imitation of Mr. Cushing’s voice.

The final image of Rogue One, a woman’s face, is at once beautiful, eerie, and poignant.

***

 

Moana

Directed by Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker, and Chris Williams 

Starring Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson

Rated PG

View the trailer here.

Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho), a chieftain’s daughter in a community of South Pacific islanders, is afflicted with wanderlust.  She wants to go sail the broad ocean, but there’s a taboo against going beyond the barrier reef that surrounds the island.  Soon, facing crop failures and dwindling fish populations, Moana finds she must go to sea to put a stop to the blight.  Seems it’s all a result of an incident in the mythological past: the demigod Maui stole the heart of the goddess Te Whiti, and Moana has to persuade him to return it so the earth’s natural balance can be restored.  Or something.   

Soon Moana encounters Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), and he reluctantly, and for his own reasons, joins her on her quest.  These two share a feisty chemistry that never hints at romance; it’s more like a big brother-kid sister arrangement, and on this long ocean voyage, they often get on each other’s last nerve. 

These Disney animated adventures have become so spectacular—and so frequent—I confess I’m getting a bit burned out on them.  See it anyway; there’s little to dislike about Moana, other than an annoying chicken that stows away on the voyage (I was relieved when the cutesy piglet was left behind, but the chicken is worse).  Maui’s animated tattoos are a hoot, and the movie is both fun and beautiful.  Still, the fact is, more than 3 years later, Frozen is still a tough act to follow.

 

Lyndon Joslin