Review of Arrival

Summary: Arrival is a thoughtful and dramatic movie that’s really worth seeing. It’s a “smart” alien invasion story. If you like introspective science fiction like Interstellar or Contact, then I think you’ll enjoy this one too. Bonus for folks interested in linguistics.

Science Fiction is a medium unlike many others because if often attempts to deliver a philosophical message to an audience despite the trappings of futuristic or cosmic themes. I’d argue that these poignant themes are emphasized because of the way that they ground the audience in spite of the extraordinary.

You wouldn’t always expect that. On Netflix and other video collections, the majority of Science Fiction stories focus on action, fantasy or horror. But there are a few that stand because they try to elevate the human experience to the above and beyond.

Arrival stands with such science fiction films as:

  • Interstellar (for the epic and emotional climax)
  • 2001: a Space Odyssey (for the existential observations about humanity)
  • Contact (for the unique take on interacting with alien beings)
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for the themes of memory and nostalgia)
  • Signs (where the focus is often about the people, not the event itself)

It also reminded me of Jacob’s Ladder, but for mixing anguish and loss with whatever genre it was.

All of these films tap into something primal about human emotion and existentialism. Memory, nostalgia, loss, anguish and fear. Unlike horror movies, where these feelings often (but not always) are detrimental to the protagonists’ fate, films like Arrival are about how these feelings elevate us and make us stronger. Human emotional vulnerability ultimately saves.

Arrival is a smart film, but not pretentious. All of the characters seem unsure of themselves; they all doubt and fear their own understanding of what’s happening around them. They express it in different ways, but because of this, all of the characters are relate-able, understandable. Even the film’s antagonists who tragically became worse because of their fears and anxieties. In a movie all about communication, these soldiers nearly ruined everything because of a lack of it.

The world’s military organisations play a large role, but they aren’t praised (like those propaganda schlock-fests of Michael Bay) nor bashed. There really are good people on all sides here; no cartoonish evil. It’s pretty fair.

Amy Addams is fantastic in this movie. I’m always fascinated and moved by portrayals of characters who are deeply affected by personal tragedy and loss. I’ve seen this actor in other films and I feel that she has quite a noble range. I want to see more movies with her in a leading role.

Most of the other actors did fine jobs with their subdued roles. Everyone in the world is numb in this movie and it’s quite dramatic. The representation of fear and anxiety is like a sickness, not a panic-driven fight or flight.

The special effects were extraordinary. I forgot that there was any CGI. This might be due to the excellent cinematography, editing and scoring. I felt completely immersed in the wondrous visual scenes. The alien design was very inspired and interesting.

I won’t spoil it for  you, but the movie has a surprising twist (not in a Shyamalan way, though) that is as packed with surprise and dawning understanding as it is with feeling. Intersellar made me feel the same way.

There’s an element to this movie that will make you scratch your head upon the first viewing. It all gets explained in the end, but makes you want to watch it again. Sort of like the Sixth Sense. But when it is revealed, it isn’t just another “AHA!” moment: it too is rich in emotional impact.

A common theme throughout the film is the circle or maybe even the tesseract. That is, a never-ending cycle or loop. High concept stuff for sure. I was very impressed.

The reveal of the aliens’ physical appearance, as well as their motives, also reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. I won’t go any further into that though.

As mentioned earlier, I highly recommend this movie. Definitely in my top favourites. The less you know about it, the better.

Reminiscent of the Engineers ships in Prometheus.

 

Review of Darling

Darling is a slow burning horror film reminiscent of the Shining and Witch. It is eerie and atmospheric, with sudden bursts of shrill, frightening music that reminded me of Insidious.

I think that it’s an okay film. It “felt” smarter than a lot of other films that I’ve seen recently, that’s for sure. But ambiguity doesn’t always mean greater intellectual merit. I was not left with any haunting moments stuck in my mind.

I won’t go over the plot much because I want others to see it and the less that you know, the better.

It is filmed in crisp, gorgeous black and white. The starting montage could have easily been part of the opening to Woody Allen’s Manhattan if it weren’t for the ominous low music and lack of narration. The shots were picked very carefully so as to omit anything that might take it out of its setting in the late 1960s / early 1970s.

I will say that this film is very beautiful. The director really knew how to get the best possible range of black and white. Some of the best that I’ve ever seen.

The film is ambiguous about whether or not the protagonist becomes unhinged due to a malignant spiritual or demonic presence in the house, or if she’s actually unhinged from the start and that she’s only imagining things. Perhaps she’s using the house’s reputation for being haunted as an excuse to indulge in her revenge fantasy (or homicidal tendencies in general).

Just like Pulp Fiction, I suppose that in the end it doesn’t matter what’s in the suitcase (or, in Darling’s case, just what she sees when she finally opens the locked door at the end of the hallway). The movie is about the situation and the atmosphere, not about plot.

When I first finished watching it, I wasn’t happy. I thought that it was pretentious and that it relied too heavily on visual trappings from Jacob’s Ladder and the Shining. The ending made me say “okay, so what?”.

In retrospect, I think that Darling was finely made and tightly directed. Lauren Ashley Carter was pretty good as the tormented (and demented) protagonist. Her huge, emotive eyes sure helped. There were times when her skinny face gave me flashbacks to Shelley Duvall panicking through the halls of the Overlook Hotel.

In terms of scares, Darling uses long, slow shots without any sound, sudden, loud bursts of orchestral noise, shaky heads and jump cuts to 2-3 frames of grotesque expressions, and some substantial gore during one sequence. There are one or two jump scares which mostly annoyed me.

I think that one scene in particular would have worked better if they had made the blood more “gooey” or “syrupy”. Not sure if Rigor Mortis kicks in so soon after a murder, but the watery splashy-ness of the gore felt too fake to me.

Some key mysteries:

Spoilers start here

  • When Darling finds her victim’s I.D. card, and realised that he wasn’t her intended target, was she freaking out because she killed an innocent man or because she didn’t get revenge after all?
  • Is the house deliberately attracting vulnerable, unhinged people as caretakers? Is it a malevolent force that likes to create tragic murders and suicides?
  • It is implied that Madam might know what’s going on with that house (and is probably in on it). If she was, why did she call the police when she found out that Darling had done something awful?
  • What was behind that locked door down the hall? My theory: nothing. It’s a broom closet. Darling realises that she’s nuts, and that she hadn’t been influenced by an outside, supernatural force that condoned her terrible deed.

Spoilers end here

Conclusion

If you want something different, and you like the slow, eerie qualities of the Shining and the Witch (VVitch?), give this one a shot. I found it interesting, but not hugely memorable.

Review of Blood in the Chocolate

Kiel Chenier’s 17th Century tongue-in-cheek horror adaptation of Road Dahl’s classic about a chocolate factory is a splendidly disturbing adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP).

Parodies of the subject matter have been done to death (ie, the Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy etc…), but this one remains fresh to me because it subverts so many expectations:

  • yes, of course the stand-in “Oompah Loompahs” are essentially slaves, we’re over that, but exactly who (or what) they’re slaves TO is a departure from other satires.
  • yes, the proprietor of the factory is a disturbing, selfish creature, but here we have a completely non-whimsical sadist who’s truly selfish and greedy for regular human reasons.
  • yes, the food can transform people, punishing them for their selfish flaws. But here the transformations are full-on body horror: stuff that I’d be reluctant to throw at my players’ characters.

Look and Feel and Usability

It’s a pretty booklet with vivid cartoony artwork, which is entirely appropriate given the subject matter: innocence with a slightly twisted edge. The illustrations represent actual events, characters and places featured in the adventure, which is always appreciated.

Each chapter has a different coloured background which aids in flipping through the book to find something. None of the watermarks or imagery inhibited readability.

The PDF has a clickable index. Always glad to have it included.

My favourite feature was the high level summary of the contents of every room. This is incredibly useful and amazing. Great thought was put into this document.

Structure

We’re given a nice bit of background and historical context. To me, that’s important because it grounds the weirdness into the semblance of reality. After all, if everything’s weird, nothing really is. The charm of this module depends greatly on the players’ campaign setting. I would not use any LotFP modules in High Fantasy worlds. Well, maybe in a G-Rated world of pristine cleanliness. But otherwise, I’d use something more relate-able and “real”.

We’re given a nice backstory to the villain who is refreshingly evil for banal reasons: she’s not a misunderstood, tragic figure, nor possessed by otherworldly demons. She’s just an asshole.

The module has nice, simple keyed maps of every room and corridor. The room descriptions are vivid but not overburdened with fluff. Everything is easy to grasp and understand.

Themes

The introduction makes a note that there are plenty of psycho-sexual themes in this module. I agree, but they’re applicable to male and female characters. The twisted horror is gender neutral.

As mentioned earlier, there are lots of body horror themes. These are typically inflicted through many traps and weapons that inflict awful diseases. Many have permanent effects if they don’t outright kill someone.

This adventure is gross and bizarre, but clever and fun. Hard to imagine, right?

As with many adventures for LotFP, this one rewards player (or character) cleverness and ingenuity. Charging in pistols blazing is a bad, awful idea.

There are several explanations for different outcomes, based on what the players do. There’s even a direct hook to another popular LotFP module, if you want to go into that direction.

Unlike some other punishing horror adventures, this one has many possible riches and rewards for adventurers who survive and thrive. They might even take over the factory itself and retire (but only if they accept the ethical dilemma of inflicting terrible diseases upon humanity).

Conclusion

This is a very well-written adventure module. There are may different options and ways for the GM to handle it. It is efficiently and elegantly laid out and would be easy to run. A fun, but bizarre and revolting adventure that will surely be memorable for both players and for their characters.

I recommend it.

You can buy it here at DriveThruRPG