Movie reviews: Like all good science fiction, Arrival takes one big idea to a satisfying conclusion

Arrival is lushly poetic science fiction, nail-biting suspense saves Patriots Day, references to South Korean politics elevate crime thriller Master and The Bye Bye Man's scares are hidden by a cloak

Arrival (PG13, 116 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4/5 stars) has been saddled with the unfortunate "brainy science fiction" tag, a lazy label that just means "science fiction", but is applied because there is a need to separate movies about aliens that do not involve ray guns and Death Stars from those that do.

Like all good science fiction, Arrival is about one big idea taken to a satisfying conclusion. Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called in by the military when a dozen seedpod-shaped ships appear at different places on Earth. Together with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), she has to work out what the foreigners want.

To say any more would be to ruin the movie, but in essence, the story has a lot in common with a film outside its genre, the musical La La Land (showing in theatres).

Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, 2015) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer, in adapting Ted Chiang's short story, Story Of Your Life, view Banks' trip as a metaphor for the struggles of an artist trying to see a reality under the one visible to everyone.

Success will split the world into the old and the new and this movie offers a lushly poetic interpretation of that idea. Over-thinking the details - such as, why would a race that has mastered faster-than-light travel be incapable of communicating in any of Earth's languages? - would bring only frustration.

Villeneuve, in his usual fashion, prefers terse, open-ended dialogue punctuated by lots of dream-like imagery; as with Emily Blunt's tough cop Kate in Sicario, the audience sees what Banks sees and feels what she feels. Nobody does that kind of sympathetic immersiveness better and Banks' long, strange trip into inner space is quite the ride.

Villeneuve is a spare film-maker; his stories and frames are stripped of extraneous detail. On the other end of the spectrum is director Peter Berg. His Patriots Day (M18, 133 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3/5 stars) is a movie groaning under the weight of its specificity.

Berg and his producing buddy Mark Wahlberg (here also playing the lead, as cop Tommy Saunders) make yet another movie based on news events (Lone Survivor, 2013; Deepwater Horizon, 2016).

Saunders is a composite character, but others are based on real people (at least those willing to sign contracts about their likenesses being used in a movie). The incident in question is the 2013 terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon.

As with previous ripped-from- the-headlines Berg-Wahlberg productions, viewers need to wade through a pool of flag-waving, family-togetherness treacle, when it is not about steely-eyed guys barking orders and thumping tables.

But what saves it is the surprising amount of nail-biting suspense here, found in the bits featuring plucky Chinese expatriate Dun Meng (played by comedian Jimmy O. Yang), who is kidnapped by the fleeing terrorists, robbed and most likely targeted for execution.

Kim Woo Bin (foreground) stars as a millionaire’s playboy IT manager and Gang Dong Won plays a financial crimes cop in South Korean crime thriller Master. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

There is a lot more thriller- suspense material in Master (PG, 143 minutes, opens on Friday, 3.5/5 stars), the latest big-budget work from South Korea after Age Of Shadows (now showing).

A competently made but generic copy of a twisty Hong Kong-style crime drama, the details that elevate this from the pack are its references to the politics and culture of South Korea.

Millionaire businessman Jin (Lee Byung Hun) is elevated to idol status by adoring crowds who swallow his promises of wealth, even as he warns them to guard against unbelievers who consider him a charlatan (sound familiar?).

Financial crimes cop Kim (Gang Dong Won) thinks that if he breaks Jin's playboy IT manager Jang Gun (Kim Woo Bin), he can bring the millionaire down. And thus begins an unlikely partnership between the straight-laced policeman and the devious, possibly double- and triple-crossing criminal.

All the big bangs and shoot-outs are kept to the film's climax; the three-cornered contest of wills and wits among Jin, Jang Gun and Kim keeps the ball rolling.

Director Cho Ui Seok (Cold Eyes, 2013) tells a complex story not just coherently, but also with panache, while throwing jabs at South Koreans entranced by stadium- filling gurus promising easy wealth. Cons of that scale cannot happen without collusion with politicians, he says. With the scandals rocking the South Korean government now, Cho's movie is prescient.

Carrie-Anne Moss is a cop in The Bye Bye Man who refuses to believe that a bogeyman is killing college students (above from left) Lucien Laviscount, Douglas Smith, and Cressida Bonas. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

The Bye Bye Man (NC16, 114 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars) could have been something other than another run-of-the-mill fable about smarty-pants teens who pooh-pooh an urban myth only to find out, slightly too late, that the legends are true.

Carrie-Anne Moss is tough cop Shaw who finds the story told by terrified teens Elliot, John and Sasha (Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount and Cressida Bonas respectively) far-fetched, even as one by one, they are gruesomely targeted, Final Destination-style.

The film, in a change from the usual, does not over-rely on jump scares. In another nice touch, the film industry's favourite gangly man, Doug Jones, appears as the ghoul of the film's title. Too bad, then, that he is tragically underused. In a strange wardrobe decision, he is clad in a cloak that hides everything about him that is scary.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'Thrills, suspense and a strange trip into inner space'. Subscribe