'On the Nature of Daylight': Arrival's Gentle, Beating Heart
Max Richter's 'On the Nature of Daylight' signaled that as a new parent, I was going to have a relationship with Arrival's message.
Arrival's Oscar disqualification for 'Best Original Score' did not escape controversy this year when Academy rules dictated that Academy Award nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's stirring score was 'diluted [as presented in the film] by the use of pre-existing music', a single work which nonetheless powerfully bookends Villeneuve's latest. That piece, Max Richter's 'On the Nature of Daylight' (The Blue Notebooks, 2004), deeply informs the kind of film Arrival is trying to be under its rich social and political themes.
In a year as socio-politically tumultuous as 2016, Arrival deftly handles commentary on a range of hot-button issues which reflect the state of our lives as much as it lends a compassionate gaze, presenting viewers not with the well-trodden mediocrity of another design-by-committee sci-fi action-adventure, but with the kind of prodding science fiction which all too often eludes viewings at multiplex theaters. Whether the heat of Nigel Farage's divisive anti-immigration discourses during the UK's (yet ongoing) 'Brexit' debacle, or the unending sound and fury of the American duopoly's latest schizophrenic display of electoral convulsions, Arrival gives viewers pause to consider the role of fear, paranoia, and incendiary language in the generation of conflict on global scales.
Indeed, between the exhaustively obstinate partisanship which dominates our national discourse, the barrage of increasingly banal bickering 24/7 news cycles relentlessly proffer in, and the looming threat of serious climate change (to name but a few issues), the collective atmosphere of the nation and the world seems to be that of a cumulative anxiety. It's within this global context that Arrival seeks to position it's message as both deeply resonant and intensely personal. At the heart of Villeneuve's efforts lies an uncommon grace, a gentle yet hard-won message, which transcends the issues. To understand Villeneuve's intentions here is to understand what Richter's minimalist 'Daylight' seeks to so elegantly convey.
The science fiction enthusiast can find themselves starved for competent film adaptations of some of the genre's finer examples. As a loving fan of science fiction which deals in more than lasers and space wizards (not to necessarily denigrate fans of those galaxies far, far away), a fan who cherishes every competent celluloid iteration of the genre's most biting themes and salient social commentaries, I deliberately screened away any promotion materials, plot details, reviews, filmmaker interviews, or production reports upon the simple knowledge that the film existed and word was good. I was satisfied in the knowledge that after a frequently disappointing year at the megaplex I might have another Ex Machina (2015), a Black Mirror (2011-) with a side of chemical-butter flavored extortion, and I wanted to go in as relatively unawares as possible.
While this baseline did not fail to rightly guide me into my immoderately cushioned seat, and while Arrival indeed submits to the audience the kind of sociopolitical commentary the genre's finer examples are defined by, expectations were immediately transmuted when Max Richter's 'On the Nature of Daylight' broke my fellow theatergoer's lowest pre-reel murmurs and struck me solid, immovable. It is rather specifically Richter's work which so clearly signaled that I wasn't merely going to appreciate (or denigrate) the film's artistic and technical merits, laud or criticize its direction and performances, but rather, that I was going to have a relationship with Arrival's message. This relationship would prove twofold, informed both by my academic career and my recent foray into parenthood. Between the two (the cerebral and the emotionally visceral), Villeneuve grabs his viewers by first tending to the latter with the aid of Richter's 'Daylight', immediately presenting Arrival's core tragedy: our lead, a linguistics professor expertly portrayed by a gentle Amy Adams (as Dr. Louise Banks), suffers the loss of her child to a rare and terrible disease.