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.
The emotive weight these first few moments placed upon me can only be reemphasized. Indeed, musings on why parenting is difficult so often fall hopelessly short of the experience of parenthood. It isn’t the dirty diapers, the added bills, or the growing pile of inane plastic baubles which serve as both pastel eyesores and bare-footed landmines that keeps the parent up at night. Rather, it’s the risk of bringing a child into this world. To be a parent is to know what it truly feels like to have your existential and emotional neck stuck out a few kilometers from the cozy self-interested confines of your adolescence, to offer to the world a thing which is a present sum of your muddied self yet somehow perfect, a defiant, blissful, happy, loving and aware thing newly inhabiting an otherwise indifferent world. A parent’s child is simultaneously their greatest source of luminescence and the world’s grandest and most deeply personal ongoing threat, a threat which dangles the merry threads of your life over a razor’s edge, should that incandescence be snuffed out by some moment of inattention, some cruelty of fate, an accident, a tragedy, a disease.
It’s terrible contrasts such as these that Richter’s ‘Daylight’ so effectively explores through the language of minimalism (a work which, in the months leading up to my encounter with Arrival, gave me an aural avenue to process emotions of guilt and powerlessness during a prolonged period of unemployment as a young parent). Villeneuve’s use of ‘Daylight’ plainly recognizes this, deploying the minimalistic nuances of Richter’s work to convey the very same mixture of tones presented visually by the film’s early moments of joy, laughter, and childish play, moments juxtaposed by flashes of parental frustration, equally childish anger, and then resolute tragedy. The way in which this tragedy is unfurled so early in the film’s run-time is not entirely dissimilar in narrative function to the staggering emotional difficulty of the first few minutes of Pixar’s Up (2009). Villeneuve effectively utilizes the crushing existential weight of a loving parent losing their child to eventually segue into much broader themes about the nature of suffering and our messy relationship with its intractable ubiquity.
Indeed, though Richter’s work by no means stops at the sorrow, Arrival, in those first few minutes, does. What it moves forward with is thematically and visually substantiated by the film’s every purpose-driven moment, an accumulation leading to a nonlinear whole which brings us back to its beginnings only to recognize its ends; Richter’s work is hand-selected to accompany us on this journey, bringing the listener from contact with the unavoidable suffering of existence toward an opportunity for luminescent reconciliation in a single stream of notes and rhythms. Arrival paves this journey by, as the best science fiction does, using its technological manifestations and otherworldly encounters as stand-ins for difficult theories and concepts; these mechanisms are meant to elucidate observations on the nature of the human experience and the world we both create for ourselves and are confined to via the accessibility of common story telling techniques.
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For, while ‘Daylight’ both opens and punctuates Arrival, the film excels at presenting its journey as equally essential rather than a slog at the end of which boorishly sits a banal twist that threatens to devalue what preceded. In fact, in a year which can only be described as persistently challenging in emotional, social, economic, and political terms for a nation and a world grasping with growing problems of unprecedented scale (minus the mobility and leadership to seemingly do anything about them), Arrival covers a remarkable breadth of salient themes along these dimensions.
As a recently graduated Master’s student of political science from UCL, my relationship with the film only grew via its engagement with the same linguistic, discursive, political and social themes my own research had sought to explore. Dr. Louise Banks has a history of contract work with the US Army, which leads her swiftly to an offer to consult on our first intelligent cosmic visitors, 12 monolithic obsidian ‘ships’ hovering over various points in the world (which invariably invoke the visual language of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s monument). This previous contract work, we learn, involved an analysis of insurgency operatives, which resulted in actionable military intelligence, a point Louise seems to grimace about, distasteful of her expertise being used to kill.
When later shuffled into a military transport en route to one of the 12, she meets fellow academic (though physicist) Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) browsing the introduction to one of her published works. Louise introduces her work, he reads, by painting broad the deep implications of the mechanisms of our language, by arguing that language is the foundation upon which our civilization rests and ‘the first weapon picked up in war’ (a striking opening salvo Louise concedes is meant to entice by avoiding the painstaking procedural detail of linguistic study when Donnelly counters that she is impressive but decidedly wrong, that civilization rests upon ‘science’, not language).
In this way, Arrival slyly and efficiently introduces us to many of the ideas it will spend the body of its running time exploring. Much as linguistic academia is ceaselessly procedural in the deconstruction and reconstruction of language, the film moves along its running time in a thoroughly deliberate manner. Though it would be hard to accuse Arrival of failing to develop tension and emotional investment in its many scenes aboard the deep, dark, fog-obscured confines of Earth’s new visitors, there is, ultimately, no great battle here, no choreographed set piece, no moment of irreparable global crisis where Villeneuve seeks to show off Spielbergian digs. Arrival wages a war of its ideas, where the battles are fought trying to communicate (as Louise does with our visitors) in new and meaningful ways so that, at last, there can be understanding.
These key ideas are naturally informed by Arrival’s source material, Ted Chaing’s excellent The Story of Your Life. Arrival’s core science fiction concept can be understood as the Sapir-Whorf theory, a linguistic theory which postulates that linguistic structures influence the functioning and development of neurological pathways. In other words, the language you speak may determine in some way the very nature of the thoughts you have, how they are structured and understood, even the core cultural concepts you are familiar and acquainted with (much as some languages have words for concepts English only struggles to approximate). Chaing takes natural advantage of his genre to extend this concept well beyond what is commonly understood as possible.
Freefall Into Future
Louise spends the full middle portion of the film attempting to slowly and painstakingly develop a rapport with an alien species which communicates not with words that we can understand, but with shapes which may remind one of Zen Buddhist ensōs if they featured various protrusions (a visual narrative which ties intimately with what Arrival is getting at, as it pairs with the minimalism of Richter’s work). While overworked and often quite terrified, she makes a diligent sort of progress while fighting off increasing attacks on the validity of her efforts (efforts which, for Villeneuve, appear to stem entirely from powerful men itching to view their new visitors in simplistic terms rather than develop the patience to understand them).
It is via the resistance Louise combats in the face of her slow, tedious, yet peaceful and compassionate work that the film takes the opportunity to explore the variety of responses such a world-changing event would evoke, both from military/political elites and the regular citizenry we watch grow increasingly restless along with its leaders. The visitor’s insistence on describing their interests in the human race in terms of their visual representation for ‘weapon’ sends shock waves through jittery officials terrified of worst case scenarios, scenarios which a reactionary public seems to demand tougher responses to. These growing demands are shown to be the result of mounting public ‘leaks’ of talks with the visitors and military intelligence, where it seems Arrival wishes to remind us that world governments are increasingly incompetent at secrecy (and the management of discursive legitimacy) in an often anarchical and progressively digitizing information landscape, a lesson that 2016 amply demonstrated for some of the most powerful people in the world.
Worse for our researchers, the soldiers who escort Louise are shown watching a web-bound presumably-far right polemicist (Mark Camacho as Richard Riley, a clear Bill O’Reilly/Alex Jones stand-in) vitriolically demanding those tougher responses, resulting in a conspiratorial and violently reactionary bombing attempt on the alien visitors with tragic consequences. China leads this reactionary charge on a global scale, in part (it is explained) because it chose to communicate with the visitors via games which promise competition and loss via the necessity of a ‘fail state’, because China’s chosen linguistic tool served as a ‘hammer which can only see nails’.
It should be said, however, that Arrival doesn’t seek to contrast the US as some champion of patience and reason, but casts a critical eye at the behavior of all involved governments while ending on compassionate notes (even for the Chinese general who so nearly led the world to war). This balance shouldn’t come as terribly surprising for fans of director Villeneuve’s previous effort, Sicario (2015), a stunningly tense film which serves as a jarring wake-up call for an American public unwilling to think critically about what the CIA (and the United States government) is culpable for in their ‘security operations’.
I was first introduced to this idea of language as a weapon, of ‘enemy images’, during my bachelors at WIU via Sam Keen’s Faces of the Enemy (1989), a sociological investigation which posits that we ‘think others to death’ before picking up a weapon, that “the enemy is constructed from denied aspects of the self” (p. 11). For me, these ideas unfolded the tragedy of human conflict while opening new avenues for political theory, inquiry, and eventually future research, research which would analyze militaristic, xenophobic, and identitarian manipulative-discourses with the guidance of critical discourse theorists like Isabela and Norman Fairclough, Tuen A. van Dijk, and Ruth Wodak.
It is here that in a year full of the discourses of fear (the elite-assisted exploitational processes of creating ‘psychologies of enmity’, as deployed by both sides of America’s dysfunctional oligarchical duopoly) that Arrival demonstrates its political acumen by making salient and necessary commentaries on politics via the lens of its protagonist and its linguistic themes. The visitors, by virtue of their intellect and distant perspective, immediately identify our language, our very means of communication upon which all shared knowledge and societal development lies dependent for our world, as our first and greatest weapon. This serves as an unexpected insight from unexpected visitors, which befuddles even Louise for much of the runtime (despite her familiarity with the concept).
It is as the film closes that it returns (much as we are returning) to Richter’s ‘Daylight’ and the personal tragedy at the core of Louise’s story. As global and peer anxieties advance (frustratingly proportional to her growing success), a burden seems to grow on Louise. As viewers, she appears to be physically distressed by memories of her lost child. Questions abound: is the stress getting to her? How recently did she lose her child? Has she not had time to process it? Increasingly, we don’t know whether we are peering into Louise’s mind or if she is having vivid PTSD-like visions. Slowly, the Sapir-Whorf theory properly rears its head: Louise’s growing understanding of our visitor’s strange language seems to inform the very manner in which she actively perceives, relates to, and understands her environment.
This process culminates in Louise’s realization that her understanding of their language is allowing her to experience time non-linearly, not as a literal time-traveler whose body trapezes around history like Doctor Who, but as a stationary observer, a kind of soothseer who can potentially ‘see’ all of time (past and present) via a single experiential stream. By the film’s conclusion, the audience is permitted to catch up: Louise’s ‘visions’ during her work with our extraterrestrial visitors were projections into the future, promises of an unborn child she had yet to have with Renner’s Donnely. It is in full knowledge of her future child’s untimely end that she nonetheless embraces Donnely and moves forward, much as she embraces the realization that she cannot hope to avoid the death of her only child.
This is the somber, aching melody with which Richter asks us to reflect on ‘the nature of daylight’, on the inseparability of light and dark, and it is a testament to Villeneuve’s direction that he was able to utilize his apparent admiration for Richter’s work to such appropriate effect in a story which casually appears to be about some strange linguistic theory, aliens, and ‘time travel’. This contrast in tone between the opening/closing segments (which utilize ‘Daylight’ and function as a kind of dreamlike montage) and the body of the film (which rather relies on more straightforward editing and Johannsson’s foreboding score) is quite deliberate on Villeneuve’s part, as Jóhannsson relayed in an interview with Slashfilm, wherein he noted that he “very much supported” the use of Richter’s work for those scenes.
For, while Arrival is indeed about aliens, linguistics, politics, and technology, the film ends with a desire for the audience to understand one thing above all else: that life is worth living. That despite terrible ugliness, misfortune, hatred, disorder, chaos, depression, anxiety, disease, war, and unspeakable cosmic injustices such as the untimely loss of one’s child, the callousness with which a seemingly indifferent universe so often regards the boundless value of youthful innocence, that to affirm life is to affirm suffering, and to affirm the inevitability of suffering (rather than unendingly struggle with it) makes all the difference. This admittedly difficult sentiment was well articulated by famed mythologist Joseph Campbell; Campbell regards the suffering from which life is unalienable, this “freefall into future”, as resolved by “[turning] your fall into a voluntary act. It’s a very interesting shift of perspective and that’s all it is… joyful participation in the sorrows and everything changes.” (Sukhavati: A Mythic Journey, 2007).
Abigail Pniowsky as 8-Year-Old-Hannah
It is this ‘interesting shift of perspective’ which is manifested via Louise’s’ immersion in an alien language, this ‘voluntary’ suffering which transforms the way she engages with her own life and her world. Villeneuve is positioning this simple but essential message to clash directly with Arrival’s true antagonist, the ‘weaponized’ fear-based language Louise stands in opposition to throughout the film (whether in her distaste for how the US military utilized her expertise in the War on Terror, or in the push-back she unceasingly received from reactionary officials in her struggle to engage with the visitors patiently and compassionately). Accepting and living with the promise of loss, a conclusion Louise realizes she must embrace, is Arrival’s way of revealing to the audience the paradoxical composition of life’s beauty.
Villeneuve understands that to have any hope of effectively reaching a film-going audience with such an unintuitive and cerebral set of themes requires no lack of engaging pathos, and it’s Richter’s ‘Daylight’ which so appropriately guides the audience on the most difficult part of their journey. Arrival’s piercing insight, this compassionate message about our shared struggle, transcends a political environment that is so often utterly toxic, petty, unintelligible, and debasing. It challenges us to consider what could happen if we would for once simply stop, sit, and listen to our ‘enemies’ (to those dark yet wholly imagined manifestations of the ‘Other’), forcing a world on edge to wonder if this simple act could be enough to change the course of history and even transform ourselves.
In this sense, Villeneuve’s latest carries optimism in a way alien to Sicario, a film which sought to give its audience a visceral experience of state oppression (and the horror of one’s powerlessness in the face of it). Rather than continuing to indulge our growing fears in this ongoing Age of Anxiety, confronting these fears and accepting that we cannot escape discomfort, pain, and loss may just be enough to allow us to experience that Campbellian shift of perspective so desperately needed in order to help us understand one another, and ourselves.