‘Arrival’ changes film language

How Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’ toys with our expectations of filmic narrative


Amy Adams in a still from ‘Arrival’
Amy Adams in a still from ‘Arrival’

(Spoilers ahead)

A film begins with a montage of scenes showing a young woman and her terminally ill child—the many joys and agonies of their years together, until the child dies in adolescence. After this 5-minute prelude, we segue to the woman, Louise, now alone, working as a linguist. She appears focused, inward-looking—melancholy, perhaps? The plot proper begins when she is contacted by government agents to help them communicate with aliens who have arrived in space pods parked around the planet.

Most viewers, accustomed to interpreting cinematic language without thinking consciously about it, would read this sequence from Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival as follows: Louise had a child at some point in the past; now, after her loss, she has to move on with her life, perhaps by immersing herself in her work. When she has visions of her daughter later in the narrative, we assume these are flashbacks; memories that, for reasons not yet clear, are coming back to haunt her during the current assignment.

Cinematic language aside, this is a familiar trope from other sci-fi films such as Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) or Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997) or even M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002), in all of which an otherworldly experience helps the main character achieve a form of catharsis, years after a tragic event. Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris, in which a psychologist sees visions of his long-deceased wife while on a space station, arguably supplied the palimpsest for this sort of narrative; and Arrival is a similarly slow-paced, some might even say ponderously paced, film that evokes both Solaris and another iconic “thinking” sci-fi movie of that era, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

But as it turns out, the scenes showing Louise with her child aren’t flashbacks, they are flash-forwards. That opening sequence was a red herring, a necessary component in the build-up to the film’s big reveal: that Louise’s attempts to understand the complex, non-sequential written language used by the aliens eventually leads to her perceiving all the events of her own life in simultaneous rather than linear terms. Her experience of motherhood will come after the main events depicted in the film, not before.

No wonder some friends sent me sharply worded messages last week, when I “spoilt” Arrival for them by writing an enthusiastic Facebook post about the superb novella the film is based on, Ted Chiang’s Story Of Your Life—and specifying that no spoiler alert was needed. Chiang’s story brilliantly uses language—shifting tenses, apparently ungrammatical sentences—to disorient the reader and slowly allow us to realize what is going on with Louise, but it doesn’t contain a specific, jaw-dropping climactic twist. Arrival, on the other hand, does. And it achieves this by toying with our expectations of filmic narrative.

Flashback to around 125 years ago. In the beginning, there were static images. Then the images began to move—meaning that a new dimension, time, came into the equation—and cinema was born. Naturally, understanding the flow of narrative time became central to any understanding of the new medium, especially when it began to tell stories. Early film viewers’ brains became hard-wired to grasp that when Scene A is followed by Scene B, it means B is showing events that take place after A.

Later, the complicated business of cross-cutting came in, via such pioneers as Edwin Porter and D.W. Griffith. Audiences learnt that when a sequence cuts back and forth between two events involving different sets of people, it means the two events are happening simultaneously (other ways of depicting simultaneity would emerge—the split-screen technique, for instance—but that would be years in the future).

Today, over a century later, and despite decades of being exposed to formally experimental cinema, we still make some basic assumptions as viewers, and we are taken aback when a narrative film breaks one of the “rules”. If Arrival is one example—its secrets residing in Chiang’s concept as well as what cinema does with that concept—another can be found in a very different, less ambitious movie released earlier this year. In Ribhu Dasgupta’s Te3n, John (Amitabh Bachchan) searches for the man responsible for his granddaughter’s death; he is aided in this by a priest named Martin (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and a cop, Sarita (Vidya Balan). This is an uneven film, but structurally it does something very provocative. Almost throughout the second half, the action cross-cuts between John conducting his private investigation on the one hand, and Martin-Sarita sleuthing and bickering on the other, and the mystery depends on the viewer not realizing that these two threads aren’t occurring at the same time—the Bachchan scenes take place at an earlier point. In other words, the film has tinkered with the classical definition of cross-cutting as an editing technique that shows simultaneous action.

Looking at such movies with hindsight, it is instructive to consider the many little decisions that went into misdirecting the viewer. When Te3n came out, many people were puzzled by Vidya Balan’s role, which was much longer than the guest appearance it had been billed as, but wasn’t a meaty enough part for a leading star. But this prolonged “cameo” was necessitated by the film’s structure: if this supporting part had been played by a less-known actress, leaving Bachchan and Siddiqui as the film’s two stars, the lack of interaction between John and Martin in the second half would have become much too obvious. To fill that gap, we are kept distracted by the sparring scenes between Balan and Siddiqui as they mull the case, run over all the possibilities, disagree, banter.

In Arrival, creating the big reveal necessitated some changes from the source material. In Ted Chiang’s novella, Louise’s daughter dies at age 25 after a rock-climbing accident; in the film, she dies as a child. One can see why: if the film had had the daughter living to be a young woman, Louise’s youthful appearance in the “present-day” scenes would have given the game away; the surprise depends on the character not ageing more than a decade or so over the course of the story.

The film also cleverly constructs some ambiguous little moments where a sensitive viewer might overanalyse what the character is feeling or thinking. This is done by the script in conjunction with Amy Adams’s delicate, enigmatic performance in the lead—her expressions and gestures capable of being read in different ways. In an early scene, as Louise prepares to enter the alien spaceship for the first time, a scientist runs her through a medical checklist and asks her to confirm that she isn’t pregnant. She looks a bit startled and pauses for a second before saying no. As it turns out, this moment really means nothing in the context of the narrative, but a viewer who thinks Louise’s motherhood experiences were in the past, will imagine a world of remembrance and pain behind her tiny hesitation. It is one of the many ways in which this artfully made film turns us into active participants while we are viewing it—and even when we are misinterpreting what we see.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.

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