Very the images themselves.” (Rock, 2011) –

rarely will a film have a narrative that’s told so well that audiences won’t
even realise the story that they’re being told until the very end. Arrival (D. Villeneuve, 2016) is one
such film – the film deliberately bends every convention of the Sci-Fi genre to
cause the audience to focus on one story – Aliens arriving on Earth and Louise
Banks (Amy Adams) translating their
language in an attempt to communicate their intentions – while the film is
subtlety telling a very personal story of self-discovery in a somewhat
non-linear fashion. The primary way in which this is done is through the entire
film being told through Banks’ point of view, even opening with a narration
which acted as an internal monologue, consequently being subjective (Bordwell
and Thompson, 1997, p.333). Due to this, Louise is set up to be the “…
protagonist, who becomes … the chief object of audience identification” (Bordwell,
1986, p. 157).  However, due to the
nature of the story-telling in the film, in that it’s told in a disjointed
temporal order (without telling the audience), the narration is actually
semi-omniscient and therefore is also somewhat objective.

best place to start when considering this film is, unsurprisingly, the opening
sequences as they set up the themes and tone while very, very subtly setting up
the twist for later in the film, utilising subtleties in Amy Adams’ performance.
Additionally, the film utilises the Kuleshov effect – “…images could be combined
together in ways that could create new meanings that weren’t inherent to the
images themselves.” (Rock, 2011) – in order to present the audience with
information that intentionally misleads them to believe that the film’s fabula
starts at the beginning – with Louise Banks’ child growing up and dying young,
whereas it starts afterwards with Louise arriving at her University to give a
lecture on language. This opening montage, paired with the narration, is
important to the narrative, not only for reasons explored later on in the
film’s twist, but also because it does a lot to help the audience relate to
Louise as a character. One quote that comes to mind when considering this film
is that “it is no longer sufficient to tell a story; now it is incumbent on
filmmakers to tell stories about stories” (Monaco, 2009, p.429), as the
narration during this sequence is implied to be Louise talking to her daughter,
“I used to think this was the beginning
of your story”. This subtly sets up the two main narrative themes of time and
perspective. The film explores these themes using technical aspects, such as
the editing, screenplay and cinematography to reinforce the messages.

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first theme I am going to discuss is perspective. This is such an important
part of this film, as not only can it be related to the over-arching fabula of
the film and the eventual twist, but it’s also an integral part of the Syuzhet
as seeing a situation from multiple perspectives is repeating motif in the
story. The theme of perspective is conveyed to the audience through Eric Heisserer’s
screenplay, but also through the cinematography. It is so important to convey
this particular theme through camera work because “The camera is your audience’s
eyes into the world you capture” (Lindblom, 2015) and the audience must feel
immersed within the film for the syuzhet to have the full impact it needs. The
best example of the cinematography being utilised to convey perspective is the
first time Louise, Ian (Jeremy Renner) and
Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) enter
the shell (the name given to the alien spacecraft). As the characters enter the
shell, the gravity shifts in an impossible manner, causing Ian, Louise and the
audience to become extremely disoriented. The cinematography backs this up by
having a shot from behind Ian’s back, looking down to the floor where they
should be falling; this coupled with a dolly zoom creates an immersive feeling
of vertigo. On top of that, as the characters enter the main chamber, the shot
is placed as to give the impression of them all walking on the ceiling of the
chamber. This works to reinforce the theme of perspective because, technically,
they could be walking on the ceiling of the chamber as the gravity is
artificial, so where they’re walking simply depends on your perspective.

The second main
theme of the film is Time or, more importantly, how we perceive time. The main
method that this particular theme is conveyed to the audience is again through Heisserer’s
screenplay, but also through the editing. The way that information is presented
to the audience in this film is like nothing else. Villeneuve is very
deliberate in making sure the audience find out information exactly when they
need to, and making sure it’s done through the age-old phrase of “show, don’t
tell” (Shilf, 2010); for example, we don’t see how the shells look until Louise
sees one in person for the first time. Another way the film presents
information uniquely is through the narrative being simultaneously restricted
and unrestricted. By this I mean we, as the audience, see the journey of Louise
and her daughter long before Louise has experienced any of it. However, we
don’t know that; as far as we’re aware the entire film is happening in the
correct temporal order, aside from the occasional memory of her daughter. Every
time Louise has a ‘flashback’, she reacts negatively – becoming more exhausted
every time. Due to effective use of the Kuleshov effect and genre conventions,
we believe that this is simply because Louise is still grieving over the
untimely death of her daughter. However, as the film goes on we gradually begin
to understand that Louise is, in fact, having “flash-forwards” and seeing the
life of a daughter she hasn’t had yet. Because of the pacing and style in which
the information is shown to the audience from start to finish, we understand
the narrative twist at exactly the same time as Louise does. At that moment,
the audience go from knowing more than the main character does without knowing
it, to knowing exactly as much as Louise does.

One of the more
interesting things about this film, personally, is that the two main themes can
actually be brought together to create a third main theme in the film – Perspective
On Time. By this, I mean that the film actively asks the audience to question
how we perceive time and if our perception can even be trusted. This question
is asked from the very beginning with Louise’s character. As she enters her
university building she sees people crowding round a television, however she
seems totally uninterested. We, as the audience, infer her disinterest to be
due to her still grieving the loss of her daughter. After the reveal that the
film’s story is in a different temporal order to how it was first presented,
the audience must realise that their perception has been messed with and must question
how trustworthy perception even is. Like Memento,
Fight Club and Villeneuve’s own Prisoners, Arrival follows the ‘Puzzle
Narrative’ formula (Buckland, 2008), which allows for the film to have a
complex narrative that questions the audience’s perceptions on characters,
stories and films themselves, as Andrei Tarkosvky once said – “no other art
form is able to fix time as cinema does” (“Arrival: A Response To Bad
Movies”, 2017),. Arrival is a
piece of media that could only effectively exist as a film due to the integral
nature of needing the audience to relate Louise as a main character, despite
not truly knowing any of her backstory. On top of all of this, the film’s
narrative is almost entirely circular with one of the last shots in the film
being the exact same as the film’s opening shot. The moment where the film’s visuals
come full circle coincides with the moment where the film’s narrative and
themes also come full circle – Louise (and the audience) now has a entirely new
perspective on time and the events in her life and, despite knowing that her
actions are going to end in her losing her daughter, as well as a collapsed
marriage, she decides to “embrace” it; Creating a thematically poignant and satisfying
ending to the film.

Arrival utilises and subverts multiple classic
film narrative theories, such as Todorov, Barthes, Levi-Strauss and Propp. Arguably,
the most utilised of the aforementioned film narrative theories would be Roland
Barthes Five fundamental film codes (“Barthes Codes Theory”, 2011), most
specifically the Hermeneutic code, due to the purposeful misleading of the
audience. However, the Cultural Code is looked at in depth in this film, due to
the film’s underlying themes of how cultural clashes can prevent humanity from
working together and, most importantly, the morality of Louise’s final decision
– is it right to carry on with falling in love with Ian knowing full well where
it goes, or is it better to savour and embrace every moment with her loved ones
despite knowing where it goes? Levi-Strauss’s theory of Binary Opposites (“Narrative
Theories”, 2011) is utilised heavily through this film, for example the Mankind/Alien
paradigm, the Control/panic concept with the world or the Wisdom/ignorance with
Louise and Ian vs Weber and Agent Halpern. However, there are some more subtle
uses of Strauss’s theory in the film, such as the colours inside the shells –
everything is either a very dark grey, black or stark white. This makes the
Aliens stand out so much more in their environment and, more importantly, has
the subtle implications that the Aliens have a very simple “Black and White”
morality. This works into the film when Louise is discussing the Aliens’
motives with Weber, who believes them to be either hostile or friendly with no
middle ground.
Todorov’s theory is utilised in an extremely unique fashion in this film, as
the equilibrium presented to the audience at the beginning is, in fact, a false
equilibrium due to the temporal order of the film. Additionally, the
equilibrium acquired at the end is not quite a true equilibrium due to Louise’s
newly found ability of perceiving time in an unorthodox fashion. Despite this,
it does follow the basic structure of Todorov’s theory in that the aliens land,
there’s conflict between the characters, conflict is eventually sorted and the aliens
leave. This style of simultaneously utilising and subverting totally fits in
with the style of the rest of the film’s narrative.

In conclusion, Arrival is a film with a deep,
interesting narrative that poses questions that many other films have done
before it and many will do again; asking the audience to question how we perceive
time, what it means to be human and what we’d do for the people we love. The
temporal ordering of this film, coupled with believable, grounded characters creates
a film that subverts almost every sci-fi genre convention by being purely about
communication, and how miscommunication can be the same thing as a lack of
perspective. The utilisation of cinematography alongside the editing and screenplay
creates a story that misleads the audience up until the very moment where
Villeneuve wants, and ultimately creates a film that will be discussed by film
theorists for years to come.