Review: Arrival (2016)

Arrival (2016) Arrival (2016)

A sci-fi film about editing, and what it does to us as humans.

In Arrival, Leslie (Amy Adams) learns a new language, and through it her very way of thinking, in particular about time, is altered. Director Denis Villeneuve conveys this by giving us the very same experience: the Kuleshov effect, our way of making sense of shots presented to us a certain order, is expanded beyond the traditional vernacular – Are these flashbacks? Is she in mourning? – to change the ways we think about the visual language of cinema, and in particular about time in film editing.

Fans of Villeneuve will already have an idea of how to watch Arrival: every shot is a piece of storytelling; each edit is deliberate and intentional; each element of the sound design is both abstract and narrative. The pieces, random and scattered as they may seem, particularly in the film’s opening minutes (gorgeously underlit by director of photography Bradford Young‘s signature style), are all crucial both to establishing character and to teaching us our first words in the language of how to read the film.

Impatience may be the greatest threat to ourselves. It’s certainly the antagonist in Arrival.

Frustrating snippets of information, presented without context or explanation. It’s almost surprising there aren’t more shots of things coming into focus – but then, this isn’t about the meaning of individual shots, but about the context of montage, and the meanings we scramble to divine, and impose if that takes too long (eg twelve ships / twelve disciples).

While the messaging is conceptual, abstract, possibly even spiritual, it’s of the sort i’m happy to see – not to blow your mind for its own sake, but to communicate the idea that we are capable of more; that rewiring our brains is possible, even mechanical; that some of our limitations are purely in our ways of thinking; that the key to growing is in understanding – and that requires the willingness to try, the patience to step back and view the whole, to be ready to have the smallest or biggest of our preconceptions challenged, that meaning is neither fixed nor independent from our prejudices or assumptions, and that these are all within our power to change.

Impatience may be our biggest obstruction. It’s certainly the enemy of the characters in Arrival. It takes time to understand what the aliens are trying to gift humanity about time – time those humans don’t have, because they don’t take it.

Further viewing

What a difference a cut makes. Around the 7:28 mark, Lessons from the Screenplay shows a “happy accident” in the film’s creative editing. By replacing a reverse-shot of the Colonel, to whom Louise was supposed to be speaking, the editors “stumble onto an interesting jump-cut” which helps communicate an idea crucial to both the character and the viewer: that language (in Louise’s case verbal and written, and in our case visual) shapes how we think:

Behind the Curtain presents a detailed chat with screenwriter Eric Heisserer on adapting the book:

Nerdwriter locates the power of Villeneuve’s storytelling in his film literacy:

A roundup of video essays on the work of director Denis Villeneuve:

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