These extensive notes (over 7,500 words) were written as a guide for teachers who might consider using the 2016 film Arrival with students. They were originally published in the Media Education Journal No 61 in Summer 2017. The MEJ is published by the Association for Media Education in Scotland (AMES) and the notes refer to the ‘Key Aspects’ of the Scottish Media specifications set out by the Scottish Qualifications Agency. In practice the Key Aspects are very similar to the Key Concepts addressed by similar specifications in England and Wales and in other countries that have adopted similar approaches.
Outline (Spoiler warning)
I’m going to assume that anyone reading this has seen the film and especially that they have experienced the unusual narrative structure. If you haven’t seen the film, but you are looking for a study text, try to watch the film first and then read on. Please don’t ignore this advice because once you know how the narrative works, it will certainly alter the way you read the film and you need to be aware of how your students are likely to respond to a first reading.
Arrival is a science fiction film adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang, first published in a science fiction anthology, Starlight 2, in 1998. Under the title ‘Story of Your Life’ it runs to 61 pages in the film ‘tie-in’ paperback book published in 2016. The adaptation was written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Re-titling the story as Arrival for the film is significant in altering how ‘readers’ approach the story. The film stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist with an international reputation. On the day when alien spacecraft hover over locations in different countries, Louise is approached by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and asked for advice on communicating with one of the alien ships ‘moored’ over Montana. She joins a team with another leading academic, Ian Donnelly, a physics specialist played by Jeremy Renner.
The team have to work under pressure from government and military advisers, but eventually Louise convinces Weber that the best strategy is to use simple technology to show written words (in English) and to demonstrate their meanings with actions. She prompts the aliens to respond and this leads to an understanding at a basic level of the aliens’ use of a form of ‘writing’ using ink sprayed into circular shapes with slight variations. Louise is able to build up an inventory of these different ‘logograms’. (Chiang uses the term ‘semagram’ – both words refer to graphics that represent words or phrases creating specific meanings)
At various points in the film we are offered scenes ‘inserted’ in the narrative that seem to be flashbacks. (In fact the film begins with such a sequence, suggesting that Louise has been grieving over the death of her daughter.) In the final third of the film we suddenly understand that Louise is beginning to see that the aliens’ form of communication implies a different understanding of time: its ‘circularity’ suggests that time as a dimension is non-linear. What we thought were flashbacks were in fact ‘flashforwards’. They refer to a later time when Louise and Ian have developed a relationship and produced a child, a girl who will be bright and intelligent but who will develop a fatal condition and die as a teenager. Louise will go ahead with her pregnancy even though she knows her daughter will die as a young teenager. Ian will be unable to deal with this knowledge and will leave Louise to cope alone.
When the team are close to the final breakthrough, their dialogue with the aliens is interrupted by a botched attempt to destroy the aliens locally. Despite this, Louise, aided by flashes/’memories’ of her future self as a linguist who ‘solved’ the problem, is still able to decipher the aliens’ message. They have come to earth to offer the gift of their knowledge. They know that many years in the future, they will need humanity to help them.
But is Louise too late? Governments around the world appear to be abandoning dialogue and taking their lead from the Chinese who have amassed forces around an alien craft. At this point Louise gets a clue from a more extended flashforward (1.16.00 on the DVD) in which her 12 year-old daughter asks a question which serves to educate us, the audience, about the concept from game theory of the ‘non-zero sum game’ – the possibility that two competitors could both win in a game, one doesn’t have to ‘lose’ for the other to win. This little sequence is significant because Ian has used maths to recognise the aliens’ strategy and the ‘family flashforward’ complements his discovery.
In the final section of the narrative Louise again uses her knowledge from the future and phones the Chinese military leader, General Shang. She is able to give him some personal information which convinces him to act to stop any attack on the aliens – who then take off and the crisis is averted. The film ends in much the same way it began, but now we know how Ian and Louise came together and how Hannah, their daughter was conceived.
It seems sensible to start an analysis by addressing questions about ‘categories’. The Key Aspects are a little problematic here since two rather different kinds of categories are central to the distinctiveness of this film. It is an example of a film that falls between the concept of ‘Hollywood mainstream’ and ‘independent cinema’ and therefore fits into a specific institutional category. This appears to be an issue in relation to ‘context’ rather than ‘content’, so here we’ll just note that the context also profoundly affects the generic nature of the film.
Arrival is ostensibly a ‘science fiction film’, a genre that is utilised for both studio blockbusters and low-budget independent films. Big budget studio films are often described as ‘sci-fi’ and feature considerable amounts of ‘visible’ CGI (i.e. effects that we are meant to see and wonder at rather than effects which enable scenes difficult or dangerous to perform as ‘real’ events). These CGI sequences are likely to feature elements of action genres. The studios sometimes attempt to avoid using the ‘sci-fi’ label because this might alienate some audiences. Such films might be classified as ‘futuristic adventures’ or similar. Low budget science fiction films are often recognised by their derivation from (or adaptation of) ‘hard’ science fiction literature, signifying less emphasis on action and more on ideas, characterisation, commentary on society etc. These films might be termed ‘SF’, a term which also refers to ‘speculative fiction’ – fiction which is rooted in the known world but which speculates on what might happen if aspects of social, political or economic life were to change in a significant way.
In the interviews/’extras’ on the UK Region 2 DVD, Ted Chiang says that for him science fiction is not about “special effects or giant battles between the forces of good and evil”, but is concerned with “speculative scenarios as a lens to examine the human condition”. In the same short film, director Denis Villeneuve sometimes refers to ‘sci-fi’ films, but explains that he doesn’t like the ‘unreality’ of ‘green screen’ work and that the alien craft in his film is represented by physical sets as far as possible. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who adapted Chiang’s story, specifically refers to ‘hard science fiction’. He also introduces the difficulties that producers and audiences might have with ‘hard SF’. Unlike the action scenarios of sci-fi blockbusters, ‘hard SF’ films don’t have the same easy-to-sell story ideas. Instead, they rely on audiences being prepared to work through ‘learning sequences’ such as understanding why the linguist in this case has to start with simple words and phrases.
It is this ‘difference’ in appeal that might be the reason why some audiences don’t like Arrival. (Other audiences may have objections about how scientific ideas are presented or religious beliefs are marginalised.) The appearance of the alien spacecraft over various parts of the Earth immediately conjures up the genre trope of ‘first contact’ and the fear of alien invasion. When nothing ‘exciting’ happens (i.e. aliens blasting Earth/capturing humans or Earth’s armies attacking aliens) the blockbuster audience may feel let down. They weren’t expecting a calm, measured investigation into the methods linguists must use when there are no translators available.
But science fiction is not the only genre repertoire that the film draws from. The narrative is a form of romance, albeit one that is not signalled clearly until the closing scenes – or perhaps it’s a drama about grief or what we most value in a relationship. The ‘what if?’ question, familiar from most SF scenarios, is “If you knew that you would have a wonderful child, but you also knew that she would die in her teens, would you still want her to be born?”. It’s a difficult and disturbing question which arises directly from the film’s narrative. Intriguingly, when Louise poses the question to Ian in the form, “if you knew the future, would you choose to do anything differently?”, he answers that he might say how he feels about things more often. This then leads to his declaration that meeting Louise is the most surprising thing that has happened to him, even after his contact with aliens. SF and romance are enmeshed as emotion is equated with science.
Before we consider the other Key Aspects, it’s worth mentioning the adaptation process. Eric Heisserer had a difficult task in writing a script based on the original short story. His major task was to find a dramatic ending to the story. The Chinese dimension is his invention. In the original, the heptapods (so called because they have seven limbs) simply leave after an attempted ‘exchange of gifts’. The original features more physics and more of the family drama. Otherwise the changes are more concerned with improving the ‘spectacle’ of the alien craft etc. For some reason ‘Ian’ was originally ‘Gary’ and there are other minor changes. It isn’t necessary to read the original to make an analysis of the film. But it may be interesting for students to explain why the original story was seen as ‘unfilmable’ – or at least not as a commercial venture costing $50 million.
We could argue that the narrative structure of Arrival is both unusual and potentially difficult for audiences – but also relatively straightforward. It offers two separate stories covering different time periods but presents them both within the same linear procession of sounds and images. One is the story of the aliens’ ‘arrival’, the other is the ‘family drama’ of Louise, Ian and their daughter Hannah.
Arrival is the kind of narrative that benefits from the narrative possibilities of film as a medium. Film narrative refers to at least three concepts of time which can be manipulated by filmmakers. The most easily understood is ‘screen time’ – the actual time taken to present those sounds and images on screen. However, even that is malleable. In the cinema and on Blu-ray, the film lasts 116 mins but on a PAL DVD or on UK broadcast TV, because of the ‘speed-up’ to 25 fps, it only takes around 110 mins. On a home digital video device it is also possible to watch chapters twice, to return to earlier chapters or to pause the playback and return much later.
The second concept is ‘plot time’ which refers to the length of time signified by the explicit presentation of events represented on screen. In Arrival, it is quite difficult to determine when the plot actually begins. When is the first event in the plot taking place? Louise’s voiceover gives us a clue when she refers to the day that the aliens arrived – and we see her walking towards the lecture theatre. When is the last event depicted? Is it when she walks down the hospital corridor at the beginning of the film, after she has said her goodbye to Hannah? If so, it is perhaps 13 or 14 years after the ‘arrival date’ (Hannah is listed as being 12 for the third young actor to play the role).
The third concept is ‘story time’. This is a much looser definition since it includes events that are not presented on screen but which are ‘inferred’ from the explicitly presented plot. For instance, Louise is a respected academic in her field. We learn that she has previously worked with US intelligence in counter-terrorism. She still has security clearance. She also has a long-standing rivalry with another academic in Berkeley – and she wrote a linguistics book that Ian has found. These events inform the narrative through dialogue references but they aren’t presented on screen. Similarly, Louise tells Ian that “you can be a good communicator, but still be single” implying that she has sought romantic partners in the past, but without success. Again, this latter remark informs the romance narrative. It’s more difficult to pin down future events that are inferred, but we are asked to consider a time well into the future when knowledge of the aliens’ language (their gift to humanity) might be useful.
Denis Villeneuve’s task as director is to work with his creative team to manipulate time in relation to these three concepts as well as manipulating the narrative space available to him to stage the events he wishes to record and present. (It’s worth remembering that film is often referred to as a ‘time-based’ medium.) An important tool here is narration – how is the story told? Is there a specific narrator or are we asked to ‘observe’ the events as they unfold (as in an observational documentary)? Or are we offered the ‘point of view’ of different characters at different times – or in extreme cases, a subjective view (i.e. the camera becomes the eyes of a specific character). In contemporary cinema there is much discussion of ‘immersive’ cinema in which audiences lose themselves in the action and spectacle on screen. Conversely, in some art films and classic popular films (e.g. films noirs) there is extensive use of spoken narration. In Arrival, the film begins with Louise’s voiceover. From then on Louise is in nearly every frame and we could argue that even though she only directly narrates her ‘family story’, she effectively narrates the aliens’ story since most events are presented as she experiences them.
Another important point about the narrative structure is that it is palindromic, like the name ‘Hannah’. So the film begins and ends with the same mournful music by Max Richter and in the same location of Louise’s house by a lake. In a sense, the narrative is also circular, distinguishing it from the linear ‘goal-orientated’ narratives so common in mainstream Hollywood. Students will be familiar with the idea that a narrative begins at an equilibrium point at which the narrative world is ‘in balance’. When this balance is disturbed, by what some screenwriting manuals call the ‘inciting incident’, a conflict or a ‘loss’ develops and the goal of the hero is to resolve the conflict or recover the loss – or ‘reach their goal’. When this is achieved, equilibrium is restored – although not the same equilibrium, something will be changed. At the end of Arrival, we are actually back at the beginning of the film (which after all was the end of the story!).
Louise reaches her goal, but in doing so she learns to see time differently and in so doing gives up much of her free will since she now accepts what will happen to Hannah. There is one point at which Louise does ‘change history’ when she learns something valuable from General Shang after the aliens’ departure which she can then use prior to their departure avoiding conflict. It’s very difficult to think this through. Perhaps it reveals a flaw in the narrative construction? Or perhaps it is allowable because it doesn’t affect Louise’s ‘personal’ story?
Compared to conventional action film narratives, Arrival is very different. Louise is an unusual kind of ‘hero’ and there are no real ‘villains’ who she must fight. At worst, characters like the CIA agent or the rogue soldier who tries to explode a charge inside the alien’s craft, are ‘blockers’ rather than full-blown villains. (The concept of a ‘blocker’ comes from Vladimir Propp’s work on Russian folktales. It refers to a ‘character function’ which serves to slow down or delay the hero on their quest.) Perhaps Arrival is closest to the family melodrama in which a stranger enters the family and effects a change in family relationships? Melodrama narratives are sometimes said to be circular since there is a concerted attempt to restore order and ‘return’ the family to equilibrium. The melodrama is not driven forward by direct conflict but by circling around a problem, much as Louise circles round the problem of communication.
Denis Villeneuve’s problem is how to try to ensure that the various flashforwards that break up the linear flow of the aliens’ arrival are, at least initially, presented in such a way that audiences will assume that they are flashbacks. How does he do this? This leads us into a discussion of the Key Aspect of ‘Language’
Each flashforward is located in relation to the house by the lake – except for the hospital scenes. The scenes indoors are often quite dark, perhaps to link to the later scenes in the alien spacecraft or in the tents used for analysis. All the shots, both indoors and out, make use of very shallow fields of focus – a conventional sign of a flashback or memory/dream? Sometimes the focus is so soft that it is, for instance, impossible to see who receives baby Hannah from Louise immediately after her birth. Could it be Ian? We haven’t yet seen him, so we are unlikely to ask this question on a first viewing. The flashforwards include Louise’s voiceover at the beginning and later other voices (e.g. Hannah). The dialogue is written so that it seems to contradict the images. Which do we take most notice of and what do we do if we sense the contradiction?
In the first words we hear at the beginning of Arrival, Louise says:
“I used to think that this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by it’s order.”
Louise is seemingly speaking to Hannah, who we quickly learn has died. She is actually narrating Hannah’s story for us and if we had read these words at the start of a novel, we would have a clear idea of what kind of story would be revealed. She tells us openly to be aware of problems associated with linear narratives. But we don’t think about that because, despite the skilled narrator’s voice, we respond emotionally to the music, the slow-moving camera, the dark fuzzy images and the overwhelming sadness of the scenes that follow.
At the end of the opening sequence Louise walks down the hospital corridor and the image fades to black before fading up again to reveal Louise walking down a different corridor towards her lecture theatre. Her voiceover (over the black screen) actually tells us “But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings”. Surely we now know what is happening?
Villeneuve and his editor Joe Walker know that the conventions of film editing mean that most of us will now assume that Louise has returned to work after her daughter’s death. We are wedded to what Bordwell and Thompson have referred to as the ‘cause and effect chain’ of narrative events in classical Hollywood storytelling. There is no on-screen title to tell us where we are or what the date is, so our assumption is that Louise goes back to work (perhaps believing that work will help to distract from introspection). The cinematography and mise en scéne of the university campus present Louise seemingly still deep in her mourning for Hannah. Yet her voiceover tells us that “There are days that tell your story beyond your life”. We don’t have time to puzzle out what this means because it’s the day of the ‘arrival’ of the aliens.
From now on, for most of us, Hannah’s story slides into the background as Louise becomes involved in ‘talking to the aliens’. It’s some 40 mins later (47.18) when the next, almost subliminal, flashforward (accompanied by that shallow focus field) reminds us that we think that Louise had a daughter she lost. Why is she suddenly remembering her heartbreak at this specific moment? It will be some time before the increasingly more frequent flashforwards actually register as glimpses into the future. It would be a good exercise for students to log each of the flashforwards and then work out when it becomes clear that the future is informing Louise’s work in the ‘present’.
The same elements of film language that ‘disguise’ the real narrative structure also serve to alert us to the type of film we are going to see. Throughout Arrival the colour palette is muted with only the orange of the hazmat (protective clothing) suits worn by the scientists and soldiers meeting the aliens providing much colour. Lighting is subdued, both indoors and often outside. The aliens (who never venture outside their ship) are almost monochrome in appearance and the craft’s technology is invisible.
Sound is a very important element in the film’s presentation and is carefully mixed. The non-diegetic score composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson comprises electronic music and human voices plus ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ written and performed by Max Richter which begins and ends the film. The short pieces by Jóhannsson are complemented by diegetic sound effects representing the sounds made by the aliens and by their technologies. By contrast, the work of the military and science personnel at the Montana site is a babble of voices in different languages via television and radio feeds being deciphered by translators.
Cinematography is also crucially important and the film’s visual signature does seem to involve some of the more expressive elements seen in director Denis Villeneuve’s earlier films. These include use of long shots and tracking shots and the device of tilting the camera through 90°. This is used effectively inside the alien spacecraft where gravity adjustments need to be made for the human investigators. Unfortunately, Denis Villeneuve’s two earliest features have not been released in the UK, otherwise we would recognise the early scenes on the university campus and the 90° tilts as Louise and Ian move through the alien ship, as coming from Polytechnique (Canada 2009). Students might, however, check out Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015), both of which demonstrate Villeneuve’s techniques for creating tension.
Throughout most of the film Louise is dressed in utilitarian or functional clothes and her hair is tied back. But in the crucial scene when she finally realises that she is being given the gift of the aliens’ language, she has what might be construed as a ‘spiritual experience’ (elsewhere I’ve argued that the film marginalises religion). As the flashforwards increase, Louise is alone, looking up at the huge heptapod (1.22.52). At one point she seems to be suspended in mid-air. Her hair has come free and is flowing around her head, her eyes are staring and unusually large with the pupils constricted. This is clearly a moment when something extraordinary is happening.
It’s worth noting too that the restricted colour palette of the interior of the alien craft and the ‘ordinariness’ of Louise’s university office and lecture theatre are matched by the ‘functional’ location of the group of tents where the analysis takes place. This latter suggests the SF category rather than the hi-tech gadgetry of a sci-fi film. In turn this ‘ordinary’ background shows up the ‘difference’ when Louise has her moment in the alien craft.
There are several different lines of enquiry possible in considering representation issues but two that stand out are Louise Banks as the central character and the aliens as ‘heptapods’. The DVD extras confirm that Amy Adams was the unanimous choice of the producers and the director to cast as Louise and she agreed immediately on reading the script. It’s worth considering why this was an obvious choice.
Amy Adams is the kind of A List Hollywood star who is comfortable working in both blockbusters and smaller independent films. This isn’t unusual in contemporary American/International cinema but her status as an actor in her forties with five Oscar nominations and hundreds of other awards and nominations since 2000 means that she is a weighty presence for audiences. Her beauty is not conventional – strawberry-blonde hair (closer to auburn in Arrival?), a strong profile and large blue eyes mean that in conjunction with her acting skills she can play ‘ordinary’ characters and still command the screen. In Arrival she is seen mostly in fairly drab costumes as a university lecturer and then often in hazmat overalls in the alien craft. A useful exercise is to compare her performance with the other role she took in 2015 in Nocturnal Animals, the Tom Ford film in which she plays the director of a high-profile avant-garde art gallery. That role presents her in harsh ‘high fashion’ outfits in a role which didn’t really extend her acting talents and caused several critics to see her as miscast.
As Louise Banks, Amy Adams is able to convince us that she could be any age from mid thirties to early forties (her true age), so that initially we think that she had a child ten or twelve years earlier – and later that she might have a child a year after the appearance of the alien craft. We also have to believe that she is a linguistics expert with a doctorate and considerable research experience. She must have the strength to stand up to the primarily male military and scientific establishment and to be convincing in this role, as well as that of a mother. Students must make up their own minds about whether she succeeds.
Whatever we think of Amy Adams’ performance, the character is presented in such a way that she controls the narrative – not just through her own voiceover, literally narrating parts of the story, but also because she dominates virtually every scene in the film. Ironically, because there are no other major female roles (apart from her young daughter in the flashforwards), Arrival fails the Bechdel Test, now widely used by feminist film critics. This is because Louise does not “discuss a subject other than her relationship with a man, with another woman”. Even so, it would be difficult to argue that Louise is anything other than a ‘positive’ female representation.
Any discussion of the major role played by Amy Adams should also attempt to define it in gender terms in relation to Ian Donnelly as played by Jeremy Renner. Renner (who played alongside Adams in American Hustle, (2013) has a similar profile in independent and blockbuster films, but perhaps a higher proportion of recent blockbuster roles in the Marvel franchises. Does this sit uneasily with his role in the more cerebral Arrival?
Renner’s academic physicist seems typical in presenting a slightly eccentric and passive/submissive man in the face of the competence and determination of Dr. Banks. It’s almost that the weaker he appears to be, the stronger Dr. Banks becomes – and this is carried through to the parenting of Hannah. The two roles are in some ways ‘gendered’ by the conventional roles encountered in academic life. Girls/women are seen as more likely to prosper in ‘soft’ sciences like biology or social sciences such as psychology, or in this case linguistics, and boys/men with ‘harder’ sciences such as physics. Students could explore what a reversal of roles might do – Renner as the linguist, Adams as the physicist. They could also look at Jodie Foster’s performance as a ‘hard scientist’, an astronomer, in Contact (see below). Ian’s role in Arrival appears as slightly underwritten and it may be one of the weaknesses of the film.
The representation of the aliens derives partly from Villeneuve’s determination that they should be unlike aliens in other science fiction films. This is very difficult to achieve. There have been so many ‘alien representations’ that some similarities are inevitable. However, by keeping the aliens behind a screen and by clever use of sound effects and the unique spray writing, these are certainly unusual/mysterious aliens, difficult to read in terms of both humans and other creatures on Earth. Consider for instance the monstrous alien in the Aliens series of films which is recognisable as reptilian or insect-like (the most used forms for aliens in science fiction?).
Students might discuss the decision to name the two heptapods after the US radio and film comedians Abbott and Costello from the 1940s/50s. Although at first this might seem like a little joke related to US popular culture, Wikipedia makes interesting comments about links to wordplay and the possible pitfalls of language. The most famous sketch performed by Abbott and Costello was ‘Who’s on first’ in which Abbott attempts to tell Costello about the team for a baseball match. ‘Who’ is the name of the player on first base, but the phrase could equally be a question about which player appears first. The sketch in turn refers to Louise’s explanation to the military of how a simple phrase like “What is your purpose on Earth?” could be interpreted in several different ways (40:29).
Other representation questions
The third lead character after Louise and Ian is Colonel Weber played by Forest Whitaker. Is there any significance in the casting of an African-American star? Again, Whitaker is well-known for roles in independent films and fits the role well. More noticeable is the film’s restraint in typing the various foreign commentators/scientists/translators etc. who mostly appear via TV screens and in the way in which the important figure of the Chinese military leader is presented. It’s worth noting that many recent Hollywood blockbusters have cast Chinese stars in secondary roles in the hope of gaining favour with the Chinese popular audience. The Chinese box office is now the second most important source of profit for Hollywood, but such casting has been heavily criticised in China (see Koehler 2017). It is unlikely that the Chinese character in Arrival has received such negative responses (although the Mandarin that Louise speaks has been criticised).
One ‘absence’ in Arrival is the political authority in the US, represented instead by the CIA agent played by Michael Stuhlbarg. The US president (along with the senior military leaders) is kept at the end of a radio/telephone link. Is this simply in order to focus directly on the linguistics work without too much high level blather? It does seem odd that Weber, a relatively low level commander, has so much power.
In the background in the scenes in the ‘front line’ tents, we are offered two other representations that seemingly have contrasting effects in relation to the central narrative. One is the impact of a right-wing TV talk host who editing suggests may influence the rogue attack on the aliens. The other is the reporting of actions by religious cults in North America. One TV report is seen briefly but doesn’t seem to affect the narrative. Arrival largely ignores the very powerful religious lobbies in the US. This is in direct contrast to films like Contact (see below) and other earlier films. Again, is this simply a pragmatic decision (e.g. to save time or to streamline the narrative) or a deliberate ploy to emphasise the rational science in the communication process?
One contemporary issue that the film represents is the explosion in communication media since the early 2000s. Students will no doubt wonder why we should pick this out since they are so familiar with cable TV, mobile phones and social media. They were not so much in evidence when Chiang wrote his original story. Sight and Sound’s reviewer remarks on how effective the announcement of the aliens’ arrival is on the university campus, especially in the lecture theatre where Louise sees one student after another turn to their phones and laptops and is then asked to turn on the TV. Later it is the array of TV screens from around the world that feeds data into the tents where Ian and Louise are working. Villeneuve’s skill is in treating this aspect of contemporary culture as realistic background and seamlessly melding it with the scenes in the flashforwards (which actually seem to ignore social media and are quite joyful in their traditional references to cowboy suits, clay modelling and crayon drawings) and inside the alien craft.
The SQA specs refer to ‘stereotyping’ and ‘cultural assumptions’. I think I’ve covered at least some of the possibilities in Arrival, but there are other aspects of ‘Representation’ such as ideology which seem to have been placed under Media Contexts, so I’ll deal with them there.
The most obvious text to use in making a comparison with Arrival is Contact (US 1997) based on a story by the astronomer/astrophysicist Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (who later became his wife). In this story it is another single woman, Ellie, with a doctorate in astrophysics, who picks up an extraterrestrial radio signal. This turns out to be a set of instructions on how to build a spacecraft that can travel at the speed of light. Ellie is played by Jodie Foster and there are two important differences in ‘contact with alien intelligence’, compared to Arrival. First, the ‘language of communication’ in the radio message is mathematics with the signal initially sending sequences of prime numbers. Secondly, the response by Earth governments is heavily influenced by religious beliefs.
Contact was directed by Robert Zemeckis and it had almost twice the budget of Arrival, even though it was made 19 years earlier. Zemeckis is very much a Hollywood mainstream director and students should quickly recognise that, apart from the religious aspects of the plot, the film is very much ‘Hollywood sentimental’ with a conventional soundtrack and various conventional/typed characters. (But Bill Clinton plays himself as President.) Even so, there are some common elements that might make us question whether Eric Heisserer ‘borrowed’ some ideas from Contact’s script. For instance, the first confirmation of the radio signal comes from contact with Australian tracking stations and later the first attempt to launch a spacecraft from Cape Canaveral is thwarted by a terrorist attack – by a (heavily-typed) religious zealot who makes direct eye contact with Ellie.
Jodie Foster in the 1990s was an iconic figure for women in film after a somewhat difficult transition from child star via a degree at Yale to both adult star and director. Her later roles did not always use her star persona well and Contact presents an uneasy narrative about an intelligent woman in a stereotypically male world.
Arrival has an interesting production history that serves as a good example of how films get to be made. The origins of the film go back to producer/director Shawn Levy of Lap 21 Entertainment whose company had been successful in pitching family comedies to the major studios, most notably the Night at the Museum series. Levy is originally from Montréal and as part of a plan to extend the range of the company’s projects he became interested in fellow Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. The latter’s French language film Incendies (Canada-France 2010) was picked up by Sony for North American distribution and was then Oscar-nominated. Around the same time (2010-11), Levy began to discuss possible projects with screenwriter Eric Heisserer who was building a reputation based on scripts for horror films. Heisserer suggested a film based on ‘Story of Your Life’. The rights were available and Levy, Villeneuve and Heisserer agreed that the story had great possibilities. But when Levy took it to 20th Century Fox, where he had a ‘first look’ deal, they were not interested. He met a similar response from the other majors.
“It was too complex. It had the husk of a conventional commercial big studio movie, but the content of an intellectually challenging indie.”
Undeterred, Levy sought finance elsewhere and found David Linde, the then CEO of finance and production outfit Lava Bear Films, and Aaron Ryder of international sales and finance company FilmNation Entertainment. Both Linde and Ryder boarded the project as producers and set about raising the finance.
At this point, Villeneuve was completing work on Prisoners, his first English language film, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, which was released in September 2013. A big critical and commercial success for a non-studio film, Prisoners proved that Villeneuve could work on a large-scale production with a $46 million budget. Suddenly he was ‘hot’ for many producers and studio heads and he was already working on a similar kind of project in budget terms – Sicario with Emily Blunt for a 2015 release. When Levy took the Arrival ‘package’ (rights, script, director) to the Cannes film market in May 2014 he found that, because Villeneuve’s name was attached, he was able to generate a bidding war from the studios for ‘pre-sale’ distribution rights. Paramount paid $20 million for North America and China (a record Cannes deal at that time), Sony bought many ‘international’ territories and the UK and Australia went to eOne and Village Roadshow. These deals supported a $47 million budget which was very tight for a science fiction film on a big scale, but for the three producers was mercifully free of studio interference. They could make the film as they wanted to with guaranteed distribution.
A Canadian shoot
Shawn Levy’s 21 Laps Entertainment is just one of many companies based in Los Angeles that regularly make films in Canada. The advantages include lower costs, excellent facilities in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, skilled crews, a large pool of acting talent and the possibility of support from Téléfilm Canada and/or various regional funds. Arrival was scheduled for a 55-day shoot in Québec which meant that all the locations were accessible within the province including both the university buildings in Montréal and mountain country in the province standing in for Montana. Villeneuve was able to use many of his local Québécois crew and shoot in Mels Studios, Montréal. With over 40 vfx companies, Montréal is one of the largest post-production hubs in the world. US cinematographer Bradford Young (who shot Selma in 2014), British film editor Joe Walker and Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (working with Icelandic and Danish voices) made the production team properly international. This kind of production away from Hollywood enabled Villeneuve to keep to the original budget.
Arrival was Villeneuve’s third anglophone film in the $45-50 million budget range and like Prisoners and Sicario it was very well-received, attaining a worldwide box office of over $200 million. Villeneuve later completed Blade Runner 2049 for a group of production companies (including major studios) with a reported very large budget (i.e. over $150 million). The later film received plenty of studio support but struggled to please fans as well as the general audience in North America (see below).
We’ve already noted above that the producers of Arrival were aware from the beginning that the film would ‘challenge’ audiences and that it was unlikely to play well for those audiences seeking more action-orientated entertainment. The film has been described as ‘cerebral’ by many commentators.
Although the film was given a 12A Certificate in the UK and a PG-13 in the US, it is unlikely that the distributors believed that they would attract an audience of families with young children (i.e. 10-14). The film would be too slow and dialogue-driven for audiences more used to Star Wars or Star Trek-type films. Instead, the film would be designed to attract or ‘target’ older audiences 15+. Students could investigate the poster designs for the film, as well as the trailers on YouTube to see whether this is evident in the promotional materials.
In the UK, Arrival was released ‘wide’ to 561 cinemas, topping the charts with nearly £3 million and seemingly justifying eOne’s decision to promote it as a mainstream blockbuster. But a week later Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them demonstrated what a ‘real’ blockbuster could do, generating seven times the weekend box-office of Arrival’s opening (at more cinemas – 666).
Reading and interpreting the box-office data (details of the Top 15 each weekend are available from the BFI website) is an important task for distributors on a Monday morning. What they would have noted is that although Arrival didn’t do the ‘boffo’ business of Fantastic Beasts, it attracted a very healthy audience who must have given good ‘word of mouth’ which in turn allowed Arrival to have the ‘legs’ for a long run. Arrival dropped 49% with £1.5 million for its second weekend. This is not unusual for any release and the third weekend showed a 48% fall. More importantly, the figures show that, compared to most mainstream films, Arrival fared quite well on weekdays. Cinemas are traditionally busiest from Friday to Sunday which is why the distributors use a ‘weekend chart’. Monday to Thursday are quieter because families and younger audiences are less able to go to screenings. Older audiences, however, tend to prefer midweek screenings and they may have boosted Arrival’s figures. The overall result is that Arrival eventually made over $11 million in the UK – in line with the general industry expectation of 10% of the North American box office of $100 million (see more on the US release below).
Arrival’s performance in international markets is odd in the sense that it seems to have underperformed compared to North America. Most Hollywood films now have earnings split 40:60 between North America and ‘International’ but, according to Box Office Mojo, Arrival managed only $102 million in the ‘international’ market. Perhaps this is an example of a film in which spoken language plays a major role, restricting potential audiences in some territories? The more ‘visual’ and ‘action-orientated’ Blade Runner 2049, also directed by Villeneuve didn’t make $100 million in North America, but made $166 million in ‘international’. A comparison of the two films’ performance at the box office might be very interesting.
What we don’t know is the audience profile of the film. This kind of data is now quite difficult to find without paying the large fees demanded by cinema audience research agencies. I’ve suggested that the audience might skew ‘older’ and there is also the possibility that it might skew towards women. The industry fear that science fiction is not ‘female friendly’ has been proved wrong on many occasions. As well as Contact, recent science fiction successes with female leads have included Gravity with Sandra Bullock, Passengers with Jennifer Lawrence and recent Star Wars series films with Daisy Ridley and Felicity Jones. The romance/family element may also have skewed the profile towards women.
Traditional approaches to audiences have tended to focus on the extent to which audiences are ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ in their responses to a text. We now tend towards the ‘uses and gratifications’ approach. What kinds of ‘pleasures’ does Arrival offer? Is there pleasure in working out the narrative structure? Do some audiences enjoy the idea that linguistics and physics might be more helpful in dealing with alien encounters than nuclear weapons? Do audiences get ‘cognitive pleasure’ from understanding ideas about language? Do others get ‘affective pleasure’ – emotional satisfaction from the way in which Louise deals with the ‘what if?’ question about Hannah’s life and death?
Ted Chiang’s short story was first published in 1998. The film was released on 11th November 2016 just a couple of days after Donald Trump was elected president. A lot has changed since 1998, both in the US and the UK. In the time of Clinton and Blair (pre the Iraq War) the story may have resonated with many readers. It’s hard to imagine a film less likely to appeal now to conservative Republicans or to voters who were convinced by Trump’s campaign statements.
Let’s pick out just a few aspects of the ideological underpinnings of the film. First, it’s a film that pursues negotiation ahead of any kind of military action. Second, it has a message of international co-operation (in the face of CIA attempts to prevent it). Third, it promotes scientists as ‘experts’ and ‘heroes’. Fourth, it has a single woman as its protagonist and lead expert. Fifth, it marginalises religion and critiques right-wing TV news. Sixth, it presents a sympathetic and rounded character as a ‘representative’ of Chinese leadership. It seems unlikely that it will be a White House favourite for Trump. But it also seems likely that it might challenge Brexiteers in the UK who want to ‘go it alone’. (We should also note that the Russian authorities are typed as brutal in their treatment of a dissident scientist – how would this play for Trump?)
The release of Arrival offers the possibility of a ‘conjunctural’ study (i.e. looking at the perceived ideologies of the film in terms of the events at the time of its production and then release) based on the points above. It also suggests a moment when the conventions of mainstream cinema are being challenged. The North American release through Paramount was a business venture designed to maximise returns and the film went wide to 2,300 cinemas, but it did so with a film that didn’t promise the usual box-office attractions. A week later, Warner Bros. launched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in over 4,000 cinemas, heavily promoting its J.K. Rowling connections. Fantastic Beasts, an effects-laden fantasy, is clearly an ‘entertainment’ text.
Ted Chiang’s comments about ‘Story of Your Life’ and reviews and literary criticism about the story all suggest that its objectives are to explore concepts of free will, effective communication, variational physics etc. Students could test out whether this is equally true of Arrival. If so we might argue that the film is as much about ‘education’ as about entertainment – or, perhaps more likely, that it is an unusual entertainment which requires repeat viewings to fully understand what it is saying.
References and further resources
Grater, Tom (2017) ‘Denis Villeneuve, Arrival producers on making their $50m sci-fi outside of the studio system’ ScreenDaily.com, 13/1/17
Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin (1985) Film Art: An Introduction (2nd ed.), New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Koehler, Robert (2017) Review of Arrival, Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2, Spring
Nayman, Adam (2017) Review of Arrival, Sight and Sound, December
https://youtu.be/xzEPU2PTjT4: Science vs. Cinema: ARRIVAL