From War of the Worlds to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the meeting of modern-day Earthlings and advanced extraterrestrials is seemingly a story for every season. That’s a testament to the enduringly human concerns at the core of the concept, because the fable of first contact is as much about the way humans relate to themselves and each other as the way we Earthlings might relate to extraterrestrial life. It goes on to teach us more about ourselves than about the aliens. Enter: Arrival (2016).
Arrival is a marvel of an adaptation, translating the best elements of the core of Ted Chiang’s short story The Stories of Your Life — I could write an entire article on the film’s screenplay alone. But on the screen, the film’s genius and impact are multiplied hundredfold thanks to its astute command of cinematic grammar and how that informs the greater story. Through masterfully maintaining a close aesthetic distance and displaying an exquisite example of cinemonarrative consonance, director Denis Villeneuve and his team have constructed arguably one of the most cinematically sound and emotionally effective films ever made. Major spoilers abound: if you have not yet seen Arrival at least twice, please don’t let me ruin that experience for you.
In order to truly appreciate how Arrival achieves what it does, beyond its existence as an entertaining and cerebral film experience, it’s best to delineate the vocabulary that I’ll be using throughout this article – to discuss the grammar or language of the film. If we break language down to its barest elements, it’s the coded interpretation of ideas. Whereas grammar in linguistics employs words, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs, grammar in film employs frames, shots, scenes, and sequences.
It is the language of films that set them fundamentally apart from one another. If you wanted to read a book, for instance, you could just alternatively read the book’s summary on Wikipedia to get the meat of the narrative. However, you’d probably want to read the actual book because the author’s command of language enforces the narrative. The same goes for film. The construction of the film, through the filmmaker’s’ use of the tools of film grammar, substantiates the narrative. In Arrival, Villeneuve’s directing choices, both on set and in post-production, amplify the intended effects of the movie’s narrative. The film’s structural editing mirrors the major themes of the story, enhancing their impact. This is why Arrival is a perfect example of cinemonarrative consonance.
‘Cinemonarrative consonance’ isn’t actually a term; it’s a non-term I just made up in relation to ‘cinemonarrative dissonance,’ which itself is a non-term employed by some film theorists in response to the critical concept of ludonarrative dissonance, a term in video game criticism. ‘Ludonarrative’ refers to the intersection in a video game of ludic elements (the gameplay) and narrative elements (the story). ‘Ludonarrative dissonance’ therefore refers to a conflict between the ludology and narratology in a single game. Game director Clint Hocking coined the term in response to the popular 2007 video game Bioshock. He interpreted that Bioshock’s story was trying to critique the selfish nature of objectivism: that the ruined setting argues that a society built only on self-interest was doomed to fail. This conflicts with the gameplay, which is all about obtaining power and wealth at the expense of other characters. In other words, the story promotes a theme of selflessness, while the gameplay promotes the opposing theme of self-interest. This conflict between the ludic elements and the narrative elements is a ludonarrative dissonance.
When talking about dissonance in regards to film, cinemonarrative dissonance would therefore constitute the conflict between the cinematic language and the narrative language of the film. The cinematography, editing, music, etc. all tell a story just as the words on the script tell a story. This isn’t to say that cinemonarrative dissonance is when we have a movie in which the story was good but was cinematically uninteresting, or in which the movie’s cinematography was good but its story wasn’t appealing. Instead, it’s when these elements are incoherent with one another. An easy example of cinemonarrative dissonance is the character of Mikaela (Megan Fox) in Transformers (2007). On paper, Mikaela is actually a pretty strong female character: she’s smart, funny, talented, driven, hardworking, quick thinking, and mature. She’s an active agent in the plot, her personal arc meshes with the overall plot of the movie, and she’s a mechanic so she has a thematic connection to the Transformers themselves. However, as we all know, the camera ostensibly treats her as a piece of meat. People perceive her as superfluous eye candy. The cinematography here isn’t bad. It’s technically competent, well executed, and objectively pretty. Likewise, the writing of her character isn’t bad either. But they aren’t in agreement with each other. The story told by the camera doesn’t agree with the one told by the script. This is why an obnoxious term like ‘cinemonarrative dissonance’ is a great conceptual tool to explain why something that’s technically proficient on the whole isn’t working.
We don’t hear much about this critical concept because film as a medium is more mature than games. The language is more established and production methods have generally worked out most of the kinks, in terms of getting everyone on the same page in terms of theme and tone. Cinematic grammar is more established and more familiar than ludic grammar, so we mostly end up with films that are right in the middle: not victims of cinemonarrative dissonance but also not necessarily examples of cinemonarrative consonance. This is where Arrival comes in, because when we do have a great example of cinemonarrative consonance, it stands out and is worth talking about.
The story of Arrival follows linguistics professor Louise (Amy Adams), who is enlisted by the U.S. Army to help translate communications from one of several extraterrestrial craft that have appeared across the world. The film opens with a prologue akin to the opening of UP (2009), displaying some tender vignettes of Louise and her daughter Hannah as she grows up, and then catapulting us into the moments when Hannah succumbs to cancer. This backstory, we say, is obviously there for us to sympathize with Louise and therefore identify her as a fleshed-out character with emotional baggage when the actual story transpires.
Louise, along with physicist Ian, is recruited to help foster communications between the U.S. Army and the aliens (called ‘heptapods’) that have arrived. Louise concludes that the best way to achieve this is by comprehending their written language. She begins to figure out the heptapods’ language, which, rather than expressed in letters and words, is expressed through logograms. The logograms are circular constructions that convey meaning rather than sounds, and are constructed cyclically. Hence, the heptapods’ written language has no forward or backward direction, which is called nonlinear orthography. “Imagine you wanted to write a sentence using two hands, starting from either side. You would have to know each word you wanted to use, as well as how much space they would occupy.” The narrative then subscribes to the Sapir-Worf theory: that the structure of a language determines a native speaker’s perception and categorization of experience. That is, because the heptapods’ language has developed to become free of time, that must be how they experience the world — free of time. As Louise delves deeper into the language, she too begins to become free of time, experiencing flashbacks and flash-forwards that lead to the ending realization of the film that Ian is Louise’s husband and that Hannah will be their daughter. The prologue of the film actually then takes place chronologically after the events of the main story, as do the various flashbacks that Louise has of Hannah throughout the film. Furthermore, it’s integral that, with this new perspective of experiencing all of time simultaneously, she still decides to marry Ian and have a child with him.
Louise had a choice. She has free will, and embraces her future, and chooses to have Hannah. Therefore, despite the inevitable suffering that she will undergo when Hannah dies from some form of cancer, Louise chooses the momentary and inequitable love of her child knowing full well the loss that will come as a result of this choice. As the logograms are free of time, so become Louise and, therefore, the film. A masterwork of structural editing, Arrival is constructed in such a way that we too experience the Sapir-Worf theory in effect. Just as Louise discovers the underlying power of the heptapods’ language, we too discover inklings of the framework of the film. Where Louise had a choice to go through it all, so too do we. Because her experience is now free of time, we view the movie as a whole as such. We’ll make the choice to experience it all over again, witnessing the inevitability that her child will die, and also witnessing the entire inevitable journey towards it. We’ll know of the future events and where to apply them to the present, just as Louise’s subconscious does.
The point here is that this meeting of past, present and future is exactly how the aliens communicate. Louise even describes their language in our human terms, as written from both left and right, with precise knowledge of how the two sides will meet in the middle. It’s the whole “what matters is the journey, not the destination” thing, and such is the way the film goes too. And just as its structural editing (that of the framing and pacing of the whole film) mirrors the film’s story, themes, intonations, so too does its momentary editing (editing within a scene from shot to shot). In one instance, Louise seems to be going crazy as a result of the language warping her perception of experience, and there’s an overtly ugly jump cut focused on Ian in a scene when he’s talking to her. This is an instance when the cinematic language is consistent with the narrative on the psychological toll on Louise.
Louise opens the film by narrating the nature of its story, or of stories as a cultural artifact, i.e. having no fixed point or beginning. They are, in some ways, timeless. Some epics and scriptures lack definite historical origins, and those that don’t feel timeless in the lessons they espouse. Arrival’s big “lesson” feels more like two lessons, split definitely by the moment Louise reveals that the flashes we’ve been seeing of her daughter aren’t flashbacks, but premonitions that she doesn’t fully understand. They are functionally the same, both in cinematic language and seemingly in literal mental function.
Rather than having the story be told by a Louise who can already look both backward and forward at her life, Arrival follows Louise as she discovers the gift of the alien language. And consequently, the flash-forward sequences placed at the beginning of the movie initially come off as flashback sequences to give a little bit of background and history to her character. When she begins to see flashes of her and her daughter, we perceive them as memories, just as she does. It’s not until she learns that these are visions of the future, that we understand this as well. This is an example of maintaining a close aesthetic distance.
Works of art, including film, can elicit different kinds of responses — and it is with recipients’ responses that we are concerned in this volume. That’s the product of aesthetic distance. The opening of a film like The Day After Tomorrow (2004), a disaster film centered on global warming and its catastrophic results, does a great job of reeling in an audience living in a time when global warming first became a big fear. The choice of this example may at the same time serve as a warning: it’s not aesthetic quality on which the present volume concentrates but an aesthetic effect, or rather a specific imaginative, emotional, and psychic response elicited by the reception of artifacts of various kinds, regardless of their aesthetic merits. In other words, maybe it doesn’t look artistically groundbreaking, but its effect on keeping us in this fictional world is magnified because its timeliness is artistic. Arrival embraces this art of timeliness through its story of miscommunication in international relations as there are 12 UFOs parked around the world, leading these countries to both work together and conflict in terms of communicating with the heptapods.
The Wikipedia definition for aesthetic distance is “the gap between a viewer’s conscious reality and the fictional reality presented in a work of art.” And that’s more or less correct but doesn’t really encapsulate the entirety of the concept. Consider this: film is sort of like a magic trick. Fundamentally, it’s no different from a magician pulling us temporarily into a carefully constructed trance in order to elicit a reaction from us when he reveals the reason we were remaining engaged all along. We engage ourselves in the illusion, and when he suddenly pulls the bunny from the hat is when we respond with our emotions. In Arrival, the filmmakers pull us into this situation of first contact with aliens, and we indulge this illusion to the point in which we finally emotionally react to it all. We did not know a bunny was going to come out of the hat, but now that it has come out we can better contextualize the rest of the illusion leading up to it. In Arrival, we didn’t know that Louise would end up experiencing the passage of time in the same way that the heptapods do, but now that we do we can contextualize every other moment as a component of the bigger picture.
In his book, Immersion and Distance: Aesthetic Illusion in Literature and Other Media, Werner Wolf writes: “Among the preconditions for our ability and willingness to become illusionistically immersed, our thirst for information is an important element, since it triggers curiosity about other humans and unfamiliar aspects of reality.” Significantly, the entire genre of sci-fi acts upon this predisposition, as the sci-fi genre is about using speculative scenarios as a lens to examine the human condition. We moreover have empathetic abilities, imbuing us with the ability to recall whole scenarios, in particular if emotionally tinged, thanks to our episodic and semantic memories. Emotions generally appear to play a crucial role in both our actual contact with others and our imaginary living or re-living of others’ experiences. This openness for emotional appeals is frequently exploited by the illusions of aesthetic artifacts, especially movies. It even induces us to process blatantly unrealistic and improbable phenomena such as the existence of extradiegetic film music (where in real life are our experiences accompanied by an orchestral score?) without disturbing our immersion. In fact, these extradiegetic aspects of cinema even work in tandem to further immerse us into the movies we watch. Our empathy with Louise throughout the course of Arrival strengthens this, as it’s easy to remember the memories of her daughter (accompanied by Terrence Malick-esque cinematography and the best goddamn piece of music ever composed) and how those memories of the past/future contextualize her current situation.
Examining Arrival reveals a lot about the medium of film, and of our relationship with art in general. It exposes the elements of story we expect when watching movies, and demonstrates how a story about communicating with alien species is actually about how we communicate with each other. It’s perhaps fitting that a film about learning a language that warps how one experiences the world is itself a masterwork of the marriage of narrative language (which conveys the story that we are learning about) and film language (which is how we experience that story); it warps how we experience film itself. It’s a result of the close aesthetic distance, and the effectiveness of that is a contribution of the film’s cinemonarrative consonance.
Thus, a film about the relationship between languages is the perfect example of the relationship between the language of narrative and the language of film.
Image Credits: IMDb