Much like with Moonlight, I hadn’t actually watched a trailer for Arrival. It had simply tallied up enough points. I knew that it is led by Amy Adams, playing a linguist trying to communicate with an alien species that has landed on Earth. I knew that the cinematography is by Bradford Young, whose career I’ve followed since Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. I knew the score is by a contemporary Icelandic composer, whom I now know is named Jóhann Jóhannson. And I knew that when it was released soon after the American election, people went to see it, and cried. And that was enough.
So, much like with The Handmaiden, I didn’t know there would be a twist. But I do know “twist” is an incomplete word to describe how Arrival works. Arrival only has a twist if you’re approaching it as a native speaker of Movie, assuming certain structures common to the language of cinema. Which of course we are, and which is how even the very form of the film is about the experience of learning a different language.
Arrival is beautifully designed like that. Arrival is just beautifully designed, full stop. The atmosphere rolls over you like the clouds spilling down around the motionless dark shell hanging in the air, rolls through you like the reverberant hums and simple lilting vocal notes of the score. Sometimes I’ve wondered if it’s cohesion of design that creates atmosphere. All the more remarkable here, if so, as it’s all deliberately atonal.
What unifies the design elements may be in the open spaces their atonal patterns leave for each other. Elision, noun — the omission of a sound or syllable when speaking; an omission of a passage in a book, speech, or film; the process of joining together or merging things, especially abstract ideas.
Time is an abstract idea given space here. Time is given to time, and Arrival, based on a short story published in 1998 and filmed in 2015, could hardly have arrived in theaters at a more fitting point in it. When we had need of thoughtfulness, and science, and careful communication showing a way through massing forces of militarized nationalism and distrust. When we had need of hope.
And what better genre for hope than science fiction. What better empty space for the thoughtful and abstract, than the idea of space itself.