Arrival: Movies as Experiences, not just Plot

It seems nowadays, movies are moving towards conveying experiences more so than conveying plot. There’s a recent trend of movies that use the visual element of cinema to give the viewer a certain feeling, one that the character in the movie holds. It helps us relate to the character on a much deeper level, than if we were just told how the character felt.

Arrival is a recently released sci-fi movie directed by Denis Villeneuve. It’s about alien space-crafts arriving on Earth, and about a woman – a linguistics professor – that tries to communicate with these aliens through their unique language. The movie is then about the linguistics professor (played by Amy Adams) and a physicist (played by Jeremy Renner) decoding the alien language and trying to understand why the aliens are here, before some country decides to declare war on the mysterious beings. And though the movie has a very intriguing narrative, some of the most pivotal moments in the movie are one’s that convey emotion through editing and sound, not just story through dialogue.

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The aliens’ language, which is visual, not spoken.

Towards the end of the movie, we realize that by learning the alien language, Amy Adam’s character gains the ability to perceive time the way the aliens do. Unlike humans, these aliens don’t perceive time linearly and in one direction. They understand time like a spacial dimension. Like how us humans can walk forward and backwards, side to side, go up and down, these aliens can traverse through time the same way. I mean, it’s not like the universe forces us to walk in just one direction, right? We can walk forward, or back, or choose to stay right where we are. But time goes linearly for us, without our control. For the aliens though, they can ‘walk’ through time, going forward or back as they please. And through their language, they give Amy Adam’s character this ability.

Then, in the final moments of the movie, we fully realize what Amy Adam’s character can do now. And we get this scene, where she is standing beside Jeremy Renner’s character, a guy she kind of just met, and standing there she sees her whole life in front of her. She sees that the man beside her will be the one to marry her. She seems herself falling in love with him, them dancing together in the sweet incandescence of the moonlight. She seems her first child with him, her daughter, who she names Hannah. She sees how her daughter grows up. She sees how her daughter goes to school, and becomes a teenager. She sees how her daughter dies from cancer. She sees all of this in her mind, while she stands beside the new-found friend she’s going to fall in love with.

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And we as viewers, we are not told this. We are shown this. With different scenes weaved into one, we’re shown her love, and her daughter Hannah, and her marriage, and Hannah’s death, all in one blur. We are shown this so that we can feel it. The inter-cutting of random scenes from her future and past, the use of chilling yet beautiful instrumentals, the blurry and vague images we are shown of her life; all these elements come together to make us see what she sees. We can then understand how it feels to see time all at once, to see your life in front of you all at once in a chaotic mess. And we see that the character chooses to move forward, to continue with her life, even though she knows how it’ll all end. And that moment is so powerful, because we fully understand the haunting experience she has to go through, and we know what she’ll do to cherish the ones she loves. It’s a beautiful moment, one that conveys love and loss and beauty and grief all at once. The character experiences something that is unique to the movie alone. Yet, we get to experience it, just as the character on the screen does so. It’s emotional and heartbreaking and personal, and it’s all done through showing us the experience of a character.

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That scene is poignant because it trusts the viewer in understanding through visuals and sound, it trusts we will understand the emotions of the character. The scene is several times more impactful than it would have been if we had just been told what happens. If we were just told that she sees her whole life all at once, that she still chooses to keep going, it wouldn’t have been as emotional and evocative. Instead we get to experience it for ourselves, which is a beautiful thing current cinema can do.

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