Film has its own its own grammar, its own syntax, its own way of relaying information that is as formal as any written or spoken language. You likely understand this intuitively, having been raised with the medium. For instance: A director shows two characters together on the screen and then cuts from one to the other as they recite lines of dialogue. Though you may be seeing them in isolation, you understand intuitively that such shot/reverse shots indicate the two characters are talking to each other, having a conversation.
A director can play with this format in order to make a thematic point. Consider, for instance, the end of Peter Berg’s “The Kingdom” (2004), in which we see an FBI counterterrorism team and the family of a deceased terrorist talking. The FBI team is not talking directly to the terrorist’s family, but the two groups are carrying on the same conversation — about whispered sentences kept from the audience earlier in the film — and conclude the same way: with a promise to kill everyone on the other side of the fight. Berg is using cinematic syntax to drive home a point about the cycle of violence, about the endless emptiness of revenge.
Chronology in film works much the same way. Unless we’re given reason to suspect that something is afoot — as in Christopher Nolan’s “Memento,” which is told backwards, or “The Prestige,” which seamlessly weaves three timelines together and clues the audience in to which timeline is onscreen by shifting sets and costumes — we accept that what we’re seeing onscreen is unfolding in a chronological manner. You can speed time up in a way that, again, we understand intuitively: think of the training montages in the “Rocky” films, or the sequence in “Citizen Kane” at the breakfast table demonstrating the literal and figurative distance between the titular titan and his wife. Or you can slow it down by replaying the same scene from different perspectives, as Quentin Tarantino does in the shopping mall sequence of “Jackie Brown.”
“Arrival” uses this intuitive understanding of film syntax and chronology to wrong-foot viewers right off the bat. It opens with a brief montage showing the life of Dr. Louise Banks’s (Amy Adams) little girl. We see her at various ages — playing, bathing — before seeing her at her final one: in a hospital bed, dying of an incurable disease. The film moves on from there and we are led to believe — through our basic understanding of film grammar, Banks’s morose affect and empty home, and a line of dialogue from Banks to her mother saying that she feels the same, despite the arrival of a fleet of alien ships — that the film is simply proceeding chronologically. That belief is reinforced by “flashbacks” — which we read as such since we’ve seen the girl’s life play out in full already — to Banks’s time with her daughter, moments that help her understand the aliens and how to decipher their language.
The twist is that both the little girl’s life and those intermittent snippets of scenes between Banks and her daughter aren’t flashbacks but flash-forwards. What we see at the beginning is something that won’t happen for some time after the aliens arrive, years later. The revelation is disorienting and gut-wrenching — Dr. Banks not only has yet to endure the heartbreak; she’ll also have to choose to accept it — and it serves a thematic function that far transcends its Shyamalan-esque twist.
As I said, “Arrival” is a film about language and the barriers that language present to understanding and acceptance. The biggest barrier in the film involves the language that the aliens are trying to teach humanity. But what Banks, and we, don’t understand is that their language changes the very way they experience reality — they can actually “remember” through time, backwards or forwards. When Banks learns the language she also gains the ability to skip forward and backward through time. It’s essentially an advanced version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that the language we think in fundamentally structures how we see the world surrounding us. Rather than simply explaining the idea to us, however, director Denis Villeneuve, writer Eric Heisserer and editor Joe Walker allow us to experience the concept, the dislocation, the change in perspective.
As Dr. Banks’s perspective shifts from one in which time is a linear progression to one in which time is a pool that can be traversed in all directions, our perspective shifts as well. It’s a neat trick, one that makes the Tesseract scene from the otherwise excellent “Interstellar” feel clumsy by comparison. Villeneuve et al. have done something quite impressive: They’ve illustrated the truth in the cliché “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” and made it feel totally new, totally real.
And they’ve done so by breaking down barriers in (film) language.