Words by Rafe Arnott, image above courtesy IMDB.
Soundtrack is a monthly column that examines the music of influential films in cinematic history. This month looks at Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.
Understanding how time limits and binds the human capacity for awareness is the key to breaking an interstellar code for a linguist and physicist in Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s stark, contemporaneous and cerebral 2016 sci-fi thriller Arrival.
Visualizing the simultaneous mental and emotional interpretation of one’s entire arc of life – remembering all of our future as it were – free of temporal constraints, which is at the core of the film’s story line, is an evocative metaphor for the importance of effective communication in this big-screen adaptation of the 1998 Nebula Award-winning novella Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang.
Coldly existential, Arrival is a poignant cinematic discourse on the twin frameworks humanity has built around the consciously scientific foundations of time as a linear abstract, and the principle of linguistic relativity (language directly impacting its speakers' perception of the world around them). Villeneuve piggybanks these concepts on massive alien starships, a dead child, and a race against the clock that has humanity’s fate hanging in the balance – all set against one of the most spellbinding, unsettling and hair-raising soundtracks of the last 20 years. “It’s a very delicate movie,” Villeneuve told the LA Times in 2016, “you have to make sure the intellectual aspects do not block the emotional ones.”
Photo above: Banks and Donnelly are led into the chamber aboard the alien vessel where communication takes place. Image courtesy IMBD.
Working with screenwriter Eric Heisserer, Villeneuve extensively reworked Chiang’s story, but kept the plot centred around linguistics professor Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) who is mourning the death of her young daughter while sharing responsibilities with quantum physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner) over a team of select scientists tasked with unravelling the mystery of the alien’s arrival. Banks and Donnelly struggle to communicate with the mist-shrouded aliens while maintaining atmospheric separation through a “glass” wall during daily communication sessions held aboard one of the 12 stadium-sized spacecraft. The closer the pair come to answering the questions they need to, the faster the world around them seems bent on tearing itself apart. The film’s progression, like the metaphors it is tackling, presents in a non-linear fashion and the music contributes to an off-putting, imbalanced feel to the situations driving the plot. The more we see, in a sense, the less we really know as everything we think has happened, actually hasn’t.
The movie is based on the tension of a cultural exchange… [it] takes the time to explore the limits of language..."
Photo above: Amy Adams, as Dr. Louise Banks. Image courtesy of IMBD.
Avant-garde, weighted with glacier-like momentum, as decidedly organic in its use of Tibetan-like throat singers/horns as it is electronic in its reverb-heavy, staccato-chopped layering and processing of vocal ensembles, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack is a deep reservoir of emotion surrounding the often sparse visual aesthetic of the film. The tension built between the austere, stunning cinematography, and the unique percussion, keyboard, horn, vocal and string arrangements employed by Jóhannsson teases a mixture of unease, dread and anxiety from the viewer as the plot inexorably flows forward. “I [had] the luxury of working in pre-production with Denis, and the primary inspiration for the score came from the concept art,” Jóhannsson told IndieWire. “One of the main themes was written during the first week of shooting when the helicopter approaches the alien [ship] for the first time… I did a session in Berlin where I was working with a 16-track tape loop and I recorded layers and layers of piano drones (sustained without the attack) at different speeds and slowed them down. So it took on the texture of the very tense drone with almost no processing. These were analog methods that have been around for a while.”
While the disconsolate string arrangements of Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” opens the film – where the audience is introduced to a montage of scenes outlining Banks’ daughter’s brief life and death – Jóhannsson segues imperceptibly into the underlying sonic foundation. From that moment on, viewers are saturated in resonant, ethereal and thought-provoking song structures that simultaneously nourish and sustain the emotive cadence of the plot, while challenging preconceptions of what a soundtrack or film composition is supposed to be. The idea of musical accompaniment being recognized by the audience on the same level as a story’s character, in and of itself is not new, and the often times unnerving, often times overpowering score elicits a creeping terror which meshes perfectly with Banks’ continuing descent into a fragmented reality through exposure to the alien language.
“The movie is based on the tension of a cultural exchange… [it] takes the time to explore the limits of language,” Villeneuve said in an interview around the film’s release. “The movie takes the time to explore the limits of language. I’ve traveled a lot in my life, come in contact with cultures where the only way to communicate is through intuition.” Speaking on Adams’ performance, the director said, “There’s a lot of stories at the same time. I needed an actor able to portray a character who slowly seems to go crazy at the same time she feels the logic in her disorientation.”
Employing the highly-regarded Danish collective Theatre of Voices, and artists such as Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joan La Barbara and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, among others, and digitally-altering, layering, chopping, looping, bending or stretching their voices as part of the skeleton construct of his songwriting focus for Arrival, Jóhannsson helps impart one of the script’s key messages: the importance of communication. The fact that, many times these voices are practically unrecognizable, and present more as snippets of dark-space recordings sent back by Voyager I only adds to the authenticity of what the viewer is experiencing – vindicating Jóhannsson’s unique approach to the project. “It seemed appropriate to use the voice as a lead instrument in a film that is primarily about language and communication,” Jóhannsson told Indiewire. “The singers all sing mostly vowels with no inherent meaning, but it sounds almost like a language that is in a stage of slowly forming.”
Photo above: One of the 12 alien ships that land at disparate points on the Earth's surface in Arrival. Image courtesy IMDB.
Recorded at several studios throughout Europe, including Smecky Music in Prague, Voxton and NTOV in Berlin, Denmarks Radio, Copenhagen and Gufunes Radio in Reykjavik, the soundtrack required numerous engineers to help with the heavy lifting of bringing it to life. These included Czech recording engineers Jan Holzer, Michal Hradisky, Vitek Král, Dane Preben Iwan, and additional programming by Rutger Hoedemaekers and Phillip Barth, to name but a few. Jóhannsson himself worked as lead sound designer alongside studio recordists and engineers throughout the process, programming keyboards, tape loops, and co-mixing the entire score for the Original Sound Track album with fellow Icelander Paul Corley. Jóhannsson, who died in 2018 at age 48, left behind a catalogue of melancholic, minimalist soundscapes of which Arrival is arguably his most fully formed.
Photo above: "I needed an actor able to portray a character who slowly seems to go crazy at the same time she feels the logic in her disorientation.” – Denis Villeneuve on Amy Adams. Image courtesy IMDB.
Arrival took home the Oscar for Best Sound Editing at the 2017 Academy Awards, a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation and Jóhannsson’s work on the film was nominated for several prestigious awards, including Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media at the Grammy Awards, and Best Original Score at The Golden Globe awards.
Bringing his elemental skills to bear in crafting alternately ethereal and heart-pounding arrangements that dominate its atonal sonic landscape – with hints of Tangerine Dream during the Virgin years – this soundtrack, alongside other avant-garde scores of the decade like Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar, lay the groundwork for a new generation of sonic and musical-theorist composers to push the envelope of sound design for film. Alternately introspective, and far-reaching in its scale and scope, the film and Jóhannsson’s soundtrack will undoubtedly be mentioned for its cerebral candour by science-fiction purists in the same breath as Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Kubrick’s 2001 and Scott’s Blade Runner. The Arrival OST is available as 24-bit/48kHz digital download, CD, or 2xLP HERE.
Listen to the soundtrack on Spotify below: