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Casting a Spell for Peace: On ‘Arrival,’ Max Richter and Our Unending Need for Violence

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“Memory is a strange thing,” Amy Adams’ Louise states at the beginning of Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival. “We are so bound by time, by its order.” She speaks this while losing her child to cancer, going from a mother giggling to a mother weeping, as Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” plays. Before the film’s story commences, viewers have witnessed tragedy, with the dreary strings of Richter’s piece almost commanding a procession there and then.

As the only non-original music used in Arrival, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect accompaniment to the cold open than “On the Nature of Daylight.” With all due respect to Arrival composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, the heartfelt mourning of the track (taken from The Blue Notebooks) can take any heartbreaking imagery and make it doubly so. More than that, though, it’s a composition that shares a deep thematic kinship with Arrival, and further speaks to the central message.

Richter’s The Blue Notebooks is, by his own description, a protest album. The music was all written in response to the then-burgeoning Iraq War, before being recorded in the midst of global protest to the conflict. In typical Richter fashion, the compositions are a varied group, with a range of tones and emotions employed to convey what was a myriad of feelings and responses. Undoubtedly sad, shocked and mournful, the record is, at points, burgeoning on hopeful too, capturing a time when many were unsure of how they felt about anything from one moment to the next.

The album is aimed at understanding the emotional strain of living in conflict and trying to inspire some form of hope in a greater time to come. There are occasional lyrics — excerpts read aloud by one Tilda Swinton. Of them, two are one-minute diary entries and the other two are literary, one a selection from Franz Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks, the other from Polish writer and poet Czeslaw Milosz. The readings combined with the music are, according to Richter, meant to create a “meander through music history, quoting and recontextualizing musical texts.” It’s an attempt to communicate the inert, inept pointlessness that the bloodshed of war has wrought through-out history.

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Arrival has similar ideals. The film is staunchly pacifist, to the point that Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer both practically took it as a challenge to make a sci-fi picture with three Hollywood A-listers without a single action sequence. The heroes are a linguistics professor and a theoretical physicist; Adams’ Louise and Jeremy Renner’s Ian, respectively. They’re not military and their methods are slow and boring, taking weeks to know if they’re achieving anything and drawing relentless skepticism. In the place of guns and bravado are montages of learning and gradually flourishing unification, special effects reserved for making the aliens feel truly alien.

Through language and science, Arrival depicts the world coming together for an uneasy alliance in the wake of alien spacecraft arriving in 12 regions. Aside from America, the 11 other regions also visited by the aliens each employ their own tactics to learn and conversate with the interstellar beings, and the lack of definitive messaging tests their patience. Not all are ready for the long-haul in breaking down the language barrier. The Chinese use the tile-based symbol game Mahjongg, which, as Louise points out, directly creates a competitive scenario for communication. Suddenly, the term “weapon” easily seems like an act of aggression when it comes on a dialogue built on competition.

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Using discussion of language, Arrival examines how we perceive and interpret the other. The field by which we extend outward, and how we wish to receive invitation, is as important as the messages themselves. If retaliation always feels like an option, then retaliation becomes an inherent part of the lens through which we see how others are communicating and what they’re saying.

In this way, Arrival depicts violent conflict as empirically inevitable. Riots and religious fanatics are seen after the aliens arrive, displaying our lack of hesitancy to assume the worst. Without any way to predict what will happen, people search for dominance and control first. Despite history showing this tactic being ineffective as a long-term benefit, it’s a method that has constructed the current systems of power, and it’s the method those systems of power will remain thus. It’s the unknown that presents the greatest danger — the unknown of other cultures coming into your country, the unknown of other ethnicities and ways of life changing how power is held and perceived. Or, the unknown of beings from another world whose presence may shatter everything we think we know about our existence. Louise and Ian are tasked with the impossible job of outrunning that deep-seeded fear to a more sincerely compassionate conclusion.

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It’s in Louise’s absolute refusal to allow our barbaric side to win that Arrival shows its moral core. Coming into the final act, viewers learn that the alien language Louise is studying actually decodes the linearity of time, meaning that when she comes to understand how to speak it, she can see her own future. With that, the aliens reveal they wanted to trade their advanced linguistics for humanity’s help some 3,000 years from now. As she sees into the future, Louise learns how she can prevent humanity from declaring war, but that doing so will come at high personal cost — her and Ian will have a child who will pass away from illness before adulthood; the same child from the opening sequence.

Louise successfully causes humanity to avoid war, and guarantees help to the aliens in 3,000 years. And in doing so, she condemns herself to one day knowing the pain of a mother losing a child to a debilitating illness.

Like The Blue Notebooks, Arrival is a work that resents the necessity of violence. However, the film ditches some of the meditative qualities of the bleakness-to-idealism dialectic of the album in favour of making a cold hard stand against war and those who clamour for it. Each plot-point is accentuated by the threat of power-hungry leaders not wanting to listen to experts and rational thinking on a profound discovery. Military action is seen as ruthless and unwieldy, a cornerstone of our approach we’ve become too reliant on. As the final scene returns to the same images from the beginning, and as Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight’ takes its reprise, viewers are tasked with being the sole mourners of Louise’s choice — a sacrifice she was always bound to, by the order of history.

As Milosz’s “At Dawn” reads:

“How enduring, how we need durability.
The sky before sunrise is soaked by light.
Rosy color tints buildings, bridges, and the Seine.
I was here when she, with whom I walk, wasn’t born yet
And the cities on a distant plain stood intact
Before they rose in the air with the dist of sepulchral brick
And the people who lived there didn’t know.
Only this moment at dawn is real to me.
The bygone lives are like my own past life, uncertain.
I cast a spell on the city asking it to last.”

Louise cast her spell, demanding her city to last. If only no such spells were ever needed.

Anthony McGlynn (@AntoMcG) is an Irish writer and film fan. He has strong opinions on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and thinks ‘Frozen’ is a better Christmas movie than ‘Die Hard.’ 

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3 replies »

  1. (I commented this earlier but it seems not to have stuck)

    Lovely piece, thanks for the Richter illumination and the poem.

    You’ve got me thinking about the link between violence and the uncertain nature of survival and death. Louise became aware of her future and aware of the fact that humanity would last for at least 3000 years. If we all knew the extent to which we as individuals and as a species would survive, I wonder if the primal instinct toward violent, competitive survival would at all lessen.

  2. Luckly, I watched the movie before reading this piece. Even at this point, a spoiler alert would not be useless 😉

    I share AlexBee uncertainty and add some fictional twists to a possible continuation of this premise: in a context in which this alien language is available to humanity, first to linguist experts, then to the educated masses and finally to the general public; how will people react and how will the human behavior change when everybody knows about their future and own demise? Will a collective knowledge of the future focus everybody’s effort to the species survival? Or will this powerful knowledge divide even more the species due to individual fears? And a final problem: does the future that everybody could “see” is the same deterministic destiny or it’s presented as one of many that can be changed?

    I’ll love to read or watch a story that faces this issues. Great article!

  3. I first encountered Max Richter’s music in the film “Stranger Than Fiction” and from there I became a fan of all of his music.
    “Arrival” really affected me not just because of it’s larger critique of humanity but of the emotional journey and the immense loss the main protagonist experiences throughout the film. I can’t think of a better piece than “On the Nature of Daylight” to bookend that journey.

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