Warning: This article contains spoilers for the film Arrival, so if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you go watch it before continuing reading.
As a piece of art, Arrival is near cinematic perfection. It hits all the right notes for the current generation of viewers: nostalgia for the past, hunger for the future, a strong leading character, and subverted genre tropes. While there are so many ways I could approach this spectacular movie which others have already done (see below for links), I want to look at one of my favorite aspects of the film: its poetic rhythms.
Arrival is all about patterns. From its opening shot, it establishes itself as a movie about beginnings and endings and the cyclical nature of time and life. The lead character, linguist Louise Banks, is called to a military encampment where an alien ship landed. Her job is to find a way to communicate with the creatures and ask their purpose for coming to earth.
The aliens have a special, circular written language with beautiful symmetry and patterns, which fits in well with the overarching theme of the movie. As the plot progresses, Louise realizes that immersing herself in the alien language is changing how she perceives time. Instead of experiencing time as linear, she has the ability to view all of her life at once.
One of the many plot devices available to storytellers, and one of my personal favorites when done well, is the use of setups and payoffs. A setup occurs when the storyteller gives his audience a piece of information as an anchor to set up the payoff. The payoff comes when the storyteller later reveals why the anchor information matters. A good example of this system is foreshadowing, when the storyteller hints at things to come early on in a story and later brings about the resolution. Every good setup must have a payoff.
Arrival is full of such setups and payoffs, arranged in a kind of rhythmic poetry. The order of revelations in the story seems random at first, but is later revealed to be such that the viewer is experiencing exactly what Louise experiences, in the order in which she experiences it. This theme of circles and cycles, of setups and payoffs, mirrors the overarching theme of the movie and melds the plot itself into a circle. The poetic beauty of its patterns sets Arrival apart as a unique modern classic.
Click here to learn how Arrival is an answer to bad movies of recent years.
Click here to learn more about setups and payoffs.
Click here to rent or buy Arrival.