Arrival: A Masterpiece in Sound (MINOR SPOILERS) - Raindance

Congratulations to Sylvain Bellemare and his team for taking home the oscar this year for best sound editing in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. While this award was undoubtedly well-deserved, I feel that the soundtrack deserves equal, if not more, recognition. The film’s composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, did a magnificent job setting the tone throughout the film while staying true to the underlying theme.

Jóhann Jóhannsson uses distorted vocals in many of the songs featured prominently in the film. This emphasis on vocals fits the film’s theme of language so beautifully. The soundtrack seems to convey the idea of language as a tool in the way it sets up certain moments. One moment that comes to mind is towards the end of the movie when Amy Adams’ character is slowly realising a very crucial piece of information. The song “Decyphering” begins to play as the camera focuses on Amy Adams’ face. Her eyes are closed. She is clearly in deep thought as the soft distorted buzzing of a high-pitched voice hums into the audio foreground. The music almost seems to be communicating with the character by crescendoing in correlation to her mental progress. This subtle, yet effective, technique implemented by Jóhannsson adds another layer of engagement for the viewer.

There is another moment at the beginning of the film that exemplifies the beauty of Jóhannsson’s soundtrack. This moment is when Adams’s character is witnessing the spacecraft for the first time. The scene is set up with an extreme wide shot showcasing the mysterious spacecraft accompanied by a rolling fog that is slowly sheathing the land below. As this stunning scene is shown, Jóhannsson’s song titled “Arrival” is played dominantly as the camera moves slowly towards the craft. The song features a constant low hum combined with these intermittent high-pitched whines that sound almost like a whale call. This sinister-sounding song concretes the abundantly ominous tone set by the spacecraft and the fog by creating an unfamiliar, and frankly unsettling sound. This entourage of enigmatic content challenges the viewer’s senses and forces them to interpret what they are experiencing. This allows for an empathetic bond between the viewer and Amy Adams’s character since she is also given the role of interpreter.

One last specific example of the effectiveness of Jóhannsson’s soundtrack is when the viewer is introduced to the interior of the spacecraft for the first time. The song titled “First Encounter” starts as the characters begin their walk down a long hallway towards the middle of the craft. The song begins with a relatively low volume until the camera reveals a light that the characters are walking towards at the end of the corridor. As this dirty white light overtakes the screen, the music becomes painfully loud. This unexpectedly extreme volume triggers an involuntary feeling of fear within the viewer, successfully mimicking the fear felt by the characters in the film. The viewer once more shares the fear felt by the characters as the volume spikes again when they are introduced to the alien creatures for the first time later on in the scene.

While these few moments were parts of the movie where Jóhannsson’s work proved especially effective, the overall sound of the movie was quite wonderful in my opinion. I feel that this quote by Jóhannsson perfectly sums up why I enjoyed the sound design of this film so much:

“In mainstream cinema, there’s usually too much music. In Arrival, the use of space and silence is extremely important. When music is needed, it’s really there and it serves a purpose.”

As Jóhannsson says, I feel the main reason I enjoyed the sound in Arrival as much as I did was because it was never overdone. A large portion of the film had no music at all, allowing for full focus on the visual composition. When there was music, it either heavily established or contributed to the tone of the scene. This seemingly simplistic structure of sound and visuals works so well for a film that relies so heavily on the viewer’s grasp on what is happening in order to fully appreciate the main plot point. In the bonus footage attached to the film’s theatrical re-release, Arrival’s director, Denis Villeneuve, expressed the importance of this plot point and how he even structured much of the editing around getting the pacing just right for the viewer to understand what is happening at the correct time. Thanks to this commitment to good story telling, Villeneuve has created a film structure that I hope to see again sometime soon.

The biggest takeaway for future filmmakers who watch Arrival would definitely be this concept of leaving “space and silence”. Just as negative space can be extremely powerful in regards to an image, silence can make a moment much more significant. It seems that for many newer filmmakers and content creators there is the feeling that more content is better. Villeneuve proves that this is not necessarily the case by creating these minimalistic scenes that work so well by the way they allow the viewer to focus more intensely on what is in front of them. The lack of content emphasises the small amounts of content that are there, creating the assumption that the director had very clear intentions for the exact composition of the scene.

Take this scene depicted above for example. This exchange occurs about half-way through the film and lasts for a little less than two minutes, but it conveys a strong message. The only audio that can be heard is the dialogue of the two characters and a very slight breeze, therefore the viewer is drawn to this dialogue and the image in front of them. The dialogue seems to serve the purpose of character progression by establishing more of a relationship between these two characters.

More interestingly though, Villeneuve chooses to frame the characters in a very specific way. During this dialogue, Villeneuve switches between three shots which I’ve added above. One shot has Jeremy Renner talking to the left edge of the screen with nothing to his right. Another shot has Amy Adams talking to the right edge of the screen with the spacecraft seen behind her head. This very interesting set of compositions seems to symbolize the headspace of the two characters. Adams’ character is most fixated on the aliens and figuring out why they are here, symbolized by the craft havering in the background of her shot. Meanwhile, Renner’s character is not as affected which is symbolized by the nothingness. Finally, the third shot has both characters on either side of the screen with a space between them. 

Without giving too much away, this particular composition foreshadows the future of these characters’ relationship. This scene is abruptly ended by the sound of a large explosion from the next sequence. The viewer’s quick and loud reintroduction to heavy amounts of foreground audio further accentuates the calm and collected nature of the previous scene. As one can see, this short scene does a wonderful job proving how less can be much, much more.