A Stellar Arrival: Denis Villeneuve, Christopher Nolan, and Film Language
Why is every prestige science-fiction drama inevitably compared to the last? Arrival just landed on Friday and already the din about its comparison to Interstellar is feverish. Apparently, spacecraft, time, science, and love (“Love, TARS, love!”) is all it takes these days.
It is a shame. They couldn’t be more different.
Filmmakers are always going to cross paths, of course. Throughout their careers, they only have so many tools at their disposal (granted, there are a lot of tools and ways to use them). There are only so many genres to tap, so many camera angles to use, so many ways to shoot a beautiful vista.
What do Steven Spielberg, Uwe Boll, JJ Abrams, and Andrei Tarkovsky all have in common? They have made science fiction pictures! Does that make them similar filmmakers? Not a chance. Yet even if all those filmmakers are completely different in style, talent, thematic leanings, reputation, and more, they are bound to employ the tools of filmmaking in similar ways. It's the small things, the subtle ways in which a film maker employs these tools that sets them apart. A single shot can be the same from one movie to the next, but how you get to that shot can change its meaning and how we connect to it emotionally.
It all begins with storytelling. What stories are meant to do? Convey a sense of connection in the world around us. Name your favorite filmmaker or favorite movie and guess what? It’s about something we can relate to. However far-fetched, they are about something. Hell, even fantasy movies, the quintessential this-world-is-totally-made-up-and-unlike-your-world genre! Even The Lord of the Rings has philosophical ruminations, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Thank you, Gandalf!
Theme and meaning by nature is an abstract concept. We interpret it as an audience. In a Christopher Nolan film, themes are tied into the narrative as to serve it. The consequences of this is that theme in a Nolan film is binary, a cause-and-effect. A theme is basically a plot device, a MacGuffin. Theme has ceased to be interpretive; theme has become exposition and meaning has become a bystander.
Say a Michael Bay movie is like a bodybuilder (hey, he made a movie about them!), bursting out of it’s skin. Than a Nolan picture is like a cross-fit athlete, muscular but built to move. His films combines big effects, action, and A-list stars into packages that keep the audience engaged at every turn. There are no down moments. There is no second where the foot is off the pedal. It always has to be moving, whether with action or exposition or emotion. Something always has to be happening. Which is great if you what you are saying is similarly scaled. Nolan used to do that, with Memento, Insomnia, and then to a lesser degree, The Prestige.
Consider Nolan’s Batman trilogy. In Batman Begins, there are themes of crime and justice, identity, and morality at play. They serve the narrative. When Bruce Wayne considers shooting the man who killed his parents, this decision leads him to question his own identity and morality, sending him to Asia and giving birth to the idea of Batman. These themes shape Batman and shapes us, our emotional connection. In a world like his, what does morality mean? When Wayne transforms into Batman, morality takes a literal form. The themes are reinforced time and again and exist almost independently from the narrative.
In the publicly-acclaimed sequel, The Dark Knight, Nolan still plays with theme are but the ties to narrative have begun to fuse. The Joker believes that the citizens of Gotham are self-serving so by inserting a tad bit of fear and chaos into their lives, he reveals their barest form. But rather than manifesting itself that question in the minds of the audience, Nolan inserts it directly into the plot. The ferry sequence, Joker handing Harvey Dent a gun, and so on. The theme is no longer abstract but concrete. The theme is losing its independence.
By the time we reach The Dark Knight Rises, theme has become so embedded in the narrative – the play between haves and have-nots, Bane as a soldier of change (then conveniently cut out at the knees for a weak-sauce twist), Batman as a martyr – the meaning hits like a wet noodle. The themes are victims of the shifting and changing of a narrative. Similarly to how a character can shift or change their intent in a single scene, so too, does the meaning in a Nolan film. Nothing sticks.
Arrival achieves that delicate balance of theme to narrative. One of the themes is of communication and its subtle difficulties, between people, cultures and then ultimately, between species. Throughout the film Villeneuve repeats motifs of language by exploring the very use of language. Few films have ever quite grasped the nuances of speaking and how the change in tense can change entirely the intent of a phrase. The literal use of certain phrases such as ‘Let’s make a baby.’ come off as awkward to our English-speaking ears, but it’s partly the point. Most English-speakers would say, ‘Let’s have a baby.’ But notice the difference: to ‘make’ is future tense, to ‘have’ is present tense. You can’t have a baby unless it’s been born.
Arrival plays with this dynamic by using it to support the narrative, not to serve it. He doesn't fuse meaning into the narrative, hoping to use the narrative as a driving force of the meaning. In the brief moments that Arrival needs to provide some exposition, it still manages to adhere to theme (when Louise explains how communication with the Metapods can't begin until they know whether the Metapods understand the concepts of human language at all). Comparatively, Nolan's Interstellar races through these moments quick enough for the audience to get it (Wormhole? Go through it and relativity- oh, hey Matt Damon!)
This isn't a new thing for Villeneuve. His films Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario employ the same exploration of theme through their narrative. Some are more abstract than others (whoa, what was going on in Enemy?), but they toy with big ideas in small spaces.
Villeneuve uses film as a language. Nolan uses film as a craft. Together, you get a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg who has created a marriage of the two into a form. His films are always about something, most often in very obvious ways, but done expertly nonetheless. Shave away that meaning you get Nolan. Add subtlety you get Villeneuve. Not quite so simple to compare them then, is it?
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.