Why Hollywood is ready for subtle storytelling at last. Part 3: The ARRIVAL of a new, subtler wave in cinema?

In the cases of MOONLIGHT and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, personally I appreciated them more than I enjoyed them! I can see why they were successful and critically acclaimed, but they never fully won me over. I took more of an interest in the film ARRIVAL, a film that applies similar subtlety in its storytelling techniques, but within the usually bombastic high-budget genre of sci-fi… and the ARRIVAL storytelling deserves a close look too.

Spoilers alert… this article will discuss the outcomes of the story in order to demonstrate how and why it works. 

On the face of it, ARRIVAL is about an alien invasion, but this extremely provocative scenario provides the vehicle for subtle implicit storytelling rather than an action-packed, over-the-top, blockbuster story in the usual style.

Instead of invading or threatening humans, alien ships simply hang in air in obscure places, waiting for us to travel to them and engage them. We, as a race, have to work out why they’ve shown up unannounced and, more strangely (to audiences, at least!), why they are seemingly serene and peaceful.

Our protagonist, Louise (Amy Adams), an expert in languages, is called upon to decipher the language of the aliens in an attempt to avert any possibility of interplanetary war against clearly superior opposition (or even against fellow nations). So this becomes a story, not about alien invasion, but about communication – about why we and other creatures need to reach out to one another to survive. Telling this story from female perspective with great subtlety makes it a far more stimulating and rewarding thought-experiment than the usual whizz-bang sci-fi fare.

In a clever manipulation of our expectations of storytelling, this film presents us with a series of flashbacks showing the bereavement of Louise. Only at the end of the film do we discover these are actually premonitions of what will happen to her, which are generated by her understanding the language that the aliens teach her, which enables us and them to predict the future, and link past, present, and future in ways we could not have imagined. The aliens finally reveal they’ve done this, not because they want to conquer us, but because in thousands of years they’ll need our help. War is averted – through their subtlety and inaction, they’ve negotiated a peace treaty with us.

Conventional sci-fi stories play out male obsessions with power, control, colonialism, war and exploration, whereas ARRIVAL embodies a more subtle and feminine approach to the profound questions of life which sci-fi is uniquely placed to explore. Although there is an explosion in middle of the film (something that is poorly explained and has limited consequences on the story), the real story explosion takes place in our mind and in the hearts of our main characters, as the clues fall into place and the scenario begins to make sense. This film intentionally confuses its audience, so that its reveal can be more mind-blowing to us.

MOONLIGHT, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, ARRIVAL – in all 3 of these films, we see subtlety is used to reward intelligent audiences. Audiences who are tired of having their intelligence insulted by convention get rewarded for their patience, through stimulating and often powerful and unconventional stories.

MOONLIGHT winning Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards 2017 suggests critics, audiences and awards ceremonies are now more open to subtle and implicit films.

In return, these films have been rewarded by audiences, awards ceremonies, and critics – hopefully this signals the beginning of a new era of cinema and film storytelling, in which writers and audiences will be rewarded not through explosions or CGI action, but through the emotional and intellectual connection they make through the characters they’re watching. At WriteMovies, that suits us and scripts we love just fine. We look forward to sharing more of these with you in months and years ahead…