science fiction

Villeneuve’s Arrival and Balanced Innovation

(spoilers for Arrival)

Decrying the state of cinema has always been popular, but now it seems to be particularly in vogue. Recently, I’ve heard people argue that cinematic innovation is not just slow as a result of cultural trends, but because of artistic limitations as well. That is, after a century of development, everything that is worth doing in film has already been done. I’m not talking about technical innovations and gimmicks like Cinerama or 3D; I mean in the sphere of storytelling and film form. Looking back at the French New Wave era, or even the German Impressionist movement, I can definitely see why some critics aren’t pleased with the comparative innovative spirit of today’s cinema. But to claim that film has reached the apex of its development is, I think, shortsighted.

And I’m not just talking about the most obscure, avant-garde corners of the art form. In fact, I think some mainstream films are innovating more meaningfully than the least accesible experimental pieces. I recently watched Villeneuve’s Arrival, which sits firmly in the mainstream sphere, and I think it’s a perfect representation of balanced, meaningful innovation in film storytelling. It encapsulates exactly what a modern film ought to do in order to maintain a substantial audience while also exploring new artistic territory: take an old trope or technique and turn it on its head. It’s an old trick; taking old motifs or expected patterns and inverting them in some way has been popular among experimental musicians for a long time now, but only a select few filmmakers seem willing to do it.

In the case of Arrival, Villeneuve takes a tried and true tool of cinematic storytelling, the flashback, and uses it in a way that few filmmakers have attempted. Throughout the majority of the film, the protagonist (Louise) experiences what appear to be flashbacks to her life before the death of her daughter. Just as in any other film, these visions give the viewer context that frames her actions during the events of the film. However, at the film’s conclusion, it’s revealed that these supposed flashbacks are actually flashes forward: the alien language that Louise is studying enables people to experience time in a nonlinear fashion, and throughout the film she is actually seeing premonitions of events to come.

It’s a simple inversion. Villeneuve takes a standard cinematic tool and turns it on its head. There are no ridiculously long takes, no experimental color flashes, nor even any particularly obscure storytelling structures or techniques. These things are certainly valuable at time, but filmmakers looking to make movies that are both innovative and accessible should be thinking like Villeneuve: take an old trick and make it new.

Rogue One and Cinematic Universes

Rogue One has shown that there’s a promising future for the Star Wars franchise in the wealthy hands of Disney. It’s received widespread acclaim and has certainly been rewarded financially for its efforts. However, it has also raised some interesting questions about the nature of modern cinema franchises. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the original example of a sprawling continuity that interlinks films over many years, but the recent success of the new Star Wars films shows that this success isn’t an anomaly; cinematic universes can work for non-marvel films.

 

Some have decried this recent trend, believing that it leads to a stagnated sense of innovation and formulaic, mass-produced films. After all, why would filmmakers try something new when they can copy-paste the format of their last movie and quadruple their investment? While these criticisms certainly apply to the Marvel franchise, I think it’s a bit too early in the game to call out Star Wars. We’ve only seen the first two modern installments in the franchise, and they’ve both been well-executed mainstream films. Similar in some ways? Absolutely. Indicative of a diluted, braggadocious juggernaut of repetition? Absolutely not.

 
We need to give the budding franchise a chance to come into its own. We simply don’t have enough information to make substantial claims about the series as a whole. Give it a few more movies. Unfounded negativity only serves to shake the confidence of filmmakers. We can’t claim that this is a repeat of Marvel until we can be reasonably sure that it really is. If that day comes, you can be sure that I’ll be complaining alongside everyone else.