Silence seems to have become a key cue in the science fiction film, from Scott and Cameron’s iterations of the Alien franchise (Alien UK/US 1979 and Aliens US 1986), through Nolan’s Interstellar (US 2014), and Cuaron’s Gravity (US 2014) to the recent outing Arrival (US 2016 dir: Denis Villeneuve). Silence is of course a feature of a vacuum, but is this why it is also a feature of some science fiction film?
There are obvious connotations one could read into this, isolation from human contact, loneliness, and meaninglessness exclamation in overwhelming existential emptiness. But why strip key moments from a narrative of such semiotic and expressive opportunities?
Aside from a generalised sense of existential angst, and rather trite readings in relation to the physics of sound in a vacuum, what can be understood by a film maker making such a drastic and radical choice? Exploring some examples might raise a few ideas.
Firstly I’d like to step back a little historically speaking, and think about earlier non-generic uses of silence in film. In The Birds, Hitchcock deliberately rejected the inclusion of a score, and while there are plenty of moments where the film lacks dialogue, the emptiness is filled with ambient, but more importantly, bird sounds. Indeed, the stark and shrill bird calls shifts our impression of them from ambient and a quotidian part of an exterior sound mix to a clarion call for the potential horror of the scenario. But this is only a partial and deliberate silence.
While Hitchcock was flinging live seagulls at Tippi Hedren, Jean-Luc Godard was making one of his more fun and provocative films; Bande a part.
There are a couple of instances in this film where the director explores silence for it’s thematic power, and in this Godard is indicating something very (post)modern; a self conscious use of his expressive means; for example when Odile says let’s try to be silent for one minute (I paraphrase), the soundtrack is completely dropped from the film for 60 seconds, no score, no ambient sound, just silence. This feels terribly unnatural, and draws the audiences’ attention to what they’re actually experiencing, a confection made for their pleasure. It also draws in one of Godard’s motifs, and in turn a key theme in his films of this period, the narcissism of youth (Michel and Patricia in à bout de soufflé?) and their inability to contemplate. The clever part is that he also positions his audience in the same cultural space as Odile, Franz and Arthur, as we too feel the discomfort of the silence. This idea is further developed in the dance sequence, where, while he doesn’t invoke complete silence, he drops the Rock and Roll score from the sequence, and replaces it with the rather empty sound of the performers’ feet shuffling, stamping and scratching along the boards, and then his own voice-over. This reveals the thoughts of his characters, while they slavishly repeat the moves of a popular American style rock and roll dance, like automatons. In this Godard expands on his earlier argument about thoughtless narcissism of youth to incorporate another key idea; his distaste for imported American popular culture, and the associated cultural imperialism, the source of the narcissism?
There is of course an irony here, in that Godard borrowed and stole numerous plot lines from 1940’s American noir-ish crime movies.
Villeneuve’s Arrival seems to use its silences, or rather its breaks in dialogue, for pacing. This seems to permit audiences moments to muse on issues of language, perception and insight, which the film seems preoccupied with. It won’t come as any surprise if you’ve seen the film, that one of its central themes is communication. The plot seems to explore the risks and pitfalls of trying to communicate and fully understand others. Ultimately it suggests beneficial consequences; enlightenment, insight and quiet contentment.
This seems quite prescient, and the film offers a little hope where current political discourse seems dominated by fear and suspicion of ‘otherness’.
Anyway, to silence as an element of meaning. There are lengthy passages in the first two acts of Arrival where the sound mix is confined, ambient sound seem at an equal level with dialogue, delivered intermittently and with deliberation. This mimics the silences and interruptions, and the general awkwardness experienced in finding common ground which can characterise the beginning of any relationship. Cinematically this appears through sequences constructed from mismatched long-takes, with no clear pattern to the duration of take, so audiences can’t grasp rhythm in the shot to shot relationships, as they might usually expect in a Hollywood genre film. Also, critical dramatic moments are dominated by fairly unconventionally framed close-up shots, again cut with mis-matched shots and take durations.
Within the plot there is also a strange violent interlude of a suspicion fuelled action sequence, This could be read as ticking a generic box, except that it mostly occurs off-screen, and the motivation for it tightens some of the thematic ideas.
The parallel structure and multiple narrative lines explore some of the problems and consequences of a struggle to find clear channels of communication and build trust. And, for a two hour feature, Arrival seems to offer fairly serious contemplation on some of these issues in fairly minute detail, through each of its tightly interwoven plot-lines. Exploring personal and global impacts of miscommunication.
Trying to avoid spoilers, the final act returns the audience to personal tragedies for the principals, set out in the exposition, although arriving at these from a different place. It does seem a little unresolved and is certainly untidy for a Hollywood feature, but it is oddly hopeful, and essentially human in its concerns. This solidifies the film’s theme but to some degree undermines generic expectations.
Arrival seems to be one of those examples of a science fiction film transcends its generic confines, and offer audiences space to contemplate profoundly human problems. It is probably a little portentous for hard core fans of the genre with its current preoccupation with violent action, but for me it fits into a noble tradition within this genre, and accomplished its aims through an uneasy balance of its themes and its means of communicating them, in the combinations of sound design editing and cinematography.