Director Denis Villeneuve has quickly catapulted himself to the top of auteur filmmakers working today. His films have demonstrated a strong and effective vision, and the emotional resonance of them has made him someone worth taking notice of. Much of that success comes from his composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson. Jóhann has also risen to become one of the most unique and sought after composing talents working in the industry. If you want a score to not sound like anything that’s ever come before it, call Jóhann. His scores to Villeneuve’s Prisoners and Sicario were masterful, and the same goes for Arrival.
Arrival’s sonic palette might turn away anyone listening to it on album without seeing the film, and the beauty of Jóhann’s scores is that it’s a shining example why we should always look at score in the context of what it’s doing in the film. Never how it plays as an album. If you saw the film, you’ll know that the movie is bookended with Max Richter’s "On The Nature Of Daylight:. This piece was made famous after Scorsese used it in Shutter Island, but here Denis Villeneuve decided to open and close the film with it. And really, it’s the only piece of melodic music in the entire film. Jóhann’s score is extremely atmospheric, textural and rhythmic. And when we say rhythmic, we’re talking extremely subtle rhythms. Back to Richter for a moment. The reason why that music opens and closes the film is because it’s essentially the music tied directly to our main character and her story with her daughter. The arc is opened and closed with that music, and you’ll see how that Richter piece does that when you see the film. The only argument against using it was that it’s highly recognizable, and when you hear it you are immediately pulled out of the scene as your brain recognizes the music.
Now back to Jóhann. So, since the Richter piece speaks directly to our main character’s emotional and inner journey, the rest of the score is more so to take us on the actual physical journey of encountering and experiencing this alien arrival. The music does a fascinating job of creating mystery, scope and anticipation. For most of the film we are building up this anticipation as to what the aliens want, why they are here, are they harmful? So the score does an incredible job of building that anticipation with a slight hint of dangerous possibilities that could arise. The score is never threatening, yet we still feel uneasy about it all. The use of the vocal textures in the music are more so used after the alien encounter, so don’t get confused by the album’s track order, because it’s not in order in an effort to avoid spoilers. A large chunk of the film happens after the aliens are encountered. The music then takes on this busy energy as our protagonists work to understand them, work to communicate. Yet all the while, the entire world and other nations grow antsy. This all builds to an incredible emotional reveal at the end, and the score then subsides for the Richter piece to close it.
Arrival is a brilliant and strong score from Jóhann Jóhannsson who has managed to craft a soundscape so unique that it makes the film as a whole feel fresh and new. The textures and atmospheres are brilliantly crafted to create mystery, tension and anticipation. The one aspect of the score that’s missing, is a little of the core emotions of the story. Which strangely fall upon the Max Richter piece that opens and closes the film. While it’s clear as to why the Max Richter piece is the only melodic and character-driven music used in the film, it still begs the question as to what if Jóhann scored it? The Max Richter piece is not on the score album and the score album itself is not in narrative order, so it’s strongly recommended to see the film to understand how the score works. While this is an immense and stunning work from Jóhann Jóhannsson, it feels as if there was something missing to take it to a higher level of emotional resonance and character exploration.
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