La La Land Review & Analysis: Five Seasons of Archetypes in A Technicolor Land

La La Land has five seasons and each season not only to mark an act, but they also serve as a theme for each chapter of Mia’s and Sebastian’s life which reminds me of Northrop Frye’s Theory of Archetypes.

In his book which was first published in 1957, Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye asserts that all narratives fall into one of four seasons. Each mythos has its own theme and consists of six phases, sharing three with the preceding mythos and three with the succeeding mythos.”

(The lego version of La La Land poster provided by @fbillys)

The world of La La Land is the world where contradiction, paradox, and irony coexisting altogether. It is the world wherein: conflicting elements exist in the same system; conflicting elements revealing a previously unknown truth; and a resolution that is opposite to what would be expected.

As a movie, La La Land consists of contradictive qualities. It’s humorous, but at the same time, serious; it’s uplifting, yet heartbreaking; it’s concave and reflective. It is a hundred and twenty-eight minutes of cinematic escapism that still gives you a taste of realism.

The story of La La Land is set in a place where dreams are built, sold as the main commodity and also shattered into pieces. It’s a place where hope could be turned into hate within seconds. It’s a place for dreamers who should be ready to be losers. It’s a place that constantly sunny and warm, a place called Los Angeles, Tinseltown, City of Angels, or a city that sells entertainment as the main business, a business with uncertainty and complexity.

But, it is the main characters of La La Land who bear the brunt of complexity. They’re a young woman and a young man. They are passionate and incredibly good looking. They live in the modern contemporary world, but their souls seem to be stuck in the old mold of the era when the originators and innovators were alive. They possess the demeanor of the golden age of Hollywood, but the time they’re living in keeps on going forward, not backward. Their idealistic world is based on nostalgia and fantasia, cemented on imageries of silver screens, vinyl records, and memorabilia, presented in the palette of Technicolor.

The young woman’s name is Mia Dolan (played brightly by Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who works as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros studio lot in between auditions. One day while she serves behind the cashier machine, a young lady–who wears a fancy and elegant dress–walks into her and orders a cup of cappuccino. She must be a famous actress or a public figure since other customers of the coffee-shop voluntary give her a lot of glances and a space to walk. Mia audaciously scans this young lady who, later to be seen, rides a golf cart accompanied by an assistant. The way Mia stares at her we know she admires this woman. We know that she wants to be like her.

One night after attending a Hollywood party, when she is looking for her car, Mia accidentally passes a small club in the downtown of Los Angeles. All of sudden she is hypnotized by a solo piano play. She follows the tunes and she gets surprised to find out it’s the same man he met earlier that day who playing the melody.

La La Land is a musical film, so it’s using music as the way to introduce its protagonists, music as its language to unite a lover. Their fate is bound by the tunes and melody. It’s the young man’s music that calling Mia.

The young man’s name is Sebastian: a struggling jazz musician, but not necessarily a crooner, since the way he sings the songs is more like a pop singer than a jazzy one. It’s the first contradiction I recognize from this film. Sebastian proclaims himself as a “jazz purist”, but he is forced to making ends meet by playing for an eighties retro cover version band (they’re playing songs from A-HA and a one hit wonder band, Flocks and Seagull). He thinks that the real jazz is dying and for that he plans to open his own jazz club, but he barely makes money. He compares himself to phoenix, a mystical creature whose ability of, “rising from the ashes”. He’s sort of a cultural snobbish.

Mia’s and Sebastian’s paths of life seem to cross, again and again, by some odd chances. La La Land clearly tries to bring us into a perspective that this is a movie about a dream. A beautiful and idealistic dream, at first, set in a place where all of the possibilities could happen to you.  It’s a hot and bright sunny day in an awfully long queue of the traffic jam on a freeway where Mia and Sebastian meet up for the first time, at the tail end of the opening scene. Mia is seen rehearsing behind the steering wheel of her Prius, practicing some lines of dialogues for her next audition. Apparently, she’s too focus on her script, she doesn’t realize that her car blocking Sebastian’s way in his classic seventies convertible ride. Sebastian honks impatiently, Mia gives her middle finger, and the rest of their journey is inevitable.

It starts in a mechanism of a rom-com movie, a screwball to be specific, a genre that originating in the early 1930’s and finally thriving in the early of 1940’s. It’s a genre of which the two protagonists first meet each other in a humorous circumstance of the battle of the sexes. Screwball comedy movies had their place in the era of great depression and war of which audiences needed an escape. The way Damien Chazelle, the director of La La Land, introduces his pair of characters is a nod to the era when motion pictures purely performed a function of escapism. It’s a reminiscence of the moment when Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Kathy Shelden (Debbie Reynolds) meet for the first time in Singing in the Rain. It’s also the first signals that his La La Land is aimed as a throwback to the very good old time of cinema when Hollywood was still depicted lightheartedly and innocently.

Through the opening scene, Chazelle has delineated La La Land with his festive idea of charm: presenting a massive dance sequence of the drivers who stuck on the freeway, emerging from their vehicles, displaying a variety of ethnicity like a proclamation that this is the place for every person of color and race, they’re dancing and singing like nobody business, to leap and twirl between and atop cars in one gliding and swivelling faux-long take, choreographed by Mandy Moore (not that former teenage pop-star) with a fusion of ballet and contemporary dance. Shot on film by cinematographer, Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, Joy) with CinemaScope 55 camera, the grandeur opening scene establishes the film as a paean to old musical movies. It is also a statement from Chazelle that this is a movie about dreams. A joyous one. Or perhaps is it a manifestation of dreams for everyone who suffers boredom over a long traffic jam? Or is it just a welcoming act of a musical play?

Chazelle opens his film with a superimposed text informing that it’s a “winter”, but the opening musical number is titled, “Another Day of Sun”. Christmas Carol and Jingle Bells can be heard everywhere, but snow is nowhere to be found. It’s a noticeable contradiction, although its use of the name of seasons as the title of a chapter in this film has a greater purpose nevertheless.

Chazelle starts his story in “winter” as the first act and ends it, also, in “winter”. It indicates the circle of life, from nothing to something, from nobody to somebody, as his pair of protagonist’s life progress and goes on. The creative choice suggests the structure of four acts and it reminds me of the using of month names to mark each phase of the story in Jacques Demy’s 1964 classic musical experimental film, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrella of Cherbourg). It is not the only homage to Catherine Deneuve starrer movie. Later, around the mid duration of the movie, we will see Emma Stone’s Mia writing a one-woman-show stage-play with Deneuve’s character name from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Geneviève, as her main heroine.

La La Land has five seasons and each season not only to mark an act, but they also serve as a theme for each chapter of Mia’s and Sebastian’s life which reminds me of Northrop Frye’s Theory of Archetypes.

In his book which was first published in 1957, Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye asserts that all narratives fall into one of four seasons. Each mythos has its own theme and consists of six phases, sharing three with the preceding mythos and three with the succeeding mythos.


Right after the aforementioned epic spectacle musical opening scene, we are being informed that it’s “winter” in La La Land. According to Frye’s theory, winter reflects the theme of “satire and irony”. The process of Mia meeting Sebastian is ironic. They start it with a potency of conflict, even though it’s a cute one, as Mia gives her middle finger to Sebastian. But later, Mia accidentally falls in love with Sebastian after hearing his solo piano play and she ends up glaring at him with an intrigued look as Sebastian hits her and ignores her. This “season” also has a contradictive element since, at the first time they meet, Mia and Sebastian are wearing clothes with different colors, however when they encounter again with each other at the bar, this time, they both are in the same color: Mia is wearing blue dress, so is Sebastian putting up himself in a blue suit. Their color-matching dress-code is an indication that they’re made for each other and it’s ironic. Another contradictive element can be seen by how Sebastian and Mia have a different personal taste from the looks of their cars. When the camera first shots on Sebastian in his car, he is seen busy rewinding a cassette player of his retro convertible car.  This is the way how this movie has established Sebastian’s nostalgic, culturally hippie and snobbish personality. Later, also in this season, we’ll see Sebastian recording his piano play with a vinyl-recorder, instead of using a modern recorder. So it is understandable that Sebastian has no cell-phone. Mia is, another way around, seen riding a much more modern-designed car and using iPhone as a tool of communication.  The first “winter” in this movie also highlights the quality of satire. Here, we’re being introduced to their struggle for getting their dreams fulfilled in a funny way. We will see Mia auditioning for a role in a blue raincoat since her white shirt accidentally gets spilled by one of her customer’s coffee. Emma Stone’s performance is so excellent here. In a hilarious meta-acting chop, she plays her role before two casting directors as if she’s in the middle of a phone call with somebody. When she’s already in her emotional state, crying over her phone call, her acting gets distracted by someone who suddenly comes into the audition room and she has to have her emotion paused. On the other side of the story, we’re also being informed of how Sebastian burying his ego and pride. Wearing a fancy blue suit and black tie, he looks like Frank Sinatra and seems ready to play an acid jazz repertoire with his piano. But, eventually, he is playing a very standard Christmas songs as his boss (played by J.K Simmons) warns him, “No jazz!”. These funny introductions are a satire of how two people who live and try to make a living in a dream land have to deal with rejections.


It’s a season of comedy and it’s indeed started with a moment of comedy. In a pool party Mia, who wears a soon-to-be-iconic Atelier Versace inspired bright yellow floral printed dress, recognizes Sebastian who, this time wears an eighties look dress-code with a bright orange jacket and dark yellow baggy pant, is playing a gig and A-Ha’s Take on Me with a cover version band. Mia, then, intentionally mocks Sebastian by requesting A Flocks of Seagull’s I Ran to refer their previous encounter in a club at which Sebastian “ran away” from Mia (she also imitates the lyric in front of Sebastian in purpose). “Spring” in La La Land also refers to their blossoming love as they start to feel affection for each other and finding out that they have the same rhythm and beat. In a musical movie, the dance number performs a function as a way for its characters to share the same feeling through a dance. Here, in this season, Mia and Sebastian impulsively have a dance in the bright blue night sky which is also a tribute to a classic musical film, Singing in the Rain. In an iconic-in-the-making tap dance scene, both Mia and Sebastian show that they are attuned to each other. Chazelle uses “spring” and his nostalgia of Hollywood Golden Age era as the frame to show us the process of affirmative action of his characters love life. Mia talks about her fondness for classic films (Casablanca, Notorious, and a screwball movie, Bring Up Baby), Sebastian talks about his passion for jazz, Count Basie, and Chick Webb. Later, we’ll see Mia and Sebastian in white shirts having an excursion through Warner Bros lot, passing the set of Humphrey Bogart’ and Ingrid Bergman’ Casablanca (Mia is a huge fan of Bergman as we can see the big poster of her in Mia’s room)

There’s a cute tension here, though, when Mia admits that she hates jazz and this honest confession leads Sebastian to lecture her about the history of jazz while they’re listening to a quintet bebop jazz band at The Lighthouse Café. They’re seen being involved in a literate-dialogue in which Sebastian shares his fascination about jazz and brings the legendary Sydney Bechet into the plate. There’s a moment here when Sebastian points out how the quintet jazz band they’re listening to always offer something new in their gigs, although they’re playing the same repertoire each night. That’s the moment when I realize, as an avid fan of jazz myself, La La Land has so much jazz in it. One of the jazz’s distinctive qualities that separate itself from other music is the quality of polyrhythmic, the ability of jazz as music carrying multiple and contrasting rhythms at the same time. Despite the fact that its plot is built on classic and well-known movies, La La Land is able to define itself as an original material, not only because of the songs but also due to its ability to present itself in layers of contradictive and antithetical elements.

The dialogues between Mia and Sebastian here also reminiscent of Woody Allen’s movies, especially Everyone Says I Love You.

The season of “Spring” in La La Land also provides an iconic dreamy-alike pas de-deux jazz-ballet dance scene at the Griffith Observatory inspired by Rebel Without A Cause, a movie of which Mia and Sebastian watching on their first date. The spring season in La La Land ends by an “iris” editing style commonly used in classic movies bringing up the effect of whimsical old-fashioned filmmaking.


According to Northrop Frye’s The Theory of Archetype, summer is the season of romance and it’s time to romancing Mia and Sebastian relationship. This phase opens with a montage of the couple visiting some places in Los Angeles showing their progressively blossoming love life accompanied by a swing jazz instrumental music. The montage gives us a glance of the youthful innocence of inexperience. The montage includes a scene in which Mia in a pink shirt tap dancing to a live swing jazz music played by Sebastian and the quintet jazz band we’ve previously seen in The Lighthouse Café scene.

This season also marks an enlightened moment for the pairs to evolve. Sebastian realizes that he needs a steady income and he considers to take an offer from his longtime friend, Keith (played by a musician in real life, John Legend), to joining market-oriented pop fusion-jazz band. At first, Sebastian seems reluctant to join. I assume Sebastian is a neo-bop jazz musician whose conservative notions that the best way to save jazz is by keeping the genre pure and untouched by another genre. Sebastian’s hesitation leads Keith to open an honest discussion between the two of them, in which Keith asks Sebastian how he’s going to revolutionize jazz by being a traditionalist ( Keith cites Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk as Sebastian’s vision of pure jazz).

The conversation between those two friends is the moment for Sebastian to have his idealistic view revised. But ironically, this is also the moment for Mia to really believe in her dream and starts to pursue it.

The irony and contradiction are symbolized by the song, City Of Stars. When we first hear this song in “spring”, Sebastian sings it solo, questioning his fate and journey. In “summer”, City of Stars is being sung in duet. Emma Stone’s Mia tries to answer Gosling’s Sebastian question of doubt. Mia sings the song in a humorous and confident way, she sings it with more firm and assertive. By the time Sebastian sings the lyric, “ …Think I want it to stay”, he assures himself that he’s chosen the right path and the editing cut to the scene of him signing the contract and joining Keith’s band.

At the same time, Mia quits her job as the barista and totally pursuing her dream career as an actress. As “City of Stars” keeps on playing, we see a montage that showing the two lovers begin to separate.

The biggest contradiction and irony can be seen in a scene when Mia attending Sebastian’s band, The Messengers’ first concert.  The way Sebastian looks at Mia who’s standing in the crowd he thinks that his girl would be proud. But Mia thinks otherwise. She knows something has changed, something that would bring them taking a different path. Mia feels that she’s going to be just “someone in the crowd”, the song she sings earlier in this film.

Fall or Autumn

By the time we enter fall season in La La Land, the irony and contradiction between the pair are getting more serious we’re going to face the season of tragedy. Mia got her own one-woman show stageplay, So Long, funded. The title is also the sign for her to saying goodbye to Sebs. Meanwhile, Sebastian is getting busy on tour with his band. He gives up his dreams, Mia keeps on pursuing hers.

There’s a scene of two of them having a surprise dinner arranged by Sebastian in the apartment they’re living together, accompanied by their theme song, “City of Stars”, this time in a swing fast-tempo beat piano solo version. This is the time when they’re arguing over their dreams. It is the time they realize that they could not be together. It’s the time for Mia to say, “This is not home anymore”, as she feels that she’s fighting alone. The editing keeps on highlighting the big contrast between the couple by crosscutting the scenes. It’s also the moment we notice that Mia and Sebastian are wearing dresses with different colors. Mia wears a white shirt symbolizes her pure intention, while Sebastian wearing dark suit reflecting his surrender to the dark side of business. It’s like Chazelle subtly criticizing the industry through his characters.

But Chazelle also puts his story into a paradox, whereas it hints at a promise that the end of the tunnel is going to be bright for Mia and Sebastian.

Sebastian convinces Mia to audition for Amy Brandt, a presumably powerful casting director, whom he was receiving a phone call the other night. In the audition, Mia is being told that the film project she’s about auditioned for will be shot in Paris. It’s kind of resembles Audrey Hepburn’s classic movie, Funny Faces.

Winter (Again)

We fast forward to five years later. Now, Mia Dolan is a famous actress. She revisits Warner Bros lot and the café she used to work before. Mia is seen wearing a toned-down color and elegant dress, just like the women she admired in the earlier scene. Gone is her one basic colored-dress.

On the other side of the city, Sebastian has his dream of having his own jazz club achieved. By this season, Chazelle proves himself again as an avid nostalgist. But, this time he chooses to reconstruct the previous era of his own film in more ironic and tragic way.

Mia and her-now-husband accidentally visit Sebastian’s jazz café, Sebs. As she enters the café and reads the sign, she is experiencing a déjà vu. It’s like recycling the first moment when she first met Sebastian. But now they’re wearing dresses with totally different colors. They don’t belong to each other.

Chazelle offers an alternative story for the pair. It makes this film has a four acts structure. We see a montage in which the happier version of the story is being told. We hear the medley of “Another Day of Sun” and other numbers are being played to accompany the montage. It’s a dream sequence all over again like we previously see in the opening sequence. In a musical stage-play, there’s a part following the epilog in which all the casts show up on stage performing recurrent musical numbers. The alternative montage performs the same function as the musical stage play does, but Chazelle changes the order to create the maximum impact of contradiction, paradox, and irony.

The alternative montage is also the homage and tribute to classic musical movies, such as Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris.

But the real ending is the real gem, as it shows Sebastian and Mia now have a platonic relationship. They are now exchanging glances to each other, a very deep and meaningful long glance. It’s a glance that indicates they’re still in love each other, but they’re fully aware that they should choose different paths. It’s a statement that we can only achieve one dream. Sometimes we have to leave our past behind in order to succeed in something. This great, but smothering ending, is kind of a paean to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and a 1927’s movie, 7th Heaven.

The Editing

It’s noticeable that Chazelle and his editor, Tom Cross, use a contrasting approach as the story goes by. In the first “winter” until “spring”, the editing heavily relies on “panning” and “invincible editing” to create the illusion of a long unbroken dream. This choice of editing helps the film to deliver energetic and frenetic pace, as these two first phase of Mia’ and Sebastian’ life are indeed like an idealistic dream. But as the story reaches the phase of “summer” and “autumn”, the editing is more fractured and the pace is slower. It suggests the message that the dream begins to fade and the characters should’ve stepped on reality.

The Performance and The Music

The greatness of La La Land is built on its two leading stars.

Gosling is excellent, tough and sardonic. He plays Sebastian in a way of convincing portrayal of a guy who’s adorable, charismatic, lovable, and miserable at the same time.

While as for Stone, this is her best performance so far. Her huge doe eyes radiating intelligence and they’re more shining when they’re filling with tears. Her Mia Dolan is witty, smart, and vulnerable at the same time. Together with Gosling’s Sebastian, Stone’s character without a doubt would be voted as the new iconic couple in cinema.

There are some irritating comments about how their performances are overrated. Some people are thinking that they’re not true musical stars with big-vibrato singing voices. The story of La La Land is the story of two ordinary people who live in their dreams. The musical numbers in this film is the way of filmmakers to portraying their dreams. Their imperfection in singing is designed to make their story accessible for everyone. To implying everyone could have their dreams.

La La Land’s music of which is composed by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (save for “Start A Fire”, which was written by Hurwitz, John Legend, Angélique Cinélu and Marius de Vries), combines and heighten ups of the old Hollywood musical with a realistic, nuanced, and modern look at everyday life. Every song in this movie is about character and story.

There’s a Michel Legrand’s DNA in La La Land music. Legrand is a legendary music composer and jazz pianist well-known for his long collaboration with French director, Jacques Demy. Like Legrand’s music, Hurwitz’s composition is able to marry jazz rhythm section and jazz big band with a full blown romantic orchestra. It’s also hard not to notice the heavy using of flutes to enrich the melody in this movie. It gives the nuance of 50’s to 60’s jazz music, commonly found in French movies. The result is memorable and easily hooked on music.

I have watched La La Land three times now. And I definitely will watch it again and again. A modern musical movie is easy to be found, but La La Land is an example of the movie of a lifetime.

It’s because the complexity of paradox, contradiction, and irony qualities this movie carries. It’s dreamy and reality. It’s nostalgic and majestic.

I’ve never remembered a quote about nostalgia in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as strong as I had after watching La La Land. In that 2011 movie, Michael Sheen’s character, Paul, famously says, “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present… the name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”

Like Midnight in Paris, La La Land is a paean to the old time of cinema and culture. It’s a love letter to culture at its best, but also a very funny and heartfelt criticism. These two movies admire the past, but also warn us to face the future.

The title of La La Land could be interpreted into many meanings. The words of “La” in French means “the”, a word in English to point a determination of a place or a thing whose specific or well-known quality.

In jazz, there’s a technique of singing called “scat singing” of which comprises nonsense syllables, such as “ la la la” to give more rhythm to the song in addition to the beat. Like the syllable of “ la la”, sometimes a dream is a nonsensical thing. You may believe and pursue it, but you cannot let yourself be drowned in it.

That’s the beauty of La La Land. It may be a nonsense for some people, but it has a sense of adventure and endless charm. And oh la la, c’est manifique ! 


Reviewed at Epicentrum XXI, on January 10, 2017

Running time: 128 minutes

Imported for Indonesia market by Prima Cinema Multimedia

A Lionsgate release of a Summit Entertainment, Gilbert Films, Imposter Pictures, Marc Platt production.

Produced by Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Marc Platt, Gary Gilbert.

Director, screenplay: Damien Chazelle

Camera (color, widescreen, CinemaScope55): Linus Sandgren

Editor: Tom Cross.

Music composed by Justin Hurwitz

Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (save for “Start A Fire”, which was written by Hurwitz, John Legend, Angélique Cinélu and Marius de Vries)

Production designer: David Wasco

Casts: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Meagan Fay.


Arrival Review & Analysis: An Understanding In A Full Circle

Language is the foundation of civilization. It is a glue that holds people together, and it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

That line is quoted by Dr. Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, from Dr. Louise Banks’ thesis (played superbly by Amy Adams), an advanced linguist, when they first meet each other on a helicopter trip arranged and led by a US military leader, Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) for a mission to making a contact with 12 strange shaped unidentified objects contain a race of alien (which are later called, The Heptapods) that suddenly appeared in 12 countries on Earth. The brief, but keen-witted, scene is from Arrival—the latest feature directorial work from Denis Villeneuve, a French-Canadian filmmaker—a movie based on an award-winning science-fiction-existentialist novella, Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang released in 1999.

The first time I watched Arrival in theater, I was not automatically connected. I knew it’s a film with the tremendous level of techniques and details. I understand the movie, but I found it was not entirely explicable.

It was the time on my way home when I was struck with some kind of consciousness. The imageries from Arrival lingered on my mind and they were getting stronger and stronger each time. The film was like calling me to come back to it. Like the line Amy Adams’ character repeatedly said in the opening sequence, “Come back to me… come back to me”. It was like a plea, solicitation, and even a prayer. But, I didn’t immediately fathom what’s so fascinating and exciting about the movie.

And then I went for a repeat viewing, a day after I watched it for the first time. I let go my imagination, I absorbed the details, and the most important thing was I dismissing my ego.

And then that was it, the moment of enlightenment. I reached an understanding, in a full circle. Now, I don’t only like the movie, but I’m awe-struck by it. Arrival is a rare movie, these days in an era of films with futuristic setting misinterpreted as sci-fi, wrapped by the accountable using of science and knowledge. It’s a movie with almost no gimmicks because every little detail counts. It trusts our intellectual to digest and to interpret. It’s not only a great sci-fi movie. It’s a great movie.

The story of Arrival is the story of Amy Adams’ Louise Banks.  It follows her journey, a kind of spiritual one, to find the meaning of her existence. But, it ends up as an extraordinary spiritual journey that not only succeeds in revealing her fate, but also the core of human existence, through language.

I’ve read the novella on which Arrival is based. Although Arrival delivers the same energy and emotion like the novella does, the way it tells its story is unlike its source material. Arrival tells its story in the manner of non-linear orthography language. What is that actually? Orthography is a set of rules about the way a language is written including spelling, emphasis, and punctuation. Bahasa Indonesia and English, for instance, are linear orthographies since we write and read it from left to right. Arab language, even though it works in the opposite mechanism to English and Indonesia, also belongs to linear orthography category. Because those three languages have such clear rules about how and when a word or a sentence begins and ends.

A non-linear orthography language, contrariwise, has no clear guides when a word or a sentence begins and ends. The language of the heptapods aliens in Arrival is also non-linear orthography which is written in circular puffs of dark smoke produced by their tentacles, with no beginning or no end.  Their language has no alphabets or scripts. The creatures from outer space in this movie communicate with logogram, a collection of symbols formed a circle that can stand for a word, an entire sentence, or feeling. Since the aliens themselves don’t experience linear time, their logograms can put words in any order without changing the meaning of the message. Arrival gives us a series of information about the events occur in this movie like the logogram, as if it’s in a loop of Aristotle’s Theory of Causality, which is the beginning and the ending; the cause and the effect, and both of them exist at the same time. The words of “beginning” and “cause” represent the past, as both of them refer to the preceding events or the start. The words of “ending” and “effect” reflect the future, as they refer to the following events or the finish line. Arrival makes us experience its entirety of the thought, emotion, perception, and reason all at once in tandem with the past and the future, not just in an intertwining or progressive order.

Language is indeed the key word in this movie, a very powerful noun whose multiple functions, such: as a tool of communication, either written or spoken or using body gestures or signs or signals or even through a series of imageries; as one of ways of knowing (the others are included emotion, perception, and reason); and as the weapon, like the line quoted by Ian Donnelly. This movie even merges its functions since it communicates with us and, at the same time, provokes our ways of knowing through cinema as its language.

The concept of language and communication is even used in the attention-grabbing and emotional opening sequence montage which is accompanied by On A Nature of Daylight, strings quintet score by British composer, Mark Richter, which is also used in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island—that shows a brief encounter of the cycle of a young girl’s life, guided by the whispering narration by Amy Adams’ Louise Banks.  The way she whispers her words is like a lullaby, an apostrophe, and a sonnet all at once. She is questioning the concept of existence in a lyrical, forlorn, personal and motherly way. She longs for something and wants it to return to her belongings, something that she is meant to be. And there’s no better music than Richter’s in substantiating the emotional element of the sequence.

But what is it she longing for?

I used to think it was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time; by its order…”, Adam’s Louise Banks starts her story.

The montage sequence whose structure like vignettes is a brief summary of a life: a baby is born, grows up into a young girl, and then suffers an unidentified illness before she finally passes away. It is the most emotional and heartbreaking opening montage only second to the dramatic Michael Giacchino’s waltz-esque score brought us to tears through the opening sequence of Pixar’s Up.

The opening sequence, shot in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life aesthetic, also shows an evolution of language as a means of communication through the speaking voice or the facial expressions: from the moment of happiness of a mother in welcoming her newly-born-baby; the moment of togetherness of a little child and her mother while they’re playing in a grassy yard and sharing some laughter; the moment of intimacy when the little daughter says, “I love you” to her mother; the moment when the little kid yells, “I hate you” angrily to her mother; to the moment of grief and sorrow when both of them are facing the hardest time of their life. The sequence shows us how language evolves along with the development of the brain, physical and emotional of the daughter with her mother, Louise Banks. But camera focuses its shot on the daughter, following her evolution in adapting language and expression as a tool of communication. The mother is her audience.

But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived”, by these sentences, Louise Banks gets her understanding about what actually happens.

But, we’re still looking for what the movie is talking about as scene by scene goes by.

Louise Banks’ whispery voice over performs the function of the epigraph, which is commonly found in the preamble of a book or in a chapter whose intention to suggest its theme or even the entire of the story. Arrival is a Villenueve’s film, which means there are a lot of his cinematic trademarks in it. The way the opening sequence is being presented in this film reminiscent of Villeneuve’s cinematic demeanor.

Villeneuve is well known for his tendency to approaching film in the same way we write an article or story. In writing, the first sentence should be something that grabs the reader’s attention. Villenueve uses his first scenes or sequences to establish a tone and draw in audiences immediately. Or in literature we call it epigraph. Typically, his opening sequence is very important in the context of the entire film, but the real meaning or value of it is not always apparent or obvious until much later.

In his Enemy (2013) — coincidentally resembles the theme of alien encounters –, for instance, opens with a line that functions as the epigraph from Jose Saramago’s The Double, the novel on which the movie is based.

Chaos is order, yet undeciphered”

The epigraph in Enemy actually suggests that there are some senses of clues of it if we only know how it can be deciphered. The opening line, then, is followed by an intriguing and provoking scene, which takes place at a sex show, the kind of show we also find in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Later, in the same scene, we see our first spider (I assume it’s a black widow spider), crawling out of a golden shiny tray and then we see a lady’s foot is about to step on it, intentionally and consciously. For you who have already watched Enemy will understand the connection between the epigraph, the opening scene, and the mind-blowing ending.

The aforementioned illustration exemplifies how Villeneuve utilizes his opening scenes to hint at a reoccurring theme and message in his films.

Arrival is no exception.

His preference for maximizing the technique of editing mixes up the conscious with the subconscious in his narrative. He unfurls the underlying message in dialogues or unexpected extreme close-up shots on, we might think at first, a random object. Villeneuve also often features music or score while the camera gradually tracks away from a scenic shot into a more structured one, by alternating shots with contrasting ones in order to bring audiences into a forced perspective. Without context, his creative decision would get audiences confused, but he combines it with music, cinematography, camera movement, and facial expressions on the actor to make a powerful statement. The result is, instead of being disoriented, audiences will anticipate many important aspects to come throughout the entire of the movie, because Villeneuve’s opening scene establish important aspects of his films such as setting, the topic, and the tone. In short, every little detail in his film counts.

Another Villeneuve’s signature technique we can find in Arrival is the exertion of mystery. He always purposely restricts the perspective of his films to his main character(s) to create a puzzle. With this set-up, his characters are searching for the answers, and so are the audiences. This set-up also helps to bring a twist forth at the end of the story, where, if we once reach the end of the story, we would get the comprehensive understanding about the previous events shown in the opening sequence. It means that most of Villeneuve’s films have a full cycle.

The camera works by Bradford Young (cinematographer for Selma, A Most Violent Year) is brilliant here. He uses Amy Adams’ face as a canvas of observation, continuing Villeneuve’s cinematic traces, and inviting us to study her contour of emotions.

There’s a riveting scene in Arrival of which showing why Amy Adams, 5 times Oscar nominees, is the perfect actor for the leading cast in this movie. The scene is when Adams’ Louise Banks and her students first finding out about aliens encounter. One of her students asks her to turn the screen into television as breaking news program reporting the unusual events. In typical using of news footages in films, the camera will shoot the television. But, in Arrival, Young’s camera chooses to observe Louise Banks’ reaction and put her in a separate blocking with her students while the voice of news anchor is echoing and giving us the information, but also isolating her character. We can see how Louise Banks as a respected linguist absorbs the information and digests it through Amy Adams interpretation.

The scene continues Villeneuve’s tradition of shooting his main character in isolation shots. Before the aforementioned scene, Young’s camera follows Louise Banks as she enters the campus where she is lecturing. She walks straight and adamantly, even she is passing through some boisterous and curious crowds who are watching breaking-news programs. The camera isolates her from the crowd to indicate that she is a very focus lady. She once looks toward the crowds, shows some curiosity, but she keeps on walking to her class. This series of isolation shots establish Louise Banks’ character status, that later on, be revealed in a conversation.

Arrival is a compact and elegant film. Its pace is slow, as it unveils its mystery steadily. This movie builds the conflict and tension through communication, debates, and arguments surrounding the meaning of heptapods’ writings. The conflict is based on “lost in translation”. This movie is also involving a geopolitics issue, like we once saw in Eye in the Sky, as the heptapods landed on 12 different countries. Audiences who expect some spectacled combats between aliens and humans will get disappointed. But, once again, this movie is aimed as the nutrition for your brain, not only as a feast to your eyes.

I’m intrigued by how the heptapods space crafts are designed. These 1500 feet black monolith-alike space crafts resemble sloping half-ovals (a line and a circle at once) and each spacecraft is a detached entity. They’re like 12 separated-pieces waiting to be united. The number of 12 symbolizes the time. The clock which has the form of a full circle. In my theory, those 12 spacecrafts represent a variety of big cultures on Earth and together they will form an enormous full circle. Like the mechanism of time that always repeating itself or like the heptapods’ language, or like the structure of this movie.

I read this insightful book, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain, in which Terence Deacon noted, “In this context, then, consider the case of human language. It is one of the most distinctive behavioral adaptations on the planet. Languages evolved in only one species, in only one way, without precedent, except in the most general sense. And the difference between languages and all other natural modes of communicating are vast,”

Arrival provokes the same topic as Deacon’s book implies. The main idea is questioning the concept of language to influence someone’s behavior and personality, mannerly or culturally, by which one changes his/her pattern of action to better suits the new environment.

I speak fluently in three languages: Indonesia, as my native language; English, the language I started speaking when I was 10 years old; and French, the language I started to learn when I was 14 years old. I rarely use it on a daily basis, but French influences how I interpret art and food, as my fascination for French began to develop since I attended a ballet class in my childhood.

I feel that my personality can be split into three different cultures and the way I express myself, more often than not, is only able to be channeled through a language only. For example, when I enjoy a product of high art (beaux arts/art majeur), I would use French to express myself. Otherwise, I would speak or write in English to express my ideas about mass art (pop culture) and I would use Indonesia to have a conversation about daily life, as the majority of my friends speak this language.

I also tend to sing better in English or French. But mastering three languages have helped me to understand three different cultures comprehensively. There were many times when I burst into laugh watching a French movie, while the other audiences didn’t laugh at all. My point is there is a barrier in language as a means of communication. The way humans languages evolving have their own flaws, as they require the speakers and the recipients to agree on every part of the process, including the interpretation which needs a whole understanding about the context and the culture all at once, instantly.

Deacon’s book and Arrival intrigue me with the basic question I once had when I was younger about, “What was the first human language like before it evolved into thousand of languages we find today? Is it possible that someday, in the future, our languages going to merge into one and universal language? A language sans frontiere?

As Amy Adams’ Louise Banks gets a better understanding of Heptapods language, she begins to envision her future. Does it mean mastering Heptapods language help her to be a clairvoyant? I’m not sure. But, in my theory, the ability to see beyond the time is a part of Heptapods culture and the way they’re thinking. Like when I got attuned to the French language, I could understand them.

My hypothesis is that the Heptapods intentionally making appearances in 12 different countries to seek for someone who can learn their language. As two friendly Heptapods, Abbot and Costello (they were named by Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly after linguistically challenged famous duo), said to Louise that, “they need humanity help”.

This moment when Louise meets with Abbot and Costello without any barrier (previously they communicate to each other through an invisible wall), and the friendly Heptapods are finally able to transfer their knowledge without any hesitation from Louise. This is the moment when a language becomes universal. This the moment when Louise realizes that she’s able to experience the future while still living in present time, and the time she has to see her destiny and she apparently has to accept it as well.

This the time when I’m aware that Arrival works on a theory of linguistic relativity, called Saphir-Whorf hypothesis, a theory which proposes the idea that the language we’re speaking reflects or shapes the way we think.

A friend sent me a private text questioning whether the Heptapods performed a function as a deception to the whole story or not. I cannot agree, but I don’t fully oppose to his perception either.  In my interpretation, the heptapods is the trigger for human beings to unite as one voice, without any barrier. It’s a metaphor of an idea to conceive a tranquility and harmony using language as a tool, not as a weapon.

That what makes Arrival transcends beyond its traditional role of a movie as an art or just as a mass entertainment. It not only offers an idea but also a solution. It starts with questions, but also gives us the answers. All at once. At the same time, in a full circle.

Like Hannah, the name of Louise Banks’ daughter, the film purports to use flashbacks and forwards in subsequent viewings by the way of a palindrome. It carries us to feel the emotion, perception, and reason in order to get a whole understanding. Again, in a full circle.


Reviewed at Epicentrum XXI, on January 7, 2017

Running time: 116 minutes

A Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures International release of a 21 Laps Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment, Lava Bear Films production. Produced by Shawn Levy, Aaron Ryder, Karen Lunder, David Linde.

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Screenplay: Eric Heisserer

Based on novella, Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang

Camera(color, widescreen): Bradford Young

Editor: Joe Walker

Production designer: Patrice Vermette

Music: Johann Johannsson

Art director: Isabelle Guay

Casts: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker