Welcome to Score Keeping, a feature where I dive into overlooked and highly praised songs, scores and soundtracks that accompany great films.
The First Contact series arranged by associate director Brittany Friesner has proven itself to be a vital one for 2018. All the stories told in the series seem to be about finding common ground with someone or something so outwardly different from us, whether it be finding the compassion within the messy patchwork that is humanity (The Day the Earth Stood Still), finding humanity in your fellow man (Attack the Block) or even relating to and succumbing to the more unsavory parts of the human experience (The Man Who Fell to Earth). In all cases the characters find that common ground through the act of communication. As easy and simple as that sounds you only need to look at Twitter dot com or the discourse in the comments under your weird cousin’s Facebook rants to find out that it can already be difficult to communicate with someone who speaks the same language as yourself.
Now imagine trying to communicate with an actual extraterrestrial.
A being so seemingly different from yourself that upon seeing it, it renders you speechless. Which may be for the best because what good would speech do for you in that moment? Would this being even have a concept of spoken communication? Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival explores that scenario in every logical and beautiful detail. However, the movie (based off of writer Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life”) puts a linguist named Louise Banks (played wonderfully by Amy Adams) in the driver’s seat of a first contact scenario instead of, say, a military person or a technician, because a linguist’s entire field of study is finding the commonalities between different languages and, by extension, cultures. She does, and it begins to change the way she thinks on a fundamental level. She’s let herself be open to these beings’ way of perceiving reality and she grows as a person throughout the film. But this journey is not one that’s pursued with unconditionally impartial ideas. Louise is just as scared and in awe of these visitors as the more trigger-happy leaders of nations around the world are; she just knows that pulling a trigger will always cause more harm than good.
That fear and awe is the patina that lays over the film through its nearly two hour runtime and wouldn’t nearly be as effective if not for an added layer of another language that hovers ominously and hypnotically over everything we see…
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s fantastic and entrancing music.
Jóhannsson’s film scoring work can be described as many different things but when I hear his music the words “euphoric” and “dangerous” come to mind. He finds a way to make music that walks the line between hypnotic and anxiety-inducing, which is appropriate given the types of movies he’s become known for scoring. He may have gotten Oscar attention for his beautiful-sounding The Theory of Everything score, and his unsettling sound work on Darren Aronofsky’s mother! almost tips into musique concrete, but his collaborations with Villeneuve are what those in the know clamor to put in their ears. His scores for Prisoners and Sicario are so in sync with Villeneuve’s austere Kubrick devotion that they rank up there right alongside great director/composer combos like Hitchcock and Herrmann or Leone and Morricone.
But Jóhannsson’s Arrival score stands as the fusion of all the grit and dread that he has picked up from these previous collaborations and the entrancing fractal-like melodies his broader compositions are known for. In short: it captures the awe and dread I mentioned earlier.
Nothing in the score ever sounds like it settles into any sort of resolution, only a temporary end, which is so spot-on given what the film is ultimately about in the end.
Sadly this turned out to be one of the final scores we’ll get from Jóhannsson as he passed away on February 9th of this year. It’s a devastating loss to the film world, especially because while his music felt so complete and it only kept getting better and growing I feel like we were nowhere near close to what he had to offer. I’m happy he left behind so much incredible music for us to meditate on. He may be gone but his work can speak to us from now into infinity.
Arrival is the inspiration for the First Contact film series this spring at the IU Cinema. The remaining (and final) screening will be James Cameron’s underrated film The Abyss, which screens Sunday, March 11th at 6:30 pm.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.