The sci-fi film Arrival, set for release this Friday, follows the template of first contact films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact. With the exception of a starfish-against-glass scene (reminiscent of Independence Day), the trailer seems to indicate a more benign encounter. As usual, someone is trying to figure out the visitors’ intentions. And as in the aforementioned films, this person enters the spaceship and may never return.
To reflect the tone of the film ~ wonder, with a touch of trepidation ~ Jóhann Jóhannsson turns in a lighter score than Prisoners and Sicario, but a darker score than The Theory of Everything. A deep bass rumble reflects the fear felt when the oblong spaceships arrive and simply hover. A dark, recurring glissando recalls the trombone that ended episodes of Lost. The huge surge of brass and strings in “First Encounter” offers the score’s first real thrill, while the tri-notes of “Ultimatum” represent the most memorable recurring theme. Yet there’s nothing overtly frightening in the score, which increases in dramatic tension without toppling into terror. Arrival is more cerebral in nature, offering clear parallels to inter-human contact: what if we could understand each other’s languages?
The vocalization styles are familiar: throat singing, soaring female wails, computerized onomatopoeia, and something akin to electronic whale song (“Non-Zero-Sum Game”). By avoiding words, Jóhannsson preserves the sense of mystery. Yet there may be a missed opportunity here, as the listener never gains the sense of something alien. If these sounds represent human attempts at communication, there’s little challenge from the other side. No screech, no drone, nothing to make one sit up in the seat and gasp, “What was that?” This is where a bit of that Sicario madness might have gone a long way. But perhaps this is not what the filmmakers wanted, and Jóhannsson’s Orphée (released in September) provided the composer with the (now) rare opportunity to return to unsupervised composition.
This being said, the score is still a powerful suite, even without the movie ~ perhaps even more so, unhinged from expectations. The score reaches its emotional core in “Hammers and Nails” with an understated string line, and its dramatic height in “Escalation” with a repetition of that three-note theme. There’s enough of such repetition to unify the album, and not too much to overload it. While I’m moderately interested in the movie, I’m very interested in hearing the score on an IMAX sound system ~ and if a score can help sell tickets, it’s already surpassed expectations. (Richard Allen)
Release date: 11 November