Cinematic language – the grammar of perspective shifts, cuts, and editing that underpins movie storytelling – is immediately understood by audiences. This instantaneous comprehension is most likely because our film language has developed around the stories and plot devices that filmmakers like to use and moviegoers engage in. This explains how the use of the flashback is universally understood, and why it is taken for granted. In Spider-Man 3 when Peter looks at a photograph of his uncle’s killer, followed by a cross dissolve transition into a new scene featuring his uncle, the audience already assumes and comprehends that this new scene is set in the past. Because this convention is so established, it also means that filmmakers can play with audience expectations, as the 2016 science fiction film Arrival does. The film the subverts audience expectations of how a flashback works, and how a story is generally told, expressing an unusual use of film language in both its form and its themes.
Arrival isn’t the only film to have played with audience expectations about time. Memento (2000) is known for its creative use of story structure to put its audience into the perspective of a man who cannot form new memories. Whereas Memento links its cinematic language to short term memories, Arrival makes a link to the grammar of the alien language which Louise Banks (Amy Adams), the film’s protagonist, studies. Much of Arrival is centered around Louise learning the language of heptapods, an alien species that has suddenly arrived on Earth. The heptapod’s written language has a non-linear orthography, which is explained by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as a “written language that has no forward or backwards direction.” In other words, you read their language by starting at any point and looping back around to where you began; every sentence (called a logogram) in the heptapod language is circular in shape.
Even the way the heptapods “write” doesn’t indicate a beginning or ending; the “ink” they emit forms the logogram simultaneously as a whole instead of starting at one end and going to the other. The grammar of Arrival’s story structure is also based around this concept of non-linear orthography.
The film opens with a voice over from Louise, and immediately addresses the audience’s expectations of how a movie’s story is supposed to be told: “I used to think this 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.” Louise’s comments on memory apply to the film’s ordering of scenes. After beginning with a shot of a window in Louise’s home over her narration, the film proceeds to show us the tale of Louise as a mother. We’re shown images of Louise raising her daughter, Hannah. We see her holding Hannah as an infant, playing cowgirls with her in their backyard, arguing during her teenage years, and tragically, Hannah’s death in adolescence. However, these moments are not the prequel to the rest of the film’s plot, as a filmgoer might initially assume due to their expectations of how flashbacks work. Although we see these scenes first, theys are actually the future, occurring years after the film’s main conflict.
As Louise learns the heptapod language, her mind adapts and she begins to experience time in a non-linear way. This allows her to “remember” the future, meaning that she can see and “remember” her entire life. (It’s fitting that the novella the film is based on is titled “Story Of Your Life.”) Until this is revealed, you might not realize that the much of the film is a flashforward. This theme also draws our attention in smaller ways throughout the film. At one point, Louise is explaining to her daughter why she chose to name her Hannah. The answer is that Hannah is a palindrome, a word that stays the same when spelled backwards or forwards. The same can be said about heptapod language and the way Louise thinks.
The first time you see Arrival, the reveal in the third act that Louise’s visions are not the past, but rather the future, plays out not unlike a twist. The non-linear use of time in the film is not only the means to tell the story, it’s also what the story is about. By purposely going against the the viewer’s expectation of how a flashback works, and presenting a flash forward as a flashback, the filmmakers have created something unique in both their method and the film’s substance. It’s a trick that allows the viewer to catch more detail and enjoy the film to a greater extent on additional viewings.