Posts Tagged ‘Westworld’

When teaching screenwriting, or any type of creative writing for that matter, I often say that all the moving parts of the script should serve the story—character, plot, structure, setting, the whole shebang.

Structure is the element least experimented with to really compliment the needs of the story; often a simple linear three (or five) act structure provides a stable backbone for all the other more experimental/complex elements of the screen story to hang off. Of course, there are some notable examples: Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000), for one, where the non-linear, backwards motion of the film reflects how the protagonist experiences the world.

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016) I think, takes this to a new level; in fact there are two structural tricks at play which tie neatly back to language acquisition, the central theme of the film and the driving force of the story.

Be wary from here on there are spoilers for Arrival, Westworld and Your Name.

Two tricks, I said. Now one I think is more obvious than the other; this related to the nonlinear aspect of Arrival’s structure. The other is subtler, it is to do with pacing and I’m going to start with there.

1) The speed of learning a language.

When someone learns a new language, the beginning can be tedious and repetitive. Progress from, my name is … I live in… can be slow. I think a case can be made that the first hour or so of Arrival, in which the pacing is slow, the scenes long, the scenarios repetitive, mirrors the way that the protagonist, Louise (Amy Adams), and other people, acquire a new language. There are sudden bursts of progress, followed by false starts and misunderstandings.

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Poster for Arrival

However, once the grammatical patterns are learned, a series of essential vocab mastered, the process speeds up dramatically; new discoveries are made in quick succession. This is reflected in the latter part of Arrival in which the pace switches up several notches towards the dramatic conclusion.

Now I realise that many stories have slower starts and gain pace towards the conclusion, this is the way the three/five act story structure plays with pace. (If you want to know more about three and five act structure read John Yorke’s excellent book Into the Woods.) However, I wonder if a case can be made in a film so obsessed with the acquisition of language that this choice of pacing is deliberately tied to the theme.

2) Time is out of Joint

Arrival starts with what the audience assumes is a flashback, accompanied by voice over narration from, Louise . It is addressed to, and documents her life with, her daughter, Hannah—whose palindromic name also mimics the structure, mimics the theme of the film. When this section ends, after Hannah’s premature death, we are introduced to an assumedly grief stricken Louise, who is so wrapped up in her own world that she doesn’t notice the arrival of the aliens until her students point it out to her.  So far, so linear…

Louise is a linguist, and is brought into a team of government officials who are trying to communicate with the newly arrived aliens. They want to know the answer to simple things ‘what is your purpose on earth?’ In a brilliant moment, Louise deconstructs this question showing how much of it depends on different cultural assumptions and pre-existing knowledge. The screenwriter Eric Heisserer, deconstructs this moment in interview here.

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Louise (Amy Adams) breaks down all the problems with this question

Throughout the film, at moments of high stress, Louise experiences flashbacks of her time with Hannah. Again pretty normal behaviour for someone grieving in high pressure situation. Only, at some point it becomes abundantly clear that Louise has no idea who the child is either. She isn’t married, she hasn’t had a child, what in the name of Spock is happening?

There is a theory that once you start to learn a new language you rewire parts of your brain to accommodate thinking in that language.

The Heptapods, the name given to the aliens because they have seven squid-like limbs, of Arrival use language which is not bound by time and so, as Louise immerses herself in the language she starts to think beyond time. Soon she can see the future—her life with her daughter, her failed marriage to Ian—and use that skill to handle problems in the present; stopping China declaring war on the aliens.

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Heptapods writing with ink

So, the nonlinear structure of Arrival mirrors the nonlinear way that Louise, the Hetapods—and one assumes the whole of the human race who take the time to learn the alien’s language—now experience time.

It’s quite an elegant solution, to quote another Nolan film, to the question of structure; one that aspiring writers might want to analyse. I don’t condone structural manipulation for its own sake, or to show off how clever a writer is—these will always ring hollow. However, when alternative structures are used to allow the story to shine then can make the screen work even more effective.

And so time really is out of joint…

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Westworld Poster

A pattern of structural manipulation emerged in 2016, where the timeline is presented to the audience as linear, or two stories as simultaneous, when this is not the case. In HBO’s Westworld the story lines of Billy and The Man in the Black Hat were presented as occurring simultaneously when in fact, these two characters were the same character shown at different points in his life. Across the Pacific, Your Name (Makoto Shinkai, 2016) presented a body swap story between a city boy and a country girl; it’s mid-point reversal was the revel that not only were the swapping across the country but also through time.

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Your Name Poster

I saw all three of these films and television series in the same fortnight – which is why this pattern jumped out at me. It made me wonder, as a writer, how I might use structure to enhance the stories I want to tell and think about how I could manipulate the presentation of time to better suit the narrative.

These are just three examples in a short blog and I am sure there will be more manipulations of the timeline in store for viewers as writers struggle to keep the audience on their toes.