Film scores

Soundtrack review: Arrival (Johan Johannsson – 2016)

Arrival is a 2016 American science fiction thriller film directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by author Ted Chiang. The film stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg and Tzi Ma. When mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe, an elite team – led by expert linguist Louise Banks – is brought together to investigate. As mankind teeters on the verge of global war, Banks and the team race against time for answers – and to find them, she will take a chance that could threaten her life, and quite possibly humanity. Johan Johannsson wrote the score and his collaborations with Villeneuve (especially the suffocating “Sicario”) have been brilliant. Besides, this is a composer who is not afraid to experiment and go out of mainstream to express his ideas.

So “Arrival” begins with a drone sounding cue which also includes a distorted voice which I can only imagine is how the human voice sounds to the aliens or how they are trying to communicate with us. A cue like “Arrival” instantly creates science fiction images in my mind and I am sucked into the atmosphere of the movie earlier than I expected. There’s a trace of a melody developing beneath as I imagine something being gradually exposed to my eyes.

The voice (distorted mostly and wordless) comes to feature prominently in a lot of cues together with experimental sounds that are not necessarily music but which are right up my alley. The way the voice is done here punctuates the moments when communication is needed. I hear wooden tools in the background but everything makes sense as the sounds and voice and melody come together in a coherent mix. I feel as if the composer had all the separate elements in front of him and used his inspiration to put them together until the result made sense. This cue is like a Rubik cube with the coloured sides completed one after the other.

I think it’s quite brilliant that for a movie that features a linguist trying to communicate with an alien species the composer took this bold and rewarding road; there are bound to be people who will not enjoy this score as there are hardly any themes or even clear melodic motifs but this is what the story asked for: a daring and unique score to be remembered and associated with the movie. There are whirring sounds as the journey takes us inside the ship, there are echoes and there is buzzing as if the music is an inseparable part of the Aline vessel. The score that Johannsson wrote has a clear purpose and if I can use similar scores written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for various reflective moments of my life, this one doesn’t work like that; “Arrival” has a specific task and is related to a specific story. It’s an intriguing feeling as most of the times film music is linked characters, scenes or emotions with which I can also related but rarely to the physical or mechanical elements in the story, elements I don’t know myself but which are described through music. What Johan Johannsson does here is take what he knows about this alien civilisation and communicate it to us through music. I listen to this score develop and I feel I am in the presence of something that will be appreciated, studied and remembered for years to come. The music is futuristic and intriguing and an invention in itself. I feel as if Johannsson is reinventing film music with this one or at least forging a path that can change the game if composers will be bold and imaginative enough to take it.

I get flashbacks of “Sicario” in “Ultimatum” and there are proper melodies in “Transmutation at a distance” or “Around the clock news” as this are the more normal moments of the score. It’s just the composer communicating with us that even if he transcended space it’s still him inside this metallic and advanced device. But these aren’t the cues that will make this score a classic; it’s the rest of the score that goes into an unfamiliar but fascinating territory. In the context of the movie the music make even more sense, but listen to this one even if you don’t see the movie because you haven’t heard a score like this one. I will definitely come back to it and study it more because this is beyond film music. Congratulations to Johan Johannsson for having the courage to write this for such a high profile movie.

Cue rating: 93 / 100
Total minutes of excellence: 35 / 57
Album excellence: 61%
Heptapod B
First Encounter
Transmutation At A Distance
Around The Clock News
Hammers And Nails
Properties Of Explosive Materials

About the author

Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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