Arrival: The Architecture of Future Past
In a media class, our professor encouraged us to design our building as though it were the set for a film: “Give it that much feeling.” He had us storyboard the user’s “procession” through the spaces. The exercise was a lesson in the secret narrative that informs and links spaces. This narrative could work via contrast and/or connection. Certain visual and spatial motifs—shapes, textures, patterns—become pronounced. Similarly, one becomes more aware of thresholds and in-between spaces. He also had us use charcoal to render the spaces—talk about moody.
While re-watching Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival,1 I was struck by how vividly the architecture echoes (and creates) the film’s themes. This is not your typical sci-fi film. Like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Arrival is far more concerned with earth than space, with human relationships than extraterrestrial encounters. At the heart of the film and the short story the film is based upon, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” is our heroine’s loss of her daughter. In the film, linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) loses her daughter to a rare disease when her daughter is a young adult, while in the short story she loses her daughter to a climbing accident. In both cases, the central, mind-altering twist is that Louise learns of this impending death before she conceives her daughter. What we as viewers and readers thought were flashbacks turn out to be flashforwards. Louise’s increasing contact with the aliens leads to her understanding and living of their nonlinear experience of time.
Toward the end of the film, Louise turns to her colleague and future ex-husband, physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner) and asks, “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” In light of her daughter’s early death, this question is quite stunning. But neither the film nor the short story probes this question. Louise chooses to proceed with this course of events, which helps explain the complicated tone of the film throughout. Though her process of mourning is morose and depressed—the intensity of Amy Adam’s expressions are reminiscent of Bergman’s muse Liv Ullmann—it is also full of wonder—with captivating aliens that look like a cross between elephants, spiders, squids, and ancient hands. But how are these emotions and how is the central epiphany of time conveyed through the set design or architecture of the film?
The opening shot of Louise’s house is a kind of Möbius strip; it can be read as both the before and after of the film. Key to this reading is a prop: the two partially full wine glasses sitting on the table. We learn when Louise drinks from one of these glasses toward the end of the film that this is the very night that their daughter will be conceived. So narratively we start where the film ends. In the opening narration, Louise, addressing her daughter, says, “But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings anymore.” Louise’s midcentury-modern house—with its hazy, transparent, open setting—reinforces this fluidity. The house represents both the future and the past as experienced in the present. The three parts of the glass wall can be interpreted as these three senses of time—the windows to the left and right are the past and future, while the glass door is the present between them.
This tripartite framing that evokes nonlinear time continues in many of the shots within settings. It is no accident that Louise gives her daughter a name that is spelled the same forward and backward: Hannah. The set reinforces this temporal fluidity through creating visual palindromes, if you will. Below are shots with this ABA rhythm:
These shots often involve symmetry or—like the opening shot of the house—slight, balanced asymmetry.
In interviews, director Denis Villeneuve, production designer Patrice Vermette, and set decorator Paul Hotte describe how they wove past, present, and future together aesthetically through visual echoes within Louise’s three main settings—house, classroom, alien chamber/“interview room.” Vermette explains,
You can see elements of the horizontal ship chamber where Louise communicates with aliens reflected in her house and in the classroom. All three have this big white wall representation—at her house, with the big glass window overlooking the hazy lake. In her classroom, you have her whiteboard. And the chamber is divided by the big glass window…. For Louise, the idea of the chamber was pre-conveyed in her world.2
Some of the objects framed by the big glass window in Louise’s house also evoke the aliens to come. In an interview, Hotte draws attention to the oblong lamp as a reflection of the aliens’ spaceship.3 The telescope and the ghostly tree on the left side of the house’s three-paned picture window echo the limbs of the Heptopods. The semi-transparent curtains coupled with the hazy lake outside have a ghostly effect and seem to presage both the fluidity of the aliens’ white inner chamber and the final disappearance of the spaceships into the atmosphere.
Texture and shape also link together Louise’s settings in evocative rather than repetitive ways. The lines of the slatted ceiling in Louise’s house echo the lines of the paneled ceiling of the empty corridor in the university’s cafeteria and the lines in the ceiling, walls, and floors inside the ship’s chamber: crisp lines of wood boards and mineral fiber speak to the wavy lines of “semi-polished” “sediment rock.”4 These lines also vary within their echo through their orientation.
Similarly, circularity stitches together important settings in expressive ways. Vermette elaborates,
Denis asked us to incorporate circularity in our designs, and even the costume designs, whenever we could without making it obvious. The location department actually found a hospital in Montreal that is circular for the scenes showing the death of Hannah, which fit the story so well. When Louise walks in the corridor, and she’s totally crushed by the death of her daughter, you see the circular corridors of the hospital…. For the meeting with General Shang, which is an important beat in the story, the location department found the Place des Arts in Montreal, which is also circular.5
Circularity additionally appears in Louise’s classroom, located within the University of Montreal’s Brutalist Decelles Building, and in the alien interview room via the Heptopods. Their inky language is a great example of creating circularity rather than perfect circles.
Despite its use throughout the film, circularity was avoided in the shape of the ship. Though in both the screenplay and the original story the aliens’ ship is a perfect sphere, Villeneuve decided that this shape would not startle the viewer. Instead, Villeneuve found inspiration from a picture taken by NASA of an oval exoplanet. Vermette worked with graphic designer Aaron Morrison to elongate and distort the oval:
Everybody’s got an idea of how an alien spaceship should look. I had to try to come up with something very different and very alien, technology-wise and material-wise. We decided to give it a kind of egg-shape concept—we flatten it on one side and give it a curve so it’s concave. Then we gave it a verticality.6
Verticality in turn led to another innovative design: the secret threshold between the outside world and the chamber, in which the vertical becomes the horizontal. This disorienting (re-orienting) transition space requires a gravity shift that adds to the overall sensory and perceptual experience.
For the design of the interior alien chamber and interview room, Villeneuve and Vermette acknowledge their debt to artist James Turrell. As part of the Light and Space movement in Southern California in the 1960s, Turrell experimented with human perception. A practicing artist for the last sixty years, Turrell has created a range of sensory experiences, from disorienting to spiritual.
In Arrival, Louise’s initial vertigo simulates what some viewers have experienced in Turrell’s edgier installations. During the ’80s, while in a piece called “City of Arhirit,” a woman became so “disoriented and confused” that she leaned against what appeared to be a wall but was actually just bright blue light and fell or “violently precipitated to the floor” and broke her arm; she sued the Whitney Museum of American Art and Turrell for more than $10,000. Another visitor sprained her wrist at the same exhibit and sued for $250,000. A member of the Whitney family would later settle these suits, but Turrell found the experience most troubling because “[o]n some level, you’d have to say I failed.”7 This is an extreme example of the disorientation visitors have felt in some of his works.
In most of Turrell’s works, visitors experience a peaceful and spiritual atmosphere. Raised by Quakers, Turrell often speaks of the spiritual desire to “greet the light” and “find the light within.”8 His Skyspaces are a good example of this spiritual dimension. A Skyspace is a chamber with an aperture that opens the ceiling to the sky. Through proportion, materials, and the play of artificial and natural light, Turrell creates a mesmerizing experience. In many of the over eighty Skyspaces worldwide, viewers come at dawn or dusk to sit on a small perimeter bench and gaze upward for an hour as the light changes.
Turrell’s most ambitious work, Roden Crater also melds the spiritual and physical. In 1974, Turrell discovered the crater while flying an airplane over Arizona, outside Flagstaff. Forty odd years later, Turrell is still excavating chambers and aligning apertures to create a naked-eye observatory for the witnessing of celestial objects and events. Whether gazing upward from deep within the crater or from the crater’s rim, there is a provocative relationship between being aware of the earth while experiencing the sky.
Another important aspect of the work is the journey there. One has to drive through Turrell’s 227-square mile—145,000 acre—property, a ranch with a cattle operation that he started in order to secure loans to buy and start work on the crater. New York Times critic Wil S. Hylton describes how the journey has become an essential part of the overall experience: “In the same way the eye must adapt to darkness in some of Turrell’s museum pieces, the endless drive across the desert prepares a visitor for the singularity of Roden.”9
In the design of the interior of the alien ship, Villeneuve and Vermette use the wide range of physical, spiritual, and psychological qualities that characterize Turrell’s body of work. Turrell heightens the viewer’s senses. When Louise and Ian first enter the spaceship, there’s that wonderful moment where Ian reaches up to touch and run his gloved fingers across the smooth, sediment rock surface of the ship before his hand slips off the side and the team enters up into the space. There is the extreme disorientation of the physical leap into the ship, which, as mentioned above, some people have experienced in Turrell’s work.
The chamber with the bright screen at the end evokes Turrell’s Ganzfelds, Tunnel Pieces, Shallow Space Constructions, and Magnatron Series—though without the startling, psychedelic color of Turrell’s orchestrated light, the chamber has the same immersive, rectangular, glowing simplicity as these works.
The chamber is a cross between Richard Serra and James Turrell—it is, what Vermette describes as both “scary” and “attractive.”10 As with the remoteness of the Roden Crater, there is also a sense that the humans must earn this light. It is not a passive experience. They must make the journey from the outside world via the awkward scissor lift and then down this tunnel of sedimentary rock, “traveling through time,” in Vermette’s words, to “[meet] another civilization.”11 By the time the team reaches the interview room, we are immersed in the more spiritual atmosphere of a Turrell with the intense, light-flooded, semi-transparent screen—instead of waiting for the light to change, we wait for the aliens to come and produce their calligraphy. As with Turell’s work, this “light at the end of the tunnel”12 is both spiritual and intensely physical.
In an interview, Vermette recalls the influence of a Turrell exhibit he attended at LACMA (while Villeneuve coincidentally attended a simultaneous Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York): “[I wanted] the simplicity and the sensorial experience you feel in a room like that.”13 He elaborates further, “We also wanted to create a contrast between the peacefulness felt inside the dark interview chamber of the ship and the chaos felt inside the white military tents. There had to be a soothing James Turrell–like atmosphere felt within the alien chamber.”14 In another interview, Vermette also explains, “It was important for Denis to have the idea of calm and just, like, in a temple, proper for meditation.”15 Though soothing, the meditative quality of a Turrell is also psychological and hyperaware.
An important Turrell-like characteristic of the interview room is its self-consciousness. In all of his works, Turrell draws attention to the personal act of viewing/perceiving. Turrell describes his medium as pure light and explains, “My work has no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking.”16 This intellectual but also physical atmosphere, this air of curiosity and wonder, also helps describe the interview room. Vermette intentionally used the big white screen to reflect Louise’s whiteboard: “The interview room is like a classroom—they teach each other languages.”17 In this space, there are layers of perceptual grappling. On a macro level, we have the humans and aliens attempting to communicate; on a micro level, Louise and Ian attempting to communicate with Abbott and Costello; and, ultimately, the audience trying to understand the import of all these interactions.
The meta level, which incorporates the viewer and larger audience, is subtly reinforced through the motif of screens. Screens are everywhere in the film: television screens in Louise’s bedroom and at the university, computer screens in the classroom and military encampment, and a recording screen in addition to the big white screen in the alien interview room. When Louise is able to reach General Shang and suddenly the international community is back online, communicating and sharing information again, we see this news broadcasted on many screens in a sequence reminiscent of the blast of language that Abbot gives Louise before the explosion inside the ship. This almost overwhelming proliferance is also reminiscent of the many windows on the exterior of the university. Arguably these windows, like all the screens, serve to subtly remind the viewer that he or she is not only watching the film but is but one viewer in a larger audience of viewers and perspectives. There is a suggestion that if we could but see differently, we, like Louise and the aliens, might be able to explode time and experience its simultaneity and fullness.
Ultimately, there is an incredible sensory vividness to the sets and architecture in Arrival. The reason the sets feel real is that they actually are real; the actors are performing in life-size, to-scale, fully detailed/“furnished” sets. Many sci-fi films use “green screen,” a process which allows a different background to be added to the final image. Instead, Vermette and his crew built four different, massive sets. Cinematographer Bradford Young explains,
The interior of the ship is 100% practical: The 150-foot tunnel where they enter the ship is real. The chamber where they have their exchange with the aliens through a screen is real. The floor that looks like scraped-out pumice stone is real.… That set was massive and all practical.18
Vermette further describes the dimensions of the set: On a backlot, they constructed a 40-foot by 40-foot section of the lower part of the ship with 24 feet of attached shaft. In a warehouse in Montreal, Vermette continues, “We built a 28-foot-tall shaft where we see them sideways as they elevate. Then, we built a horizontal tunnel, 150-feet-long. We built that 85-foot by 75-foot interview room. Those sections had wild walls and 14-foot ceilings for the tunnel and interview chamber.”19 It must have been quite an experience for the actors to enter these massive, tactile spaces. In order to help Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner interact with the aliens, Villeneuve arranged for the ghostly shapes of two puppeteers to appear behind the semi-transparent screen.20 Villeneuve and his crew went to great lengths to make their sets have the solidity of architecture.
Perhaps, this is a stretch, but it would be fitting (and a palindrome, at least for this essay) if there were a professor in film school who encouraged his students to make their sets into architecture.
The same professor mentioned at the beginning of the essay (let’s give him a name: architect James Givens) also runs a studio in which students design a house for awaiting death. This prompt is evocative in relationship to Arrival, though the film takes it one step further: a house not for awaiting your own death but the death of your child. To the testament to a fully lived life, one must add elements of grief and acceptance. This new dimension also underscores the interaction of a particular grief with the more universal grief that an architecture of mourning might convey.
Grief subtly resonates within Arrival. The only way that Louise can reach General Shang and “change…[his] mind” against violence toward the aliens is by calling him on his personal phone and relating his wife’s final words before her death. True to the central twist of the film, General Shang tells her these words in the future so that she might stop him in the present/past. Though her words go untranslated in the film, General Shang’s wife says the proverb “In war there are no winners, only widows.”
Back to the house for awaiting the death of your own child. It has a lawn between its big glass windows and the lake beyond. The lawn will become a stage for your daughter’s sensory wonder—the curling of a marsh grass, the picking up of a stone in the water, the looking up at the crisscrossing of branches. But in the view from the house you cannot see the lawn; the house seems to float above the water. Though some might say the house has a timeless quality, this is not true. The house is full of time.
1. Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on the story “Story of Your Life” written by Ted Chiang, performances by Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, Paramount Pictures, 11 November 2016.
2. Julie Miller, “Thought Your Mind Was Blown by Arrival? Wait Until You See the Clues You Missed,” Vanity Fair, 13 February 2017. www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/02/arrival-production-design-oscar-nomination.
4. Scott Essman, “Contender – The Production Design of Arrival,” Below the Line, 23 January 2017. www.btlnews.com/awards/contender-production-design-arrival/.
6. Tim Grierson, “’Arrival’ Production Designer Explains the Film’s Most Stunning Effects,” Popular Mechanics, 21 February 2017. www.popularmechanics.com/culture/films/a25305/arrival-visual-effects/.
7. Wil S. Hylton, “How James Turrell Knocked the Art World Off Its Feet,” The New York Times, 13 June 2013. www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/magazine/how-james-turrell-knocked-the-art-world-off-its-feet.html.
8. Dale Megan Healey, “A Museum in the Mind of Someone Contemplating the Sky,” 12 March 2013. www.thecommononline.org/a-museum-in-the-mind-of-someone-contemplating-the-sky/.
14. Laura Morgan, “Inside the Design of the New Amy Adams Film Arrival,” Architectural Digest, 10 November 2016. www.architecturaldigest.com/story/inside-the-design-of-the-new-amy-adams-film-arrival.
16. James Turrell, “Introduction,” artist website, accessed 29 October 2019. jamesturrell.com/about/introduction/.
18. Daron James, “Physical Sets Helped ‘Arrival’ Cinematographer Control Film’s Tone,” Variety, 11 November 2016. variety.com/2016/artisans/production/physical-sets-artisans-1201912936/.
20. Emily Todd VanDerWerff, “Arrival director Denis Villeneuve on his sci-fi film’s unexpected timeliness,” Vox, 8 December, 2016.