BySam Cooper, writer at
Spastic writer and a lover of all things with the word "espresso" in the title.
Sam Cooper

(WARNING: This post contains minor spoilers for Arrival)

Movies don't end when the credits roll. There's always something hidden behind the screen, the gears that turn and the pistons that fire to create the spectacular cinema experience we all love. But sometimes when the door to the behind the scenes universe opens, we find something we never expected.

Arrival, the latest film from the director behind Sicario, hit theaters on November 11th and told a story that amazed and twisted the minds of audiences. What made the tale of unexpected aliens so deeply moving? If we unlock the door and take a peek into the inner workings of , we'll see a core made of science. Not the kind of science that designs bridges and invents chemical cleaning products, but the science that digs through your head and makes use of the most fascinating abilities of your mind. Unless you already opened that behind-the-scenes door, you would never have realized there are four ways Arrival uses science to change our movie experience.

4. 'Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis' Is The Big Word That Makes The Plot Tick

Yeah, it's a mouthful. It makes your lips feel like they've melted off your face and dripped all over the sidewalk, but there's another name for the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis — Linguistics Relativity. This idea first shows up in Arrival through the dialogue. Louise, played by , and 's Ian talk about how languages shape the way we think. Linguistics Relativity states that by immersing yourself in a different language, you can restructure the way your brain connects thoughts and perceives reality, and that is exactly what happens to Louise in the movie. She dives headfirst into an alien language and it rewires her mind. (Could Louise really do this in real life?)

Heptapod language is non-linear in 'Arrival'. [Credit: Sony Pictures]
Heptapod language is non-linear in 'Arrival'. [Credit: Sony Pictures]

This is the twist of Arrival. Once Louise begins to read the non-linear language of the aliens, she sees time the same way. Her memories come from the past, present, and future. The entire structure of the film takes on a new meaning, but it's a seamless transition. As soon as Arrival introduces the alien language, it tells the audience to think differently and welcome something entirely foreign to their realm of thought. Arrival uses Linguistics Relativity to rewire our minds, prepare us for the twist, and to tailor the complex plot into something simple.

3. The Association Principle: Not Selling Anything, This Time

Arrival is a movie, of course, not a TV commercial, but the Association Principle is taken right out of marketing science. It's built on the idea that when your mind is presented with two objects in a positive situation — one familiar and the other new — you'll begin to associate the unknown object with whatever feeling the known object creates. It might not happen right away, but thoughts tend to snowball. For example, Louise likes tractors. She sees a commercial that visualizes coffee in the cup holder of every farming tractor in the nation. Louise's mind says, "Oh, I must like coffee, too."

We're all glad Arrival doesn't feature tractors.

"Where is my tractor?" 'Arrival' [Credit: Sony Pictures]
"Where is my tractor?" 'Arrival' [Credit: Sony Pictures]

What's marketing science doing in Arrival? The editing style of the movie — quick jumps between Louise's memories and the present, like a remix of a song — relies on the Association Principle. Arrival performs its jumps at key moments in Louise's character arc. As she makes progress with the alien language (positive), the movie interweaves tender moments between Louise and her daughter (positive) that lead your mind to associate the alien language with a bigger picture. It's a subtle influence, but we have the Association Principle to thank for Louise's emotional journey.

2. See Your Feelings With Color Psychology

When you see a bright color, your eyes open wider. Your steps find their spring. Your heart beats in time to the world around it. Everyone knows how much the mood of a scene depends on color schemes, but few know the extent of the physical transformation that occurs in your body over the course of a movie. Colors release neurotransmitters that alter your emotions. There's a long list of color-chemical relationships, but blue and green, which release dopamine and serotonin, are the most important to Arrival.

Jeremy Renner is amazed at the Montana landscape. 'Arrival' [Credit: Sony Pictures]
Jeremy Renner is amazed at the Montana landscape. 'Arrival' [Credit: Sony Pictures]

The cinematography of Arrival is like a rainstorm. It starts out grey and dull, but as the film goes on, the water falls and every surface shines. Louise's breakthroughs with the language are visually rewarded with scenes that feature deeper blues and brighter greens. The story itself is enough to create emotion, but the gradual saturation of the cinematography produces neurotransmitters that heighten each feeling. It's a change that happens below the surface of your mind, but it's powerful nonetheless.

1. Nerve-Grating Music

The cinematography enhances Louise's triumphs, so the sound design of Arrival accents her uncertainties. Sound is broken down into simple formulas. Specific frequencies (different pitches) harmonize because the vibrations hit common points. When conflicting frequencies are paired, the vibrations trip over each other and create disharmony. How does disharmony affect your body? Upon hearing the vibrations, your ears bleed, your brain rattles against the walls of your skull, and your eyes slide out of their sockets.

That's what it feels like, at least.

Scene 5 — Preparing for contact. Music — Hummmmmmmmmmmmmm.'Arrival' [Credit: Sony Pictures]
Scene 5 — Preparing for contact. Music — Hummmmmmmmmmmmmm.'Arrival' [Credit: Sony Pictures]

In reality, these grating sounds only set your teeth on edge. They produce a very different kind of neurotransmitter than hues of blue and green. Arrival composer Jóhann Jóhannsson uses a truly nasty collection of conflicting sounds to shape our view of the aliens. In the first encounter, the score injects anxiety into the scenario, but as Louise and her team connect with the aliens, the score removes the grating sounds. To a certain extent, all movies use music to enhance moods, but Arrival relies on the ugly side of musical mathematics to shape our perception of the film.

'Arrival' is more complex than you realize. 'Arrival' [Credit: Sony Pictures]
'Arrival' is more complex than you realize. 'Arrival' [Credit: Sony Pictures]

Sometimes when you open doors, you don't find what you expect. Movies are complex works of art that require the talents of a hundred people, but movies also rely on something that doesn't come from human hands. Science is the weapon we never think about, and the weapon that strikes hardest. Arrival uses scientific concepts to shape its plot and tailor the emotions of Louise's character arc. Even on the audio-visual side of production, science has a hand in creating the unique experience of Arrival. The inner workings of movies are more complex than we think, but fused together, they create masterpieces.

Always remember to unlock the doors.


Which element of 'Arrival' affected you most?

(Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, Science of People, Linguistic Society of America.)


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