The Known Unknown: Silhouettes in ‘Arrival’

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How a balance of shadows and substance enrich the sci-fi blockbuster.

So much of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is about not knowing. The vagaries of intention and character, of situation and nature, are what make it such a rich and thought-provoking mystery in which the pursuit of knowledge is the adventure, the object, and in its way the enemy.

One of the means by which Villeneuve and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young relate the unknown inherent to Arrival’s narrative is the ample employment of silhouettes, though not in any way that could be considered typical.

Paint It Black: The Silhouettes of Cinematographer Roger Deakins

Because whereas most silhouettes are stark juxtapositions of shadow against light, in Arrival these two opposites are equals, the lightness is as murky as a storm cloud and the darkness shines with the luminescence of life. The effect of this – besides putting on display the beautiful complexities and innate dichotomy of our world and ourselves as human beings – is a further blurring of film’s truths and its characters’ hunt for them.

In the following brief but effective montage from Jose Rico, the silhouettes of Arrival have been collected and edited together into one obscured stream to further heighten how foreign an environment our heroes are entering when seeking to understand the new life arrived among them. It is a subtle, almost insidious facet, to be sure, but even the furtive way in which Arrival uses silhouettes strengthens the secrets of its narrative, and in turn our engagement with its mystery.

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