'Arrival,' 'Dunkirk' and the Distraction of Nonlinear Storytelling

An admission of watching movies the wrong way.

Dunkirk Sea And Air

An admission of watching movies the wrong way.

When people tell me to just turn my brain off and enjoy a movie, I wish that it were so easy. I’ve been trained to overthink films as I watch them. I have two degrees in the study of cinema. I can’t ignore what I know or how I’ve been wired to always analyze images I’m seeing on screen as they’re cut together any more than a mechanic can stare at a puttering motor and pretend not to know how to fix it.

There are many times when I would love to turn my brain off and appreciate mindless summer blockbusters. But I especially wish I could turn my brain off just a little bit to properly enjoy marginally complex Hollywood movies like Arrival and Dunkirk. Both use nonlinear storytelling in a way that’s appropriate to their narrative, but their respective structures are also distracting to the overthinking viewer.

There are three ways to watch these movies. One is without thinking at all, whether you’ve “turned off” your brain or don’t have a mental capacity to follow unconventional plotting without being confused. Another is with too much thinking, where you immediately deduce that scenes in Arrival that seem to be flashbacks are in fact flash forwards and where you can’t stop trying to figure out if the three intertwined parts of Dunkirk would actually work if pieced together chronologically.

And then there’s the way that most moviegoers enjoy these movies, which falls between the two extremes. They are smart enough to easily comprehend and accept the twist in Arrival and the structure of Dunkirk, but maybe they experience a moment of initial surprise and confusion when these devices reveal themselves. They can recognize a clever structure without being fixated on it.

Frustratingly, I can not help but be distracted. When I immediately identified that Amy Adams’s character in Arrival has a daughter in the future, not the past, it wasn’t because I was too smart for the movie. I just question everything I see in movies as they’re presented to me. I ask, why are we seeing this woman and her terminally ill daughter? Is it to set up her character’s mindset in the present? Could it be a flash forward to some carcinogenic effect of the character being around aliens and inside a UFO so much? Interestingly enough, my first presumption there was not correct, but it led me on the path to accepting those scenes as taking place later.

I still recognize that this deceptive structure is clever and makes sense for the story of a woman who starts having memories of things that haven’t chronologically happened to her yet — there’s no reason it should start off the movie, though, but I’ll forgive it. That’s not the thing that ruins Arrival, on its own terms, from being great (that’d be the silly paradox with the Chinese general). It was my constant study of the film that made me unable to experience it the way it was intended to be.

Dunkirk is more distracting because its nonlinear structure is not a ruse. In fact, Christopher Nolan sets up the course the story will follow with titles at the start of each of the three segments (“The Mole,” “The Sea,” and “The Air”). They could have been presented separately in triptych format, a la Pulp Fiction or Amores Perros, and it would have still been effective to a degree in that manner. Intersecting them, though, puts emphasis on the perception of time as experienced in each of the three otherwise chronologically unaligned perspectives on the Dunkirk evacuation.

There are possible faults with the consistency of Nolan’s structure. When a pilot who has splashed down in “The Air” shows up later in “The Sea,” there seems to be a confusion on the part of the movie regarding whose point of view we’re experiencing the segment of the story through (alas it’s just the sea’s POV, perhaps, not that of the characters whom we’d been following during this segment up to this point). However, it’s not the movie’s problem if I’m distracted by the layout of scenes because my brain is attempting to put them in the right order.

Still, it’s not outlandish that anyone’s mind would receive Dunkirk as a puzzle to be solved. Even those not trained to overanalyze every movie. Nolan’s whole filmography consists of nonlinear storytelling, some of his plots structured unconventionally for a thematic purpose and others structured as a sort of trick with a twist at the end (and some of them function as both). Viewers familiar with Nolan have a certain expectation from him and therefore tend to watch his movies more closely.

Actually, serious movie fans today are primed to look for twists or to more deeply consider unconventional narratives because they’ve seen so many in the last 25 years. Certain filmmakers like Nolan and M. Night Shyamalan are particularly notable for cinematic gimmickry and aren’t easily approached with shut-off brains. But neither’s work is for the mind that solves the trick too quickly, either (how many of us realized the twist of The Village right away simply because we were looking for the signature Shyamalan surprise?). Expecting a twist often ruins a twist.

Nolan seems to play on the expectation of a twist in Dunkirk by having a non-speaking character set up as a mystery, at least to others in the film story. The revelation of the character’s true identity does not come in the form of a significant narrative twist, though. He’s just French, not British, and that means nothing save for the fact that he’s another person merely trying to escape and survive the situation. The reveal is interesting but doesn’t change the story much.

Additionally, hardcore movie fans today are so familiar with practices on the internet to overanalyze and deconstruct and rework movies, whether seriously or ironically. It’s difficult to watch a movie like Dunkirk and not think, at least for a moment, of the obligatory YouTube video that will recut the narrative in linear chronological order. I had the thought, as did many other who half-jokingly noted the eventuality on Twitter.

Nolan and Arrival director Denis Villeneuve are strong enough directors that they can often get away with the distraction of form by delivering effective emotionality in the moment — for both of them, it’s often with the help of manipulative music scores and great actors. Even if you know the twist in Arrival, it’s hard not to feel something during Adams’s scenes with her daughter at the end. And even if your head is wrapped up in the structure of Dunkirk, it’s hard not to feel something in your heart both in the individual pieces and in the whole of the devastating events depicted.

Nonlinear storytelling as well as other structural gimmicks and plot twists can easily be done in a way that’s too cerebral and without the proper amount of heart and soul needed to balance them. See the films of Joseph Kosinski (Tron: LegacyOblivion) and scripts of Alex Garland (Never Let Me GoEx Machina) as well as some of Nolan’s features (Inception mainly) for examples that feel emotionally too cold as a result.

Arrival and Dunkirk are two movies that are best enjoyed with an average, moderate amount of brain activity the first time around. They are, after all, entertainments first and foremost. Deep analysis will and should come later, on further viewings. And sure, let’s have those videos showing the three parts of Dunkirk side by side, down the road.

I feel like I watched the two movies incorrectly but couldn’t help it. Fortunately, aside from its genuine problems, Arrival played more passively and enjoyably for me on second viewing. Hopefully the same will be true when I see Dunkirk again.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.