Lost in Translation: Interpreting Jóhann Jóhansson’s score for Arrival

SPOILER ALERT: As much as I try to keep my posts free from spoilers, I believed I couldn’t analyze this score without describing some of the film’s major plot points. If you haven’t watched Arrival and are planning to watch it, you should probably watch it first and then come back to the article, as it contains major spoilers. You’ve been warned…  


I had very high expectations for this one. Not only is Jóhann Jóhansson a terrific composer, but also I am a huge fan of the sci-fi genre. Moreover, while I am not a linguist, I clearly have a passion for languages being fluent in Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese and French. Linguist or not, you do pick up basic knowledge of linguistics when you study (and teach) different languages.

The film starts with a wonderful theme representing human emotions and fragility. A wonderful start for a promising soundtrack.

Well, scrap that. I loved the first cue, but it happens to be a piece named “On the Nature of Daylight,” by Max Richter. I can’t help to be reminded of the use of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Bibo no Aozora in Babel: While the track was used in a key moment of Babel and is one of the soundtrack’s highlights, Gustavo Santaolalla’s award winning score was exceptional. The great irony is that both films deal with the communication barriers surrounding different languages  – which you can tell from Babel’s title even if you haven’t seen the film. The main difference I notice when analyzing both scores, is that Santaolalla’s seems better planned and more effective. Read on to see why…

What To Score

One of the keys to composing a successful film score is knowing what to score: It’s not just about writing good music, but rather music that adds synergy to the rest elements that make up the film as a whole. And as it generally provides a good clue regarding what the authors want us to focus on, it seems appropriate to look at the title as a centerpiece of the film: Arrival. While the title might intend to reference more than one aspect of the arrival rather than the arrival itself (e.g., arriving at an understanding between two different species with different methods of communication, to name one) an engaged audience (and the composer scoring the film) will definitely see the introduction to the alien arrival as a crucial plot point.

How did Jóhannsson approach this crucial plot point? With silence. And it works. The silence puts us in the shoes of humans that are petrified as their paradigms have shifted and they don’t have a clue of what is coming next.

What continues immediately after, however, is a little more common (and uninteresting). While the plot is not advancing – we already heard about the arrival – we hear the score while Louise hears about the arrival again on TV. Maybe she’s starting to understand it now and was just petrified before (as I originally thought) and that’s what is being scored? I’ll have to try a different hypothesis, as while she sleeps or while we get an establishing shot of the college building where she works, the soundtrack continues in the same manner (sparse notes, static texture, etc.).

And once again, while every other element of the film from performances to camera angles seem to focus our attention on the moment, there is no music when Louise tells Colonel Webel (the character played by Forrest Whitaker) to ask a colleague the Sanskrit word for war and its translation. The score might be saving its notes for later…

Close Encounters 

Enter the shell, Arrival’s version of a flying saucer.

This is where I start to enjoy Jóhannsson’s score. The soundtrack works remarkably well to set the tone for the film. The orchestration seems basic, rudimental, which works well at putting us in the characters’ shoes as they initiate their attempts to communicate with the aliens. The sight of the shell is accompanied by a long, loud note that reinforces perfectly the impact of the image: it’s big, it’s important, but we don’t have a clue of what it is. I can’t even tell the instrumentation, and I don’t want to know!

As they get closer to the shell, the sounds of a didgeridoo (or something that sounds like one), strings, and organ, accompany the shots of the entrance. Nothing out of the ordinary, but very tasteful and effective underscoring our heroes’ nervousness as they await their first alien encounter.

The cut to silence as the action moves from the shell to the disinfection shower indeed feels like a cold shower back to mundane reality and our characters begin preparing their second entrance. I like what I hear so far.

Alien Languages 

The second encounter is where I find what I believe to be the meat and bones of the film and its score. Our heroes at this point start implementing their plan to communicate with the aliens. As for the score, it’s all about the soundscapes. Jóhannsson paints the eeriness behind the alien encounter with repetitive yet somewhat random rhythmic cells that sound like morse code, and the right amount of silence: The imperfection in the rhythm makes the interaction sound more organic, and the lack of thematic development leave the communication stuck at a basic level – where it should be at this point in the film – while the silence accompanying the beginning of the encounter leaves us as nervous and anxious as our characters probably feel. It seems clear at this point that the score is trying to echo the communication between humans and aliens. In my opinion, though, it doesn’t quite make it there…

The collection of notes around which Jóhannsson paints the scene. Basically an Eb chord with an ascending and descending line cliché (M6 and M7).

Overnight fluency

This is the point at which my love for the score and I start drifting away from each other. The action in the film hands Jóhannsonn plenty of chances to make us think that there is progress in understanding the aliens and the score does, actually, accompany the symbols that the aliens draw when they appear in the air. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to ever try to explain what our characters are making out of the symbols. The score remains static, overusing the aforementioned soundscapes with little to no perceptible variation. We might be able to see that our characters are meeting with the aliens over and over, and using and reading the symbols, but there is nothing showing us their progress. Wouldn’t it have been possible for Jóhannsson to keep everything that works so well in the score while adding some thematic development, or some evidence that our characters are learning the symbols? Instead, he overuses these static cues that paint the beauty of the encounter without giving us any information. Look, I am not expecting a cheesy montage, but perhaps something happening with the soundtrack to show this progress.

Actually, I take that back, a montage would have been rad…

OK, back to the analysis. My point here is that words can only include so much information regarding how the characters learn the language. If the soundtrack, which initially seems to try to explain the language, doesn’t show an evolution that reflects their mastery of the alien language, I will find it hard to believe as an audience. And I do.

My humble conclusion

In my opinion, the soundtrack succeeds at being novel, but fails at its most basic job of scoring the film. Would it have been wrong if besides being novel it tried to explain and support the things happening in front of us? We are human beings after all, not aliens, although the film is about aliens, it is watched by humans. As cool as it may seem to replicate what’s happening in their world, I need to be able to understand what is happening.

Look, I was not expecting classical theme development. In fact, I was hoping for something different, and I did find that. The score sounds appropriate and intriguing, and as far as sound design goes, it is a fantastic achievement. Perhaps the part I don’t get is that it doesn’t seem consistent regarding the “what to score.” Maybe? I’m stumped.

Help me

How did you feel about Arrival’s score? Am I missing something? Please do share your opinion regarding Arrival’s score in the comments below. I’ll see you on January 21st for my take on Michael Giacchino’s Rogue One.

Diego Delfino
Diego Delfino
Diego Delfino is an Argentine-Italian composer living in the United States, a film sound instructor at SAE Atlanta, and a former student of LSU, SAE, and the School of Music of Buenos Aires (EMBA). You can find out more about him at www.diegodelfino.com, as well as listen to some of his musical compositions.

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