Nothing quite matches the feeling of sitting in a theater or on your couch, fully invested in a movie, wondering where the story will go next. All of a sudden, the floor drops from underneath you. The characters may not be who you thought they were or maybe the timeline wasn’t at all in order. This is a twist: an unexpected turn that changes the story into something completely different. What makes a twist so appealing? Why would anyone want to be lied to? To break this down, let’s look at a line from Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.
“The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now, you’re looking for the secret but you won’t find it. Because, of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why, every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part. The part we call the prestige”
In that scene Michael Caine discusses the three parts to a magic trick, which isn’t all that different to how a director frames their stories. The Pledge is an introduction to the world and the characters living in it. This is what gives you comfort and familiarity, assurance that everything is at it seems. The second act -The Turn- is what Michael Caine describes as making the ordinary do something extraordinary, even if it defies all belief and understanding. Naturally, this leads to The Prestige. How well does the movie stick the landing? Did it bring you full circle as a viewer to the story and reveal meanings behind the film’s hidden secrets? These are the qualities in the movies I’ll be discussing in this series.
Before we dive in, it should go without saying that what follows is a deep dive into the events of 2016’s Arrival, including the ending. If you wish to walk into Arrival as blind as possible, turn back now. Still with me? Then let’s dive in:
Arrival (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Denis Villeneuve came onto the scene with Prisoners, Enemy, and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049. But in between those films, Villeneuve released Arrival, a story of a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who’s brought in to decipher a language spoken by aliens that have landed on our planet, contained within their ship. The ship is one of twelve that have landed on Earth, looming without action. Our introduction to Louise shows her recovering from a traumatic event and attempting to get lost in her work. In flashbacks, we see Louise having quiet moments with her daughter, Hannah, and standing by her when she gets sick and passes away. Meanwhile, Louise meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and works closely with him to decipher the alien language.
The alien’s language is different than ours, opting more for visual communications in the form of a circle formed with an ink-like liquid. It’s in these circles that Louise gets lost and starts reflecting more and more on her memories of Hannah’s illness, almost feeling confused that she is witnessing it all over again. Ultimately, Louise makes a bold decision and chooses to trust the aliens, learning everything they can teach her. What Louise doesn’t know is that they have already shown her more than she is aware.
It’s here where we learn that Louise has been seeing these memories of Hannah, but does not recognize who she is or what she means to her, thus explaining her confused reactions. Ian is revealed to be Hannah’s father, proving that these events actually happen after the alien encounter. These are true memories for Louise, but ones that have yet to happen. The alien language helps the human consciousness travel to different times in our past and future to provide information we did not yet know.
By accessing information from our future memories, we can answer questions to political debates, personal issues, and matters of international war. Louise has cracked the code to the language, but is now tasked with the worst decision: does she pursue a relationship with Ian and have a daughter, knowing that her daughter will get sick and die? It’s Louise’s decision to not tell Ian about their daughter’s fate that confirms what we all know to be true: the pain of knowing does not change the journey we go on.
This is a twist that changes everything not just for Louise, but mankind as we know it. From this point on, humanity can now learn the alien language, access memories that span their entire life, and transfer that knowledge back to our present selves. Louise remembers the pain of losing Hannah so vividly despite not even meeting her yet. The choice to continue a relationship with Ian, knowing that they will have a child and lose her to an illness, is an impossible choice that she must make to ensure that other future events happen. The burdens we bear are important to endure for the better of ourselves and overall humanity. It’s a heartbreaking realization that defines her character and poses unknown outcomes for the future.
Looking back at Arrival on repeated viewings, there are clues hidden throughout the movie that hint at these secrets. In her memories of Hannah, drawn pictures can be seen of Louise, Hannah, and her father who she says “talked to animals.” The animals Hannah mentions are actually the aliens- lovingly named Abbot and Costello- and another hint that Ian is Hannah’s father. The pain visible on Louise’s face is not that of someone who is scared, but of someone who knows what’s coming. Villeneuve is a master of storytelling and provides information only when essential, all while keeping true to the story and not breaking any promises on what’s been given. This is ultimately what audiences desire from the Turn and Prestige acts of movies: stories that take unexpected turns, but aren’t unnecessary to the world built within the story.
Villeneuve is no stranger to building up to a twist. If you want a truly mind-bending final scene twist, be sure to check out Enemy starring Jake Gyllenhall. Seriously, a shocker of an ending scene. But despite knowing how to deliver a shocking discovery, Villenueve hits a major landmark with Arrival and does exactly what every good magician promises: change the game, but bring it back to the medium we love.