Read the script for the hit science fiction movie and analyze it all this week.
Reading scripts. Absolutely critical to learn the craft of screenwriting. The focus of this bi-weekly series is a deep structural and thematic analysis of each script we read. Our daily schedule:
Monday: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown
Today: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown. Here is my take on this exercise from a previous series of posts — How To Read A Screenplay:
After a first pass, it’s time to crack open the script for a deeper analysis and you can do that by creating a scene-by-scene breakdown. It is precisely what it sounds like: A list of all the scenes in the script accompanied by a brief description of the events that transpire.
For purposes of this exercise, I have a slightly different take on scene. Here I am looking not just for individual scenes per se, but a scene or set of scenes that comprise one event or a continuous piece of action. Admittedly this is subjective and there is no right or wrong, the point is simply to break down the script into a series of parts which you then can use dig into the script’s structure and themes.
The value of this exercise:
- We pare down the story to its most constituent parts: Scenes.
- By doing this, we consciously explore the structure of the narrative.
- A scene-by-scene breakdown creates a foundation for even deeper analysis of the story.
This week: Arrival. You can download a PDF of the script here.
Screenplay by Eric Heisserer, short story by Ted Chiang.
IMDb plot summary: When 12 mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.
Scene by Scene Breakdown
by Ashish Chand
Pg. 1–3 Louise Banks stands outside of her secluded lake house, taking in her surroundings with a glass of wine. A voice, which we can assume to be hers, muses on memory and time. The décor of her house indicates her bookish and academic nature, with an interest in foreign languages. A question appears on the glass: “Do you want to make a baby?” Louise shifts through flashbacks of her daughter’s short life, from birth to death, possibly by cancer.
Pg. 3–7 Louise drives to work. It is clearly a different period in her life from the intro, possibly after her child has died. She works at a university. It is strangely quiet for a regular day at a university, and fighter jets periodically fly overhead, which cause concern for Louise. A large group of students is gathered around a television, hinting that something major and out of the ordinary is happening. She teaches Advanced Linguistics, showing that her interest in foreign languages is actually expertise. She begins her lecture, only to find out that the classroom is empty except for a few students. A student interrupts the lecture and asks Louise to turn on the news. The news anchor reports in a panic about the landing of a UFO in Montana and other locations around the world. Louise dismisses class. The activity around campus makes sense to her now. She leaves work in a panic, along with most everyone else.
Pg. 7–10 Louise heads home. She is on the phone with her mom, talking about the same thing everyone else is talking about. The conversation shifts to her well being, and Louise stares sadly at her spare bedroom. She watches news coverage of the alien landing, alone with a bottle of wine. She goes to sleep with the news on, because it’s that kind of news.
Pg. 10–15 Louise attempts to go on with her life in a normal fashion, but life has stopped for everyone else, and no one shows up to her classes. She sits in her office and is approached by a military officer, Colonel Weber. Weber reveals her prior experience and clearance with the military as the reason for his visit. This also reveals that not only is she an expert in her field, but she is THE expert in her field. Colonel Weber wants Louise to translate the alien sounds for him, but she explains it’s not as simple as he wants it to be, and that her services will require direct contact, not just an audio recording. Weber rejects her terms and indicates that he’s going to her academic rival, but Louise leaves Weber with an opening and something to think about.
Pg. 15–18 A helicopter fast approaches Louise’s house as she sleeps. Weber has returned to Louise, acknowledges that she knows more than her rival, and offering her the job. She quickly packs her things and boards the helicopter. Inside she meets Ian Donnelly, a physicist who has also been recruited by Weber. He instantly challenges her expertise by reading aloud from her book and dismisses her expertise as nonsense. She quickly recovers.
Pg. 18–24 Louise, Ian and Weber approach the landing site. A large crowd of people swarms around the military blockade that is set up around the alien ship. From Louise’s point of view, the ship is massive and awe inspiring. Weber quickly brings Ian and Louise up to speed. They learn that the ship has been dubbed The Shell, due to its appearance. At the base camp, they meet Captain Marks and learn more about the highly advanced nature of the alien ship. Louise and Ian both undergo a series of medical tests and receive precautionary shots. Following their medical exam, they are introduced the to the base’s operation and intel center, where government operatives communicate with the other landing sites throughout the world, revealed to be 12 in total. Agent Halpern is speaking to an Australian scientist on one of the monitors about the atmospheric differences inside the alien ship. Ian gets to apply his scientific knowledge to clarify the confusion. Weber escorts Louise and Ian to the science tent, where people are trying to analyze the alien speech patterns. Following the tour, an alarm indicates that it is time to enter the alien ship. Louise and Ian put on hazmat suits and prepare for the encounter.
Pg. 24- 26 Louise and Ian are loaded into the back of a pickup truck and are driven to the Shell. It looks so much bigger now they’re actually headed toward it. They reach the entrance to the ship, which is floating 20 feet in the air. The surface of the ship appears to absorb light, darkening the immediate area around it. Military personnel are preparing equipment for the next encounter. A scissor lift is in place to carry people up to the floating entrance. Louise and Ian join Colonel Weber, Captain Marks, and a small science team of two on the scissor lift. Louise is nervous, breathing heavily, shaking. The scissor lift carries them 20 feet up. They all start feeling around for something, and Ian’s hand finds a hole, which opens up wide. The lift enters through the hole.
Pg. 26–27 Inside the tunnel, the team turns on their flashlights. Louise is still disconcerted by the experience, while Ian is completely fascinated. One of the scientists throws a glowstick in the air, which moves up and to the side, landing against the wall, demonstrating a shift in gravity within the ship. The scientists jump upward and land sideways on the same wall. Louise looks like she is out of her element, but Ian eagerly jumps. Louise expresses her doubt to Colonel Weber, who patiently and calmly helps her jump towards the others. He knows he needs her to be at 100%. She lands, catches her feet and breath, and walks on her own.
Pg. 27–30 Inside the interview chamber, Weber, Marks and the science team sets up a variety of recording equipment and detection tools, including a canary in a cage. This has become normal and routine for them. Louise and Ian are awestruck and breathing heavily. A transparent wall divides the room in two, with the opposite side being enveloped in some sort of fog or gas. Weber informs Louise that the aliens will arrive soon. Louise questions the use of the hazmat suits. The aliens enter their side of the room. They appear to be terrestrial octopi and move about in the fog in a swimming motion. Weber reminds Louise that this is her session. The scientists monitor and announce changes in the atmospheric readings. Louise greets the aliens with no response. She tries again and gets a strange, alien noise in response. This is completely unlike anything she’s ever experienced before. Weber asks for an assessment, but Louise is at a loss. Panic overtakes her.
Script Analysis: “Arrival” — Part 1: Scene By Scene Breakdown
Pg. 30–33 Back at the base, Louise appears visibly stressed from her interaction with the aliens. Ian is still his excited, confident self until he vomits seconds later. Weber reassures Louise that she did fine, and tells her to figure something out before she goes in next time. In the communication room, Halpern has a briefing with the Australian