Spoiler alert: some details about the plot of the film Arrival are revealed below.
My husband and daughter and I just saw the film Arrival in which Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor called upon to communicate with an alien race who suddenly appear and park 12 of their vessels at various locations around the Earth. Adams’ character reminded me of Dr. Elleanor Arraway, played by Jodie Foster in Contact (1997). Both characters are strong, capable women who demonstrate that the key to the future of the Earth lies in our increased understanding of each other and the rest of the universe. Click here for the Arrival trailer, which illustrates some of these points.
Adams’ Arrival as Dr. Banks coincided with the end of the 2016 US presidential campaign and with the election. When I saw it, I had just spent the week in conversation with friends and colleagues who were in deep pain, as was I. I had just attended a national support group in which educated women, including many women of color, told stories of their fears about the election and the current US stance on women, people of color, and the “other” in general and what it meant for our futures.
Most of us know that this is a troubling time for so many. I think most of us care about that. As someone who studies the representation of social groups (ex. Professional women, Black men) in the media and also the usefulness of story to our well being, I want to consider how stories like Arrival can play a role in moving us forward.
Cultural stories like major films play a part in our collective imaginations. The writers, directors and actors help us imagine together a possible future and a current perspective on the world. As we absorb these cultural stories, we build a kind of social understanding – we form expectations about people based, in part, on the stories we publicly tell about people like them. As individuals, we also use stories to understand the experiences of others and, at the same time, to cope with our own challenges and interrogate our own values.
In Arrival, we get to know the character of Dr. Louise Banks, and to see what she’s capable of in an extraordinary situation. Not only is it rare, percentage wise, to see a highly educated, White, middle-aged woman in the role of the extraordinary hero, the particular story we tell about Dr. Banks is inspiring. She is a quiet hero whose successes in life have centered around her talent for languages.When put in incredibly stressful situations, she feels the stress, but she moves forward anyway, relying on her own judgment. Here is a image from Arrival in which Dr. Banks makes a decision about how to speak to the aliens. She decides to take off her protective gear and reach out physically to them.
In a world where ongoing aggressions at home and abroad are on most people’s minds, there are other elements of the story that many of us may find reassuring. Louise chooses to put herself at physical risk while remaining non-aggressive and committed to communication. She endures others’ doubts and presses for factions from around the world to work together because she believes it is the only way to solve the problem for the collective good.
At a time when so many films offer the same solution – kick butt until the world does it your way – this film shows us a refreshing alternative. I do understand why we enjoy fantasies where we punch, kick or shoot people until we achieve world peace. However, since we use stories to inspire us in our own lives, this approach is only so useful. How often do most of us solve our problems by beating people up until they cooperate? (Some do metaphorically!) Dr. Banks’ character represents not only women, but all of us because her solutions are much more like ones we might actually use.
Regarding women’s portrayals specifically, I do have a real appreciation for something simple in this film – how they chose Dr. Banks’ costumes. There’s a history of sexualizing women in the media. I am reminded of the film Gravity, in which an otherwise respectful portrayal of a female scientist also featured a rather salacious underwear scene. Or a scene from a Star Trek film in which a woman who has just said she is a physicist inexplicably strips down to her underwear in front of a male officer. I appreciated how Dr. Banks dressed like a real person, not like a world class linguist who also has a secret wish to be an underwear model.
Like many films, at the center of this story are a man and a woman working together. Here, we have Jeremy Renner as Dr. Banks’ colleague, Dr. Ian Donnelly. Dr. Donnelly plays a supportive role. While a loving relationship develops between the two, the story doesn’t rush to conclude that romance solves anyone’s problems.
The message of Arrival is, in fact, much deeper than that. What it offers is an existentialist view about life –that, despite the pain, choosing love in the face of life’s twists and turns is the only good choice we have.