A recurring motif seen in stories is the journey of the hero. It is one where he is thrust out of his normal life, and thrown into danger. He is faced with a monster, who can unleash a power unknown. He then willingly accepts the tribulation, defeats the monster, and emerges triumphant. He now possesses this new power. In that sense he better than everyone else, but he also uses it for the well being of others.
This theme plays out in the movie, the arrival. It is uniquely interpreted, and I’ll get to why that is in just a bit. But first off, to summarize what the arrival is about: Aliens have landed on Earth and a linguist is employed to understand what they want, and see if they pose a threat to humanity. This story is interlayered with themes of love and loss, and the importance of communication and language. The storytelling is distinctive. Just like the language of the aliens, the plot is also circular, like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The beautiful quote from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows summarizes it well: “I begin at the close.” Louise Banks, the protagonist of the movie, learns the language of the aliens and in the process rewires her brain to be able to access time in its entirety. In consequence of that, she sees her future and the sum total of her whole life. There is also some tension among nations about how to approach the aliens, with some countries proposing to decimate them, while others want a more diplomatic approach. Amy Adams has done a great job in portraying the character, although her turgid body language gets confusing at times.
Now coming to the overlay of the hero’s journey with regard to The Arrival. The first stage is when the hero is thrust from their normal lives into an unexpected dire situation. This happens when the aliens arrive. Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics is required to leave her cushy job to head to the military base near the spaceship. And in typical hero initiation process, at first it looks like she won’t be chosen to go, as the officer hints that they are looking at a professor at Berkeley as well. But she makes a case for herself, ascertaining her superiority in interpretation compared to her peers. And she’s ultimately selected. The next step is confronting the monster, which is where they meet the aliens and begin the process of fighting them. In this case, the fight is understanding what they have to say, while explaining the human tongue to them. A complication arises, in the form of lack of co-operation by other nations, and internecine conflicts. This is solved by the hero by breaking the rules. She takes a secret military phone and directly reaches the dour leader of China, convincing him to abandon the violent approach. She also finally learns the language of the aliens, and is able to view time as a continuum – the power obtained by the hero at the end of the quest. She sacrifices the love of her life for this, a hero’s sacrifice. And finally, she teaches the language at university, a gift for humanity.
So what is it about the arrival that is different?
The first aspect is that a hero’s journey is a traditionally masculine archetype. From my preliminary understanding of it, it involves the masculine realization – a boy to man transformation, so to speak. It requires a development of masculine traits, such as physical strength, building a fraternity, authority and assertiveness, to be competitive (arguably a human trait, but more closely masculine) to name a few.
But the movie builds a hero narrative employing the strengths of femininity – like communication, compassion, sacrifice, instinct and motherhood. Movies take the easy route when it comes to portraying strong female characters. They make them more like men. But this movie instead exalts the strength of femininity, which I found distinctive. And this is what made me really love this movie.
I have a basic understanding of the concepts elucidated in this essay. For in depth reading, I suggest the works of Joseph Campbell.
Image Source: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/arrival-2016