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An 'emotional' sci-fi: The disruption of motherhood stereotypes in Arrival

Since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2016, Arrival (2016), the latest film by French Canadian Denis Villeneuve, has been critically acclaimed, nominated for many awards and largely considered a unique sci-fi. Quite often its brilliance seems to be the consequence of the film’s emotional pull, as inferred from reviews such as “heartfelt alien-contact movie”, “the poem we need”, and even “a Nicholas Sparks weepie with some space monsters thrown in”. The fact that the emotional element is key to this film is irrefutable; still one doubts journalists would have brought this up with such insistence if producers had given in to studio pressures and changed the linguist role played by Amy Adams to a man.

And then, while critics label the film as ‘emotional’ because its protagonist is a woman, Arrival adds new layers of meaning to this term. Dr Louise Banks- in a superb and nuanced work by Amy Adams- is an expert linguist who, together with physicist Ian Donelly (Jeremy Renner), is called upon by the US military forces after the arrival of eleven alien ships. The film’s focus is on Louise’s agency, she is the one making decisions and taking risks whilst the others follow, her intelligence and professionalism are the driving forces of the narrative. The mission assigned to her is too important for romantic distractions instigated by Ian’s flirtatious attention. However, she is still human and visions of her deceased daughter haunt her during a very demanding job. The film shows us a heroine who is both brave and vulnerable; it spotlights her discoveries rather than Ian’s, and reduces (heterosexual) romance to overtones that are not too obtrusive; thus, moving away from strict formulas of the genre.

What I believe sets the “emotional” tone is precisely the protagonist’s maternity. But, once again, the film intelligently uses this trope to question film genre practices and, to a greater extent, our preconceptions as spectators. By means of how motherhood is explored in this film and how, traditionally, it has symbolised a negative force in the sci-fi and horror film genres, Arrival stands as a unique sci-fi blockbuster.

The film opens with a dreamy sequence of what appears to be Louise’s fast-forward story; a single mother who faces the death of her teenage daughter. The aim of this opening is twofold: as a backdrop to Louise’s story and to pose a challenge to the audience’s expectations. Immediately after this, we are taken to Louise’s present where we see her working as a linguistics professor- perhaps leading us to think that her personality and commitment to work is the result of these traumatic past events. The trope of so many films, it seems that a woman’s professionalism and ambition are the answer of lacking a family. However, I would argue that the way in which the narrative progresses and how the heptapods are constructed, makes Arrival a fascinating film in that it has a complex and contemporary approach to motherhood.

The viewer’s first assumptions of what motherhood represents for Louise are disputed as the story unfolds. Memories of her daughter intertwine the present narrative and, as she gets closer to understand the heptapod language, we observe that these also start to affect her physically. Only by the end do we come to understand that these reminiscences are indeed premonitions. However, even if they had remained as flashbacks they could have perfectly signified that contemporary motherhood can be part of a woman’s existence, without determining it. Experiencing these constant flashes does not prevent Louise from continuing her mission. She is depicted as a driven, fearless woman who can also show her inner struggles and is able to empathise. The twist ending acts then as an added dramatic element to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,(1) which the film seems to support, but also points out how deeply ingrained the discourse of motherhood as essential to a woman is.

The film’s depiction of the heptapods(2) jeopardises the traditional association made between the monstrous and the mother figure in the sci-fi horror film genre. Barbara Creed,(3) in her study of the film Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), argues that the horror and sci-fi horror films have commonly produced imagery around the monstrous that resembles female genitalia; thus likening this to a destructive force. She refers to the figure of the archaic mother in the horror film, a repressive presence that threatens the life it once birthed and which symbolises castration, characterised by the classic mythological figure of Medusa.(4) Even if Arrival is not a sci-fi horror (but more of an emotional sci-fi as critics seem to insist on), the inclusion of heptapods as a threatening force reveals how the genre is evolving as well as subverting fixed ideas around representations of the monster. The heptapods’ extremities open up into starfish-shaped hands, whose very centre is a black hole, resembling the primeval black hole. Despite their threatening aspect and how eerily they move towards the transparent solid barrier, the heptapods in Arrival are no sources of destruction. Quite the opposite, as Louise comes to understand, their purpose on earth is to provide humans with their language given that in thousands of years in the future the heptapods will need humanity’s help. Even if the heptapods have an effect on Louise’s psyche- something that could draw parallelisms with the damaging power of other monster figures like the Medusa’s gaze, which turned to stone anyone who saw her- the black hole(5) in their extremities is not all-devouring but rather, is their source of communication from which they expel a set of inky circular logograms onto the barrier.

As Creed explains, in most horror films fluids are made to show images of bodily waste, symbolising the horrific, or in Kristeva’s words, the abject. For Kristeva, the abject is the place of no meaning: the menacing site for the subject constructed through language. Yet in Arrival, these fluids blur the boundaries between the self (human) and that which threatens the self (heptapods) by allowing communication between the two. Interestingly, the film also seems to undermine the idea where language, as learned by a child, is linked to the world of culture and law, the symbolic realm as understood by Kristeva and Lacan. Arrival shows us that the process of moving from the pre-verbal (semiotic) into the linguistic (symbolic) does not imply a separation from the mother (abjection).

In Arrival, we see Louise interacting with her daughter, teaching her words. We also observe her approach to the study of the heptapod language; interpreting the inkblots the heptapods discharge onto the screen. This transparent solid barrier that separates them from the humans can be read as the womb, and the projection of logograms can remind the spectator of pre-natal ways of communication such as kicking the womb. Louise’s progress in her communications with the heptapods culminates after being voluntarily abducted by the spacecraft to have the final and most important conversation with them. In short, Louise is part of the whole language acquisition process, not just the pre-verbal dimension of language as Kristeva’s semiotics postulates.(6)

Arrival might be described as an emotional sci-fi given that its main lead is a female and the narrative is threaded with the visions she has of her deceased daughter. What is clear is that the film not only entertains and moves us but also questions our presumptions as spectators grown with images constructed within the patriarchal ideology. The film does not easily concede to the redundant divides that abound in this and other film genres, where we either find the tough, masculine heroine or the supportive companion to the male protagonist. Arrival confuses outworn binaries such as science/humanities, masculine/feminine and carer/career woman, while enriching the sci-fi genre by subverting the image of the monster. If this is what constitutes an 'emotional film', then we should hope for much more emotion in sci-fi.

(1) The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the language one speaks determines the thinking and culture of the speaker. In Arrival, the more Louise understands the heptapod language, the bigger amount of visions she has. The ending of the film provides an explanation of these visions: having acquired the heptapod language, she now can have a different sense of time than that of humans.

(2) Name given to the aliens due to their seven tentacle-like legs.

(3) Creed, Barbara. "Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine - an Imaginary Abjection." Screen 27, no. 1 (1986): 44.

(4) Sigmund Freud in his posthumous essay “Medusa’s head” associates the figure of Medusa with the fear of castration.

(5) Creed explains that the archaic mother is present in two different ways in the horror film. First, in Freudian terms, the archaic mother is the primeval black hole which signifies female genitalia as a monstrous sign and that is proof that castration can occur. Second, the archaic mother as the constant presence of death, the fear of becoming undifferentiated again after the subject’s separation from the mother/womb. (Creed, 1986, p.65)

(6) Kristeva distinguishes between the ‘semiotic,’ that relates to the sounds and tone that express the drives and physical contact with the mother and the ‘symbolic,’ that entails the articulation of language. With language acquisition, the authority of the mother is repressed. (Creed, 1986, p.52)

Words by Amaya Bañuelos Marco

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