In an age of blockbusters, where cities are blown up on the regular and the heroes are forced to grapple with world-ending stakes instead of saving the people who are in those buildings, they tend to only come in a few different shades. For example, the reluctant hero – this hero is forced out of retirement, or pretends not to care until he is forced to acknowledge that he does; the hero who is often churlish, constantly cracking jokes, or aggressive, but only as a cover for some hidden pain. This hero can often be found doing a thousand yard stare into the distance, sacrificing his life with manly gravity, etc.
If the hero is not already fraught with what he knows about the nature of the world, he will need to learn at some point in order to fulfill his heroic potential. This is the more classical type of hero – your Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins. They stay good from start to finish, but they are robbed of their idealism when their small, idyllic view of the world is shattered by tragic loss and suffering.
There is a pervasive idea in storytelling that if a character starts off as a certain kind of good – optimistic and hopeful – they are not wise. What I found so compelling about the movie Arrival is that it features a hero who has hope and optimism, and doesn’t need to undergo a dramatic character shift in order to save the world.
In the film, Amy Adams portrays Doctor Louise Banks with a quiet, affecting warmth. Although there are world-ending stakes, the film is more concerned with Louise’s inner life. We see it flicker across her upturned face – small moments of joy, terror, anguish, wonder, playing against one another like ripples on a pond. The key to Louise’s character is that she understands that the world often works in tragic, chaotic ways, but she chooses goodness anyway. She actively chooses hope and compassion even though it is within her best interest not to. She does not sacrifice her principles in order to achieve any kind of greater good. When she puts herself at risk, she does it because she wants to learn.
Feeling and intellect are usually placed in conflict with one another. Feeling is warm, intellect is cold. Emotion hampers logic. Logic oppresses emotion. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the gendered component in this as well – women are emotional. Men are logical. However, in Arrival, feeling and intellect are never in conflict. The most intelligent characters in the film, particularly Louise, are allowed both – she is given room to breathe in her wonder and terror, where her scientific curiosity drives her to uncover secrets that only feeling unlock.
As a movie lover and science fiction fan, where women are not often allowed to step into the role of hero without some kind of ‘strong female character’ schematic imposed on them, watching Arrival felt like letting out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think women should play typical heroic roles. But when they so often do not hold this position in the first place, it was a wondrous feeling to find something new.