Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016) memed before it even hit the cinema screen. One image from the trailer was shared widely online: Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) making first linguistic contact with the aliens who have appeared in low Earth orbit by holding up a whiteboard saying HUMAN. This single shot appeared to sum up both Arrival's premise of communication above all and its promise to correct all that has gone wrong with mainstream genre cinema of late: a female protagonist—a scientist, no less—making lo-tech peace, rather than CGI war, with alien visitors. The trailer, like the film, boasts a female voice-over (still a rarity), and shows that Dr. Banks is not only a professional, but a working mother. Like Ryan (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013), Louise is defined by maternity and the loss of a child as much as by her scientific and communications ability as a professor of languages.
The film consistently wants to have it both ways: it backs, at different moments, both the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that linguistic difference changes you and Noam Chomsky's claim that language has a universal grammar, even cosmically so. Similarly, it claims to be changing the genre landscape—through the difference of a (solo, isolated) female lead bent on making peace (and babies)—while actually keeping it much the same. It vaunts technology (and limited female competence therewith), particularly the screenality of the military-industrial complex, but also romanticizes and domesticates the embodied and haptic.
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