Episode 439: Arrival Both Goes Big and Goes Home

On the Overthinking It Podcast we tackle Arrival, the mindbending sci-fi mystery film starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

Peter Fenzel, Amanda Jordá Avisati, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather join to discuss Arrival, focusing on the problems of causality, narrative stakes, message, language, and thought the film raises. In addition, we suggest further “bad” titles to carry the torch of Bad Santa 2.

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8 Comments on “Episode 439: Arrival Both Goes Big and Goes Home”

  1. Three Act Destructure #

    On death being one of the central conflicts of the film, we’re shown two distinct ways of dealing with it: Amy Adams, who embraces life including its inevitabilities and Hawkeye, who specifically says that his wife made the “wrong” choice.

    The thing that struck me about this is that the characters we’re presented with are extremely flat. They are only their knowledge sets/titles/educational backgrounds and, towards the end of the film, also their genders. I’m not even sure that all of them had names.

    Point being, is Arrival making a statement about a difference it believes to be inherent to the perspectives between science and linguistics? Or men and women? Or did the filmmakers just not think this through at all and the only reason that Adams accepts death is because it’s the “right” response and she just so happens to be the protagonist?


  2. Ben Adams OTI Staff #

    I feel like you guys left one obvious possible interpretation unexamined: the film as a “pro-life” metaphor. Strip away the sci-fi trappings, and the dilemma faced by Amy Adams’ character is one faced by real-life people with some degree of regularity. Pre-natal genetic screening can identify certain debilitating or fatal diseases, leaving parents with essentially the same decision as the one faced the character in the film: do you create a new life, knowing that you will live to see it end?

    I put “pro-life” in quotes above because the term usually has a specific meaning in the political context of opposition to abortion rights. I don’t think that meaning really applies here – the movie doesn’t really have much to say about the RIGHT to choose. Rather, I think it’s trying to capture something about the nature of the choice itself.


    • Crystal #

      I didn’t get that at all, though I’ve seen a lot of people mention it. I saw it more as an “it’s better to have loved and lost” kind of thing. It made me think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind– would you erase an entire relationship just so you could erase the pain of it ending? Would you erase the existence of your daughter so that she wouldn’t die young of some horrible disease? I feel like most parents would say no, but I am not a parent and do not intend to become one.

      If you think about the way Amy Adam’s character experiences time, she has already experienced all these moments of joy with her daughter (wheras her husband, who is not fluent, has not). For her, there is no hypothetical life that will end. She actually knows her daughter’s smile and laugh. She actually knows what it would be like to hold her daughter. She has actually experienced all this joy (and her life before seems to be pretty joyless).

      It’s very cheesy when the husband asks her if she wants to make a baby, but I feel like it really underlined that she made the conscious choice to do this. I can understand why should would do it, and why he would think it was the wrong choice, and I think it comes down to her having experienced these moments of joy and him not. We can certainly pull out a level and make that about her being able to accept the inevitability of death and him not, but I don’t think there is anything else in the film that points to why either of them would feel this way.


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      It also sticks the landing on the big reveal — surprising and inevitable, just like Aristotle ordered — which is a real trick.


      • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

        [Spoilers for a show you’ll probably never watch, but should].

        I will forever be grateful to Rubicon for the fact that the conspiracy turned out to be just like, four guys who were friends and had positions of power, as opposed to some Hydra-esque “Syndicate” AND YOU DON’T KNOW HOW DEEP THIS GOES nonsense.


  3. LostAnubis #

    A few things here. Can’t believe you’ve never heard of Under the Skin. Also, in regards to the language thing being refuted, look up Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Not a direct match to what’s going on in the movie, but there is the idea present that we who speak English deal with words in a linear fashion, while there may be another way to look at language that we may not be able to comprehend. I am a total amateur here, but I enjoy language theory, and if you have any insight I would appreciate it.
    Another big thing you didn’t touch on much was how acceptable it is that Amy Adams was willing to bring a child into this world knowing it would die a sad and painful and premature death, but hey, at least she had some good times with her before she died! I am a parent. I am not judging her decision really, I’m just saying in my opinion, it doesn’t seem like as clear-cut an answer as they make it in the movie. If I knew my daughter would die of a rare cancer before she became an adult, would I still want her to come into this world? Are the positive experiences more important and more valuable than the end result? You’re allowing your child to go through hell and die at the end. Maybe the movie is more profound than I give it credit for, because I do not know how to answer that.
    And I think overall the movie was great, right up until the end. I thought the editing of her memories/future was spot-on, but it felt like they were beating a dead horse at the end to achieve the emotional attachment to the audience. If you didn’t realize Hawkeye was her future husband before they showed a shadowy figure by the lake, then you’ve never watched a Christopher Nolan movie. ;) I think people gave it good reviews because the movie makers added that insane emotional ending. My personal comparison is American Sniper—I thought that movie was a joke, but when they show you the real footage of people honoring and grieving his death, it hits your heart, and you leave thinking how great that experience was.
    To sum up, it was all great until the extended ending that tried to pull at your heartstrings. I was already there, the memories shared throughout were perfect, you don’t have to beat me over the head with it at the end.


  4. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Took me all week to listen to this, but I want to get a couple thoughts in. First, I’m completely in agreement that the movie was, in the end, more interested in atmosphere than answering every question… and it rubs me the wrong way. For most of the movie’s runtime, it’s what you might call “hard sci-fi.” The crux of the action is the thorny problems of learning an alien language, and it seems pretty well-researched. But then once they’ve painted themselves into a corner, the movie handwaves a solution that requires the audience to take a lot on faith. I think you guys really hit that nail on the head with the concept of “going big and going home.” It reminded me a lot of Interstellar, another movie that spent most of its time being serious sci-fi until it became mystical mumbo jumbo.

    Secondly, I don’t believe anyone mentioned the strong comparisons between Arrival and Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut’s book, which is kinda sorta about WWII, is just as much about a human being meeting an alien race which experiences time non-linearly. “The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings about time.”

    But Slaughterhouse-Five has some very different morals to teach us. Arrival suggests that a person who can see the future could potentially choose a different path – that’s the whole point of Louise’s decision to have her kid despite what she knows. But the aliens in Slaughterhouse-Five don’t understand the concept of choice. They know what’s going to happen and they are powerless to change it. They even know exactly how the universe will end, due to an accident one of their test pilots is responsible for. But they can’t stop it; they merely accept it as a fact. So it goes. That’s far from the life-affirming message of Arrival.


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