Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS for Arrival ahead
Arrival presents many clues without revealing its hidden truth until the film’s conclusion. The success of the movie’s masterful storytelling is owed to director Denis Villeneuve and author Ted Chiang, whose sci-fi novella “Story of Your Life,” served as the film’s source material. Chiang’s narrative nominates a linguist, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), to decipher the otherworldly language of the Heptapods, an alien race who has descended across the earth. As the international community grows increasingly alarmed by their presence, and foreign and domestic armies prepare for retaliation, Louise is tasked with the unenviable responsibility of peacefully communicating with the Heptapods before global violence eclipses the conversation.
Since Arrival premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, it has been widely praised as one of the best science fiction movies in decades. In addition to exceeding box office expectations, Villeneuve’s movie has earned the respect of critics and audiences for its mature and thought-provoking approach to the genre. As the enigmatic story unfurls, Arrival reveals some paradoxical twists and a disarmingly emotional ending. There’s a lot to unpack from the movie, so we’re here to help clarify some of the story’s most pressing questions.
Who Are The Aliens?
Despite the foreboding news reports and hasty military intervention, it is eminently clear that the “arrived” are non-aggressive beings. If they sought to punish planet earth, they would have already done it. Despite landing in a group of twelve, the alien spacecraft leave no emissions or radioactive signs of inter-communication between ships. They have no “footprint,” as modern environmentalists might say. Like a giant, obsidian contact-lens, these airborne monoliths have clearly come to earth for one reason: to communicate. They even have visiting hours established where interested parties can enter into the ship through a fascinating zero-gravity portal.
While the rest of the world scrambles to interact with their own local Heptapods, Louise, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) focus their attention on the one that landed in Montana. After making first contact with the aliens, Ian finds himself increasingly persuaded by Louise’s linguistic gifts, naming the Heptapods after the legendary comic duo, Abbott and Costello. Through a variety of visual aids and mechanisms, Louise and Ian struggle to identify “Who’s On First?” as they build a pathway to communicating with the aliens.
What Do They Want?
As Abbott and Costello grunt with their whale-like sounds and emit ink-laden symbols, it becomes clear that their language is a world apart from our own. Because the Heptapods perceive time non-linearly, their language becomes an increasingly difficult lexicon to crack. As the film’s promotional posters and every onscreen member of the armed services ask, “Why Are They Here?” It’s the primary reason Colonel Weber hired Louise in the first place.
After the death of Abbott (which Costello describes as “death process,” affirming the Heptapod’s non-linear perception of time), he reveals to Louise that the Heptapods will need earth’s help in 3,000 years. Though we never learn more about the nature of the threat, Costello clarifies the earlier confusion over the “weapon” he discussed with Louise. Less a tool of force and more of a gift of understanding, Costello lays the groundwork for the Heptapods’ future alliance with mankind by helping Louise learn their language. When she visits Costello by herself, wading in the murky atmosphere of the ship, she absorbs the total understanding of Costello’s form of communication, viewing time from the same omnipresent perspective of the Heptapods.
What Is The Alien Gift?
Given the impending doom of which Costello warns (with non-linear time, 3,000 years is just seconds away), he and the other 11 Heptapod hosts intend to impart their nonlinear perception of time to all of mankind. It’s implied that the universal “invasion” was intended to serve as a twelve-point dissemination for the Heptapod language. Despite their best efforts at executing this global diaspora, only Louise proved accessible and humble enough to actually listen and learn it.
Along with the American soldiers planting explosives in Abbott and Costellos’ ship, the rest of the world congress elected to take a more bellicose approach to the Heptapods, completely missing the truth of the aliens’ benevolent mission. While the rest of the world sees them as a clear and present danger, Louise has effectively had her mind rewired to speak the limitless language of the aliens and break the human boundaries of time. She’s the Heptapods’ only hope.
How Does it Work?
Arrival treads lightly with explaining the machinery of the Heptapods’ nonlinear language and perception of time. While the details of the mechanics are largely left to our imagination (after all, it is Louise the linguist’s story, and not Ian the scientist’s), Villeneuve and Chiang do allude to several key components:
- Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: Much is made about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in both Arrival and modern academia. The well-worn hypothesis suggests that the language we speak is inimitably tied to the reality we experience. Midway through the film, Ian asks Louise if she dreams in foreign languages, and indeed, the more she understands the Heptapods’ communication, the more she experiences waking visions of her future. The dream world merges with a flat chronology that irrevocably changes her perception of time and memory.
- Nonlinear Orthography: Arrival screenwriter, Erik Heisserer, admitted he never expected the phrase, “nonlinear orthography,” would make it off the film’s cutting room floor. Instead, this linguistic expression is essential to understanding the nature of the Heptapods’ language and the symbols they use to communicate.
Part of Louise and Ian’s initial difficulty in translating Abbott and Costello stemmed from their own well-entrenched mode of language. We write and speak sentences in a literal line (usually from left to right), where the images we depict are dependent on the way we order our words. The Heptapods, however, rely on a form of semiotic communication that tells a full story unbound by time in one fell swoop. Indeed, the ends of their circular symbols never fully touch, perhaps implying the infinite possibilities inherent in their mode of communication. It’s no wonder, then, that the Russians were sorely confused by their local Heptapods who said, “There is no time.” Unfortunately, their linguists ignored the simplest explanation of all: that the Heptapods meant the phrase literally, and that their form of communication is utterly independent from the human construct of time. They communicate across the temporal sphere, and their language is unbound by the past, present or future.
By this point, it’s abundantly clear that the only person better suited to the job than Louise is Mr. Rust Cohle himself.
The Ending Explained
When Louise tells her daughter, Hannah, that her name is a palindrome, she is also explaining the structure of Arrival. When the movie begins, we are thrust into the bleak worldview of Louise and the subsequent illness and death of her child. Framed with Terrence Malick-like photography and Max Richter’s haunting song, “On the Nature of Daylight,” we firmly believe we’re watching flashbacks of Louise’s tragic past. As it turns out, the palindromic function of the story tells us that these scenes of love and loss are neither flashback nor flashforward, but one in the same. Thanks to the omnipresent perspective given to Louise, these sequences simply exist free from the constraint of time.
This is the paradox of Arrival, and arguably the most complex and mentally taxing part of the movie. When Louise hijacks the military’s phone and contacts General Shang (Tzi Ma), she transcends the present to access future knowledge of a past event. In talking the Chinese leader down, she repeats the final words of Shang’s dying wife: “War does not make winners, only widows.” How did she gain such intimate knowledge? General Shang himself, having benefited from Louise’s warning, had to travel to the relative future himself and impart his wife’s powerful words so the American linguist could use them to persuade him on the phone.
Louise’s prescience is the essential component to convince Shang of the Heptapods’ gift, of the relative nature of time, and of the importance for the international community to rally as one.
Unshackled from the constraints of linear time, Louise experiences the breadth of her life in a single moment. The flashbacks to the loss of Hannah are projections of what’s to come, though she feels the gravity of those moments in the now. Louise’s choice, then, is to embrace the sum of her life regardless of the tragic moments within it. Though the death of daughter and the abandonment of her husband sting her to her core, she accepts the knowledge of what’s to come knowing the beautiful moments that accompany it. While it may seem to be a deterministic (or perhaps fatalistic) tale, Arrival actually empowers Louise with the gift of free will and the option to choose her future.
By the same token, Louise also chooses to shield Ian that she knows their future child will die of cancer. When he asks her if she wants to “make a baby,” she jumps at the proposition with every fiber of her being. Her joy, however, is underscored by great sadness, knowing that when she eventually reveals her longstanding knowledge of Hannah’s fate, Ian will crumble at her admission and leave her forever. Though some may see Louise as a misguided soul, Villeneuve and Adams create a character emblematic of us all, as our greatest triumphs will ultimately result in the same inescapable end.
On another note, it’s worth asking why Ian didn’t also inherit some of Louise’s consciousness, given the many weeks spent working alongside Abbott and Costello.
Though re-imagined by many, Ralph Waldo Emerson is the father of the phrase, “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” In many ways, Arrival is a thoughtful adaptation of that adage. Denis Villeneuve uses Louise as the audience surrogate, and as the Heptapod-like and omniscient director, he introduces us to a new prism by which we can better view our own lives. There is no salvation in this vantage point, nor protection from death. Instead, Arrival asks a simple question: if you could view your life as an image, a story told in one nonlinear and infinite symbol, would you change it?
Louise hardly entertains the prospect, electing to embrace life for all of its myriad victories and losses, knowing that the journey is worth far more than the final destination.