The Arrival 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.
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- Arrival (2016) release date: Nov 11, 2016