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What is Arrival about?
Arrival’s themes play out across two levels. The macro level explores the way in which language, information, and communication affect the actions of governments, populations, and individuals. When groups fail to interact, when they operate out of fear, we go down a negative path. But when we work together, support one another, share—amazing things become possible.
The micro level develops through Louise’s story. Ultimately, it’s about accepting the way things go. Louise marries Ian knowing they’ll divorce. She has Hannah knowing Hannah will suffer an untreatable illness and die. The obvious question there is why, with her knowledge of time, would Louise choose to follow these paths to their forgone conclusions? The better question is why the movie made that choice. And it’s because it gets at one of the universal truths in life—things are out of our control. When we marry someone, have kids, pursue a career, go to the movies, cook, get a pet—anything—we know there’s a chance things won’t work out. That the worst could happen. Arrival is making a statement about the journey being more important than the conclusion.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Louise Banks – Amy Adams
- Ian Donnelly – Jeremy Renner
- Hannah – Jadyn Malone, Abigail Pniowsky, Julia Scarlett Dan
- Colonel G.T. Weber – Forest Whitaker
- Agent Halpern – Michael Stuhlbarg
- Captain Marks – Mark O’Brien
- General Shang – Tzi Ma
- Written by – Eric Heisserer
- Directed by – Denis Villeneuve
- Based on – “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
The ending of Arrival explained
The ending of Arrival begins after Louise meets with Costello, following the explosion in the heptapod shell/ship, and receives the knowledge that she possesses the “weapon”. Back on the ground, as the military tries to evacuate the site, Louise starts piecing together visions of her future. The girl isn’t a daughter she’s lost but memories of the daughter she’ll have. And she begins to witness the events following the arrival and departure of the heptapods. She’ll write a book about the language, having solved it. There’s even an United Nations unity event where she meets China’s General Shang who thanks her for, back in the film’s present, calling him to stop his attack then gives her private info for reasons he can’t explain, including his personal phone number and the the last words of his dying wife: In war, there are no winners. Only widows.
Louise pieces the puzzle together then runs back to the camp to use a satellite phone to contact Shang. She recites to him the words from his wife and he immediately ceases operations against the heptapods, causing other nations to do the same. He announces China will share all of its research and findings with the rest of the world. It’s a major, positive breakthrough.
The heptapods leave.
We get a final sequence that mixes present and future. We get a closing monologue from Louise that plays overtop of a montage of her, Ian, and Hannah from different, happy times over the years: So, Hannah, this is where your story begins. The day they departed. Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it.
In the present, Louise asks Ian, “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” To which he says, “Maybe I’d say what I feel more often? I don’t know.” After a pause. “You know, I’ve had my head tilted up at the stars for as long as I can remember. You know what surprised me the most? It wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you.”
The two embrace across timelines, prompting present Louise to say, “I forgot how good it felt to be held by you.” Future Ian says, “Do you want to make a baby?”
A final wash of memories of Hannah leads to Louise holding Ian tighter.
Arrival is making two distinct statements. One broader. One personal. The broader statement is told through the global politics of the situation. The simplest way to understand it is “acting out of fear is problematic, while communicating and working together is good.” When the countries were collaborating, they made progress. But once China started acting out of fear and aggression, others did the same. That caused the world to move closer to absolute disaster. It’s only through communication, specifically between Louise and Shang, that things get back on track and the aggression stops and collaboration begins. The implication is that this synergy continues and will usher in monumental advancements for humanity, which is what eventually allows us to, 3000 years in the future, help the heptapods survive some unspecified calamity.
The personal statement is the way Louise responds to having the knowledge of what will happen to Hannah. It’s that question of “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” And conclusion that “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it.”
It’s easy for people to focus on debating Louise’s choice. Especially when Ian disagreed so much that he divorced her. But the choice isn’t the point. In reality, none of us unlock future memories and know exactly how things will end up. The movie isn’t about that. What Arrival’s doing is reacting to the much more normal scenario of accepting tragedy and failure.
When you take away all of the sci-fi elements, Arrival is a story about a mother coming to terms with losing her husband and her daughter. It’s a reminder about perspective. Instead of looking only at the end result—divorce and death—Louise chooses to cherish the years of happiness and joy.
While you and I can’t see the future, we know that every choice we make has some inherent chance to backfire. If you get married, you might get divorced. If you have a child, something could happen. If you take that new job in a different state, you might hate it. If you start your own company, you will maybe fail. Even just driving to the grocery store, there’s the chance of being in a fatal car crash. But we do these things because we believe they’re worth doing and experiences worth having.
And that gets to the larger point that all of us die. That’s where the journey leads. Either you can let that terrify you to the point of casting a shadow on everything you do, so much so that you stop enjoying life, or get on with it and enjoy all of this while you can. Welcome every moment of it.
This dovetails with the larger geo-political story. Do you let fear paralyze you and keep you from opening up to others? Or do you communicate and engage and reap the rewards that only come by being part of the world? The union between nations mirrors the union between Louise and Ian. It’s not a perfect thing. But aren’t the two better off for having what they had?
In this way, Arrival is a challenge to its viewer to get out there. Seize the day. It’s a long-winded way of reminding us not to frown because it’s over but to smile because it happened at all.
The themes and meaning of Arrival
Language is a weapon
One of Arrival’s key subplots involves radicalization through language. The introduction is when Louise is on the phone with her mom and says, “I don’t know, Mom. I’m watching the same news coverage you are. Well. Mom. Please don’t bother with that channel. How many times do I have to tell you those people are idiots.” It’s a clear reference to Fox News, an organization that has caused immense damage to the American zeitgeist through its biased news coverage.
What’s interesting about Fox News is that its founding CEO was Roger Ailes. He was the television advisor for Richard Nixon and watched first-hand as the media blitz around Watergate created a thunderstorm throughout that country that led to Nixon’s impeachment and subsequent flight from office. That’s because the national media, at the time, was far more neutral than it is today. But what if it wasn’t? What if you had an entire organization that could frame the situation in the way that would benefit the party you supported? That was the epiphany Roger Ailes had and the whole reason Fox News came to be.
If every news organization told you what Nixon did was bad, then it’s easy for the public to agree. But if even one offered an alternative perspective, a perspective that shifted the blame, shifted the focus, created another way to feel about it, then maybe Nixon wouldn’t have needed to resign. Unfortunately, Ailes was right. Today, most television news has some kind of bias and results in individuals having radically different points of view on the same topic.
Arrival expands upon this when it shows one of the soldiers listening to some political personality ranting about needing to make a show of force to the aliens. They agree. So they load explosives onto the shell, even knowing that Louise and Ian will be casualties. Not only that, they have an actual firefight with their fellow soldiers and are willing to kill if necessary. They become murderers because some random dude yelled into a mic.
The fallout from their choice is almost catastrophic as it causes the rest of the world to fear retaliation. Other nations cut lines of communication and mobilize their military to attack first.
That’s the power of language.
The way the heptapod language changes Louise’s mind and causes her to experience the world differently isn’t just the stuff of sci-fi. It’s a metaphor that goes beyond someone learning English, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin, etc. It’s what Louise meant when she explained how China playing mahjong with their heptapods was an issue—it made communication about winning and losing, about conflict. It’s the reason why dehumanizing propaganda was such an effective strategy for Germany in WWII. It’s the reason why cults can mesmerize people into doing outrageous things. We are sponges and when we hear certain things said over and over again, it can have a profound impact on our worldview, whether we realize it or not. A powerful example is the pernicious way advertising causes women to have body image issues.
The soldiers weren’t bad people who did a bad thing. They were people who were, over time, radicalized by the language they were hearing and it caused them to do something they believed was right because others were saying it was necessary. In their minds, they died as heroes.
We have lines in the film that reinforce this. Ian: “If you immerse yourself into a foreign language, then you can actually rewire your brain.” Louise: “Yeah, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s the theory that the language you speak determines how you think and…” Ian: “Yeah, it affects how you see everything.”
So Arrival is a pretty strong critique of 21st century media zeitgeist. As relevant as it was at release in 2016, it’s even more so in 2023. And will probably continue to be relevant long after we’re all gone.
That’s the reason why the movie has Ian read that line from Louise’s book: “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”
A zero-sum game involves resources changing between a party that gains and a party that loses. Poker is an example of this. Everyone puts money into the pot. If someone wins a hand, they gain resources from the other players. But the total amount of resources stay the same. Chess is similar in its exchanges of pieces.
Non-zero-sum games don’t involve such clear gains and losses. For example, two baseball teams make a trade. A single player in exchange for four. Is a zero-sum game, the idea of giving up 1 and getting 4 feels like a win. But that’s not accounting for the quality of players. If the one player is an all-star in his prime and the four are rookies with potential, then how do you calculate who exactly won? What’s gained and lost isn’t strictly measured in the number alone.
The most obvious application of this with regard to the movie is as an outlook on life. There are people who take a zero-sum view of things. They want to gain, even if that means others lose. It’s a singular, self-interested way of interacting. China is presented as operating in a zero-sum way. Not sharing information. Not communicating with other nations. Ready to launch a military attack that could jeopardize the rest of the world. Ultimately, the non-zero-sum mindset wins. The countries all end up exchanging information, realizing that giving something up doesn’t necessarily mean you’re losing the game. It can mean everyone benefits.
This gets back to Louise and her reason for accepting the journey with Ian and Hannah. There will be losses but that doesn’t mean nothing was gained. She’ll always have the time with them. And be able to experience that through memory. We all deal with something similar. Would you rather not have a childhood because you age out of it? Should you not get pets because you’ll outlive them? Do you regret everyone you ever dated because it didn’t work out? In fact, aren’t you a better version of yourself because you had those relationships? Didn’t they teach you more about yourself and who you want to be with? Hopefully.
That’s the non-zero-sum game of it all. The more you can remember that giving something up, or losing something, doesn’t mean you didn’t gain anything, the better off you’ll be. That mindset can allow you to move on from things that aren’t working and to take chances on things you were too nervous to pursue. It’s a mindset that helps you accept the past and have courage for the future.
Free will and fate
Arrival seems to imply that Louise has a choice about marrying Ian, having Hannah, etc. As opposed to everything already being determined. Could she make different decisions? Or does she no longer have free will?
Honestly, it doesn’t seem to matter. I know that’s not a satisfying answer. But we’ve already discussed how the end of the film is about coming to terms with life’s ups and downs and accepting the journey, wherever it takes you. If you start trying to avoid losses and treat it as a zero-sum game, will it be any better? Probably not. Just different.
If Louise has a choice, it doesn’t change her outlook. If she doesn’t have a choice, that’s all the more reason to have the outlook she does.
It’s the same for all of us. Sure, we have free will. But we don’t know what will happen. Once we make a choice, we can’t take it back. We have to, like Louise, become comfortable with accepting the journey as it unfolds.
Why is the movie called Arrival?
Obviously and simply it refers to the arrival of the heptapods to Earth. We have that line in Louise’s opening narration: “But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.”
Marketing wise, the word arrival has connotations with aliens and UFOs that does a good job of appealing to its target audience.
Thematically, when we look back at the quote, the arrival is attached to the idea of defining our story and a transcending of beginnings and endings. It also causes us to reflect on the narration that bookends the movie. “So, Hannah. This is where your story begins. The day they departed. Despite knowing the journey and where it leads—I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it.”
So there’s arrival and there is, of course, departure. Beginning and ending. But the impact of the heptapods extends long after they’re gone. Which seemingly gets back to what Louise meant about beginnings and endings and days that define your story beyond your life. Hannah’s story doesn’t begin with her birth but with the departure of the heptapods and the beginning of the relationship between Ian and Louise.
We can extend that to Hannah. She arrives. She departs. But Louise’s life is richer for the time she had with Hannah. That encapsulates the theme of the non-zero-sum game. That what we have can’t be measured only in possession.
This differs greatly from the novella the movie’s based on. That’s called “Story of Your Life”. Which is a lot more straightforward in terms of thematic intent.
Important motifs in Arrival
The heptapod’s writing
The written version of the heptapod language could have been anything. The original novella isn’t very specific. You have to imagine Villeneuve made a specific choice in displaying the heptapod writing as circular in nature. Given they perceive time as fluid and Louise’s opening dialogue about no longer believing in beginnings and endings, having the heptapod language resemble a circle that has no beginning and ending is quite appropriate and visually reinforces the film’s main themes.
Removing the hazmat suit, entering the ship
Notice the progression of Louise interacting with Abbott and Costello. At first, she’s in a hazmat suit and on the other side of a glass partition. Communication stalls. So she takes off the hazmat suit. Communication improves! Finally, she enters the elevator pod and goes into the ship, no longer on the other side of the glass. It’s when she’s closest to the heptapods that the communication is the best and she gains true knowledge.
All of that becomes symbolic for what we see happen on the geo-political level. By the end of the movie, they all have their metaphoric hazmat suits off and the partition is gone. And it’s the same for Louise and Ian. They go from being professionally proper, to familiar, to intimate.
Questions & answers about Arrival
Why doesn’t Louise remember talking to Shang? Why is she confused? Is it a paradox or plot hole?
First, most people don’t know what a plot hole is and it’s annoying. A plot hole is something that breaks the defined logic of the film. For example, a movie based in reality can’t have a character be in New York City at 1pm and Los Angeles at 2pm. You can’t travel coast to coast that quickly. It’s a 6 hour flight. So if the plane took off at 1pm, it would land at 7pm ET, which is 4pm PT.
What a plot hole isn’t is just some random unexplained thing. That’s what we call a logic gap (also known as a plot contrivance). In The Dark Knight Rises, how does Bruce get from the overseas prison back to Gotham when he had lost all of his money and left the prison with no valuables? We don’t know! It’s never explained. But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. He could have safehouses throughout the world. He could have a safety system in place where he calls a number and a Batplane comes and gets him. There are perfectly logical explanations that work within the information we have. It’s just the movie doesn’t give us a concrete one.
Just like the whole Lord of the Rings “plot hole” people love to bring up: why couldn’t they just use the giant eagles to throw the ring into Mount Doom? Not a plot hole. At all. Sauron can sense the ring so would know it’s approaching. He has Nazgul who ride on dragons. He has an army of orcs that all have access to bows and arrows. And the eagles aren’t just dumb birds. They are sentient beings. So you’d have to convince them to fly to Mount Doom. Then there’s making sure the ring actually lands in the lava. You’d have the entire army trying to prevent it. Good luck.
An actual plot hole is usually just a continuity error and is often not very meaningful. For example. If a character says they walk to work because it’s close but then we see them taking a train to and from work. In Back to the Future, we’re told the car needs to be going exactly 88 mph to activate the device. If it worked and the car was only going 65 mph, that’s a plot hole.
So in Arrival, people question why at the unity dinner Louise is surprised by General Shang telling her she called him on his private number and changed his mind about attacking the heptapods. To which she says, “Your private number? General, I don’t know your private number.” Shang then shows it to her and says, “Now you know. I do not claim to know how your mind works, but I believe it was important for you to see that.”
This seemingly implies a bootstrap paradox, as in a character only knows to do something in the past because it happened in the future, but it couldn’t happen in the future unless it already happened in the past. For example, there’s no unity dinner unless Louise calls Shang. Meaning that Louise at the unity dinner would have already experienced calling Shang. Plot hole?
We see that Louise is only beginning to access her future memories. And that being present across time means that just like she’s experiencing things strongly in the present that she sometimes, in the future, experiences things in the past quite strongly. The clearest example of this is when she’s with Hannah at the edge of a pond. Hannah’s trying to get her attention but Louise is staring off. It’s because she’s occupying both her past and that present all at once. It’s a moment of simultaneous being.
So some time travel stories are causal, like Looper, where things that happen in the past affect the future. Same for Back to the Future. That’s why characters in those movies can literally start to blink out of existence. But in simultaneous films, everything happens all at once. Tenet is an example of this. Knowing what will happen doesn’t prevent it from happening because it already happened.
Arrival is one of the rare films that kind of does both. Louise having access to her future memories is what allows her to call Shang. That’s causal. But her confusion during her conversation with Shang is because of the simultaneous experience. She does, at various points, drift between whens. Something the movie tries to convey with Shang’s line about “I do not claim to know how your mind works.” So her confusion in the conversation with Shang is simply because of the weird way her mind now works. It seems in those moments where past her “remembers” the future that there’s a tangling of information and awareness.
We see this when Hannah asks Louise about non-zero-sum games but can’t remember the word. Louise doesn’t know what it is either. But then suddenly has a flash to her past (the film’s present) when someone says non-zero-sum game.
There’s this idea that Louise is kind of experiencing everything everywhere all at once. The moments of concurrent processing means she can be both knowledgeable and completely unaware.
Was Shang also experiencing time like Louise? Did he also learn heptapod?
In the scene where he gives Louise his number, Shang’s line readings make it seem like he’s very aware of what’s happening. Like he’s in on what Louise is experiencing because it’s happening to him, too. That’s possible. But it’s been 18 months since the departure day and that phone call. The countries have been sharing information that entire time and presumably all know about how learning heptapod affects perception of time. So Shang could have spent that time learning it how Louise did. But it’s also likely that he put two and two together and realized that for her to call him that he had to give her his number at some point and since that was the first time they met, he should do it then.
If Shang is or isn’t experiencing time like Louise, I don’t think it affects the story much. Nor the themes.
Why does Louise tell the Colonel to ask about the Sanskrit word for war?
The Colonel is obviously in a rush to find someone who can communicate with the aliens. Louise initially fails because she wants to be present. Weber won’t allow it. Louise stands her ground. As he leaves to visit another linguist who might be more cooperative, Louise says: “Before you commit to [Danvers], ask him the Sanskrit word for war and its translation.”
Later, the Colonel shows up in a helicopter to Louise’s house. “Gavisti. He says it means an argument. What do you say it means?” Her response? “A desire for more cows.” That gets her the job.
It demonstrates the levels of nuance. Danvers gave a broad interpretation. Argument. While Louise got to the contextual root of the word. Sanskrit originated sometime Thousands of years ago, in the BCE era. Some think as far back as 1500 BCE. Some say even older. Cows were an incredibly important resource. Something that people would fight over. A desire for more cows would lead to conflict. It’s not just an argument.
That specificity and understanding matters. Especially when the stakes are as high as interacting with an advanced alien species. The Sanskrit episode actually foreshadows the confusion that comes when the heptapods use the word “weapon”. It’s the equivalent of saying “Gavisti” means “argument”. But because everyone is so nervous and scared something bad will happen they don’t take the time to get to the “a desire for more cows” level of understanding. Eventually, Louise understands they mean “tool”
Why was someone leaving on a stretcher when Louise and Ian arrived at the Montana base camp?
Louise asks the Colonel about this. It seems it was someone who was just overwhelmed by everything and had a medical episode. We see how hard the first journey into the shell is for Louise and Ian. They’re breathing heavily. Sweating. Ian throws up after. It’s as physically overwhelming as it is mentally.
Why did they bring the bird into the shell?
It’s the classic canary in a coal mine tactic. Miners would bring canaries in cages because the birds would suffer the effects of poisonous fumes before a person. Meaning as long as you heard the bird, everything was okay. But if the bird stopped singing, you knew you had to leave. Since the humans had no idea how the inside of the ship would be, they brought the bird. It’s because the bird was okay that Louise felt comfortable enough to take her hazmat suit off.
What does kangaroo actually mean? Louise made that story up?
So this is an interesting one.
Louise: In 1770, Captain James Cook’s ship ran aground off the coast of Australia and he led a party into the country and they met the Aboriginal people. One of the sailors pointed at the animals that hop around and put their babies in their pouch and he asked what they were and the Aborigines said “kangaroo.” It wasn’t until later that they learned “kangaroo” means “I don’t understand.” So. I need this so we don’t misinterpret things in there, otherwise this is going to take 10 times as long.
After Weber leaves, Ian says “That’s a good story.” To which Louise says: “Thanks. It’s not true. But it proves my point.”
You might think Louise made the story up. But that’s not true. It’s actually a myth that’s been around for a long time. There’s a really good Quora answer on it. Cook did end up in Australia. A sailor did ask what the animal was. An Aboriginal person responded “kangaroo.” It’s just that another explorer ended up in Australia, also asked an Aboriginal person what the animal was, but was told a completely different word. That led to the “I don’t understand” version of the story. When the reality is that different aboriginal tribes had different words for kangaroo.
Where did the 12 heptapod ships land?
Montana, Marcay, Kujalleq, Devon, Kenema, Khartoum, Black Sea, Punjab, Siberia, Indian Ocean, Shanghai, Hokkaido.
Who were Abbott and Costello?
A comedy duo! “Who’s on First?” You’ve heard of that bit? That was them. So it’s comical to refer to these two alien beings as the sketch duo. But “Who’s on First?” is also a great example of language, as the whole premise is based on miscommunication. So funny but also thematically relevant.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about Arrival? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!