Arrival is brought to us by director Denis Villeneuve, who made movies like Enemy, Prisoners and SIcario. So you can tell that there is going to be a lot of non-linear storytelling. The movie stars Amy Adams in the lead role. Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are seen in supporting roles. The story is about the arrival of aliens. While the trailer gives the impression of a movie similar to The Day the Earth Stood Still, it is nothing like that. The story deals primarily with why the alien crafts have arrived and what they want. If you go in expecting an action film, you will be disappointed. True to Villeneuve’s style, this film is great and makes your mind work a little to get it. Do watch it. Here’s the explanation of the plot and ending of the film Arrival.
As always, I’m going to lay down the story linearly. While the non-linear storytelling is fantastic, explaining the plot is always easier done linearly. Spoilers ahead!
The punchline in the movie or the revelation in the climax is that the scenes where Louise Banks (Amy) is shown with her daughter, is not the past. Those are her visions of her own future. Yes, they are. You can hear Louise narrating this as a recollection. She is recollecting the events of the “arrival”. I’ll get to how she has these visions later on. Let’s cut to where she’s a teacher in the university.
The Beginning – The Arrival
Dr. Louise is a single teacher who is a linguistic expert. At this point, she is neither married nor has a daughter. She is known to have helped the US Army once before in deciphering a Farsi text. One day when Louise is teaching, 12 alien ships arrive and position themselves around the world. She goes back home, where she stays by herself, and dozes off following the news channel. At this point the director wants us to think that Louise has lost a daughter to cancer and currently lives alone. But that isn’t the case. She’s just single.
Government orders a nationwide shutdown and as a result the university is closed. Louise goes to an empty college and follows the news there. US Army Colonel – Weber (Forest) appears there seeking help from Louise. They have a recording of the sounds of the alien. He needs her to help understand what they are trying to say. She tells him that she needs to be at the site to help understand the conversation. Weber gets permissions and comes over to her place in a chopper to pick her up. In the chopper, she meets Ian Donnelly (Jeremy), who is a physicist. He has been picked to understand other aspects of the “arrival”.
Entering The Spaceship
They reach the alien craft and enter it from an opening below. The gravity in the craft is altered and is perpendicular to that of the Earth. This has no significance except to let us know that the aliens are quite clearly an advanced civilization. The team goes wearing radiation suits. On Louise’s first trip onboard, she’s unable to say anything as she’s dumbstruck by the sight of the 7-legged aliens. They later begin to call the aliens heptapods.
Communication – Abbott and Costello
On her second trip into the craft, Louise takes with her a small white board to help write what she is trying to say to the aliens. She first writes the word “Human” on the board to tell them what they are. The pods perceive the written English to be a form of communication and respond with a circular symbol. This shows that they have written text. Of course, they use some ubercool space ink to write stuff.
On their next trip, Louise decides to take off her radiation suit so that the aliens can see her face. She now writes “Louise” on the board and points to herself. Ian takes off his suit too. She writes “Ian” on another board and he points to himself. The two aliens respond with two different symbols. They have names too. For the sake of convenience they name the heptapods Abbott and Costello.
They go through a series of back and forth communication with the aliens over a period of time that appears to be about a month. The objective is to ask them – “What is the purpose of your visit to Earth?”. Language and communication is complex, especially with some advanced alien species, hence the process is long. Humans are obviously paranoid and destructive by nature. China decides to go offensive on the aliens and stop all their communications with other countries of the world. Other nations follow suit. Eventually every country stops communicating with one another and start working on their own strategy. The last communication they get from the heptapods is translated to the phrase “use weapon”.
Death of a Heptapod
Hearing this information about “use weapon”, few of the army guys decide (on their own) that they are going to bomb the craft. This group of four army guys jump to a conclusion that the aliens intend to attack. They secretly place a bomb inside the craft. Louise and Ian are persistent and enter the craft because they feel their interpretation of the alien language is wrong. That they don’t intend to attack. When they meet the heptapaods, the aliens throw out a whole list of symbols. Before they can communicate more, the bomb goes off. The aliens throw Ian and Louise out, protecting them from the explosion. One of the heptapods dies.
Rewire the brain. See the future
We need to take a moment to understand what Louise is going through during her interaction with the aliens. Ian mentions a theory about how immersing oneself in a language can rewire the brain. We can see that Louise has been really connecting with the alien language by trying to interpret the nuances of each of the symbols. She’s immersing herself into the alien language and as a result her brain is getting rewired to perceive reality like the aliens. Here’s the catch about the aliens and their language. They don’t see time as linear. Their script is also in congruence with this, unlike ours.
All human scripts start on one side of a page and end on the other. Either side-to-side or top-to-bottom. The alien script always expresses what they want to say within that circular symbol. It’s all in one shot, not one after the other. Immersing oneself in the alien language will rewire the brain to perceive time in a non-linear form. In short, Louise slowly develops the ability to experience her past, present and future all at once. Through her learning process of the alien language, she begins to see visions of her future life. She sees visions of her yet-to-be-born daughter. Visions of how she will call her Hannah. Visions of Hannah falling sick with cancer and dying. The director at this point makes us think that Louise is remembering her past. But she’s actually seeing glimpses of her future.
Use Gift, not Use Weapon
The alien vessel, after the human attack, goes up higher. They lose the ability to enter the craft now. Ian has a breakthrough. He isolates 12 repeating symbols that match with the number of alien crafts. They feel that the aliens are trying to tell them that all 12 countries have to unite their knowledge to understand the reason of their visit. While trying to decipher the last complex message, Louise sees a glimpse of a small transportation module coming out of the main craft. She also sees a vision of her inside the craft. She doesn’t understand the visions but she goes outside. As seen, the transportation module comes down, Louise steps in, and is taken to the craft. Inside the craft, she meets the heptapod. It explains that she has the ability to see the future. It is confirmed that “use weapon” was actually “use gift”.
The Gift Of The Alien Language
The aliens have come to gift their language to the humans. They say that 3000 years later, they will need the human’s help. There is no clarity on the nature of that help that they will need from the humans. But they have identified that gifting the humans with non-linear time vision is important and this will somehow enable the humans to help 3000 years later. To a lot of people this was annoying because the reason of their “arrival” was not stressed upon in detail. I suppose that is not the focus of the movie. The focus lies more upon this moment being a crux in the lives of the human race. This event will lead to the unification of the world to make us a species that will live long and prosper, and to help other intergalactic beings.
War! – One Sided
Because of the preemptive bombing of the craft, the humans are having to brace for a response attack and the base is being evacuated. Louise exits the craft, she’s being escorted out. The rest of the humans are preparing to go to war with the aliens. All the crafts assume a horizontal position. Not sure what the relevance of that is. Perhaps just bracing for impact. They don’t intend to attack the humans, they need the humans to survive.
Vision From The Future
Louise then sees a vision from 18 months into the future. In this vision, all the leaders of the world have gathered together to celebrate peace and their survival over the aliens. The Chinese leader, General Shang, approaches Louise. He tells her that he came to the party only to meet her. That he wants to thank her for the phone call she had made to his private number 18 months ago. Obviously Louise has no clue what he’s talking about. But remember, Louise is now capable of seeing time non-linearly. She is simultaneously seeing her present and her future (at the party). General Shang, at the party 18 months in the future, gives his private number to Louise. He also tells her a line in Mandarin. Shang tells her that these were the words told to him by his dying wife. The Mandarin lines translate to the extent of “there are no winners in a war, only widows”. Shang tells Louise that hearing these lines 18 months ago made him change his mind. Made him decide against his attack on the aliens. In the present, Louise now has access to this information. She steals a satellite phone, dials General Stang on this private number and tells him the Mandarin statement.
To understand what happened here between Shang and Louise, you will need to understand the Predestination paradox and the Bootstrap paradox. A predestination paradox occurs when a time traveller is caught in a loop of events that “predestines” or “predates” him or her to travel back in time. Anything that is created within this causal loop is a result of the Bootstrap paradox. To simplify this, think of it this way – since time is non-linear for Louise, she gets information from her future and uses it in her present. On the other side, Shang is probably also learnt the alien language (over 18 months) and is able to see time non-linearly. 18 months later, he understands the importance of giving his private number and the Mandarin message to Louise so that she can use it in the past to change Shang’s mind.
General Shang Calls It Off
For General Shang, in the present, it is a moment of divine intervention. He’s not yet seeing time non-linearly. He’s just shocked that Louise has reached him on his private number to state what his dying wife told him. He calls off the attack on the aliens and announces that he is willing to share all of China’s data on the aliens with the USA. Following this, all the countries fall in line and become allies again. The purpose of the aliens is now complete. They were able to impart the knowledge of their language to the humans. They all leave.
Ending Explained: The Future With Hannah
After this, it is revealed to the audience that the scenes with Hannah and Louise is a moment from the future and not the past. They also disclose that Ian is Hannah’s father in the future. This simply means that Louise has seen a future where Ian and her fall in love and have a baby. She also knows that her daughter will develop incurable cancer. She understands the pain of all of this. But she still chooses to have Hannah. But what Louise perhaps does is that she keeps that a secret from Ian. By the time Louise does tell Ian about the cancer, it is too late. Hannah is destined to die. When Ian finds out, he’s unable to forgive Louise for having a baby knowing well that she is going to die of cancer at a young age. In one of the visions into the future you hear Louise saying that it was her fault Hannah’s daddy left. Clearly, Ian gets to find out about the impending cancer that is going to plague the girl and he is unable to handle it and separates from Louise. The last scenes of the movie show how Louise accepts the future that lies ahead of her and embraces it.