Science fiction is one of the genres that I hesitantly approach because I tend to either over-analyze the science or look for a profound philosophical message at the end and I almost always end up dissatisfied. Moreover, when it comes to a sci-fi I am always aware of the fictional nature of the movie and thereby lack any sort of intimacy towards the characters or the movie itself. In that particular aspect, ‘Arrival’ is a brilliant exception. It is so incredibly intimate (for a sci-fi) that it manages to distract the audience from being pedantic about the minute details of the science jargon. In any case, it has a quite confusing and an interesting ending that poses a myriad of questions. Let’s dive in and see what happened.
Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Summary of the Plot
The movie opens with what appears to be flashbacks of Louise (Amy Adams) at various stages of her daughter growing up and eventually dying young of cancer. The father of the child is conspicuously absent in the memories. In the present, Louise is a linguistics professor at a university. The story kicks off when twelve extra-terrestrial vehicles show up at different locations across the globe. As an expert linguist who already has security clearance, Louise gets an opportunity to decipher the voices of the extra-terrestrial beings in the vehicle that has appeared in Montana, US. Along with a team including a physicist Ian (Jeremy Renner), she interacts with the two heptapods (seven-limbed beings) in the spacecraft, whom they name Abbott and Costello. While co-operating with all the twelve teams, Louise finally manages to learn the language of the heptapods.
Ever since her first encounter with the heptapods, Louise gets flashbacks of her daughter occasionally. She got familiarized with the heptapod language and even started dreaming in it. As the global tension intensifies, some countries decide to stop working together and take an aggressive turn against the visitors. While the teams are cut-off from one another, Louise and company finally successfully ask heptapods the million dollar question: “What is your purpose on earth?” They casually replied: “Offer weapon”. For obvious reasons, the word weapon spooks everyone. Louise tries to calm everyone down by pointing out how the heptapods might not be able to differentiate between the words ‘tool’ and ‘weapon’ , to no avail. Louise and Ian decides to go for another session with the heptapods to clarify their answer.
Meanwhile, a few rogue soldiers, aggravated by the media and the ‘weapon’ fiasco, plant bombs in the spacecraft while Louise and Ian are inside clearing up their questions. If the heptapods were as dumb as human beings, this could easily have been the Sarajevo incident that instantly led to a destructive inter-species war. Fortunately, they weren’t. They leave an intricate and complicated message at the end and eject Louise and Ian just before the explosion after which the spacecraft goes up higher from above the ground denying the team a chance for further interaction.
The team has a hard time understanding the last message from the heptapods. In the meantime, things gets worse globally when one of the sites gets a message “Use weapon” due to which China decides to attack the spacecraft. Owing to the dire circumstances, the US team decides to evacuate from the area. As a last attempt before evacuation, Louise approaches the spacecraft and a capsule comes out of it for her. The capsule takes her to the spacecraft and she communicates with Costello. She learns that Abbott died/is dying (Costello gives an ambiguous statement: “Abbott is in death process”) because of the explosion. The fact that it wasn’t flashbacks that she has been seeing is revealed to the audience when Louise asks “Who is this girl?” about her daughter in the visions. Costello tells her that she can see future and that the “weapon”/gift opens time. Also, they are here to equip humanity because they require help from mankind in 3000 years.
Once she comes back to the camp, Louise has a vision from the near future (18 months later) when she meets the Chinese General Shang at a function. He tells her about how she managed to change his mind about attacking the heptapods by calling him on his personal phone and telling him his wife’s final words. To a perplexed Louise, he gives his phone number and his wife’s final words. In the present, soon after the vision, Louise uses a satellite phone to contact General Shang and tells him his wife’s last words whose English translation is basically “In war there are no winners, only widows.”
Finally, the general calls off the attack, heptapods leave the planet and the global crisis is averted. Before leaving the camp, Ian declares his love for Louise and we see them together and married in the upcoming scenes from the future. When Ian proposes the idea of conceiving a child, she chooses to go along with it although she already knows that her daughter will die young of cancer and that Ian will eventually leave her for going ahead with the relationship despite her knowledge of their daughter’s fate. So, once you realize that every “flashback” we have seen are, in fact, from the future, the only major question left is why Louise is capable of seeing the future.
How can Louise see the future?
In one of the scenes, Louise and Ian talk about how proficiency in a particular language can affect the way one thinks. That, arguably, is the most significant line from the movie that explains the plot. The heptapods use logograms which are symbols that can represent words or feelings or even whole sentences as opposed to how we use symbols just to represent sounds or words in most of our languages. More importantly, their language has a nonlinear orthographic script which means that their sentences are not written linearly from one end to the other like we do in every language known to mankind.
When the heptapods write their logograms, they do it almost instantly (writes every part of it simultaneously) showing how they know where exactly the “sentence” would end and how much space is required in between words. The circular logograms in their language have no apparent beginning or end and that is exactly how they perceive time as well. Time is circular as far as they are concerned. There is no beginning or end. No past, no present and no future. Just time! So, they are capable of seeing the future (as we know it), which can be attributed to be an effect of the circular nature of their language. So, as Louise learns the heptapod language, she becomes capable of seeing the future and that capability is the gift to the humans that will eventually allow the mankind to help the heptapods in 3000 years. Yes, the language is the weapon!
Arrival Ending, Explained
The biggest revelation of the movie is when you realize that the apparent flashbacks of her daughter we have been seeing throughout the movie are actually flash-forwards or visions from the future. It is also important to note that Louise starts getting these visions only after her first encounter with the heptapods. The flash-forward in the opening scene of the movie is NOT a vision that Louise is having. That was just a narrative tool used by the writer to lead the audience into believing that every upcoming visions are flashbacks. The fact that her daughter’s name Hannah, a palindrome, is also a nod to the general circular theme of the movie.
The philosophical question that the movie puts forth to the audience is this: “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?” Louise didn’t. She marries Ian knowing that their daughter will die of cancer. She knows that he will leave her when he realizes that she knew about their daughter’s untimely demise. From an emotional point of view, it’s such a horrible experience that she has to go through. Losing one’s child alone is one of the most traumatic experiences that anyone has to endure.
On top of that, she will spend every single day of the years with her daughter knowing that the end is near. Even in real life, although nobody knows the exact future, there are times when we are aware of the consequences of our actions and we still end up doing it. It is a very fascinating question that the writer is asking us. Regardless of the philosophical aspects of it, while being extremely relevant by hinting at how nations should work together and while talking about the pointlessness of war, ‘Arrival’ is a thrilling sci-fi experience that provides us the ubiquitous mind-boggling aspects of a time-travel movie all the while being unbelievably intimate.
Read More: Primer, Explained