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Film / Arrival

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"I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn't work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by its order. I remember moments in the middle, and this was the end. 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."
Opening Monologue from Louise Banks

Arrival is a 2016 science fiction drama film directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer, based on the short story "Story of Your Life" by author Ted Chiang. The film stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker.

In the film's prologue, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Adams) is caring for her daughter Hannah, who dies during adolescence from cancer. While Louise is at work lecturing, twelve mysterious extraterrestrial craft appear in various locations across the world. U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Whitaker) recruits her and physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) to figure out how to communicate with the aliens and ask why they have come to Earth.

They discover the ship is inhabited by two cephalopod-like "heptapods" (named after their seven limbs), who communicate by forming ink into complex circular symbols. As Louise and the heptapods slowly learn each other's languages, a geopolitical drama plays out in the background as competing governments attempt to discover the aliens' purpose.

The film was released on November 11, 2016 in IMAX. Its trailer can be seen here.

Not to be confused with 1996 sci-fi film The Arrival, or with Shaun Tan's graphic novel The Arrival.

Arrival provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Details on the other ships that landed on Earth are included, antagonism against the aliens among some members of the American and Chinese military are introduced, and the reasons for the aliens' arrival and the events after their departure are expanded.
  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: Why do the Heptapods have problems with basic math, but not the complex equations? In the short story it's physics instead of mathematics. Where humans use principles based on differentiation (which makes sense from a human perspective), Heptapods instead use analogical principles with integration (natural for Heptapods but obscure for most humans), e.g. "the principle of least time".
  • Adaptation Name Change:
    • The physicist working with Louise is named Gary Donnelly in the original story. His name was changed to Ian for the film.
    • The two heptapods were dubbed "Flapper" and "Raspberry" in Story of Your Life, but are instead nicknamed "Abbott" and "Costello" here.
  • Alien Geometries: The heptapods ships defy several laws of physics, and have gravity relative to their width despite their orientation.
  • America Saves the Day: While China and Russia are ready to launch an attack, American linguist Louise Banks is able to learn the aliens' true mission, and in doing so discovers a language that will unite the world. Still, this is a downplayed example, as there are no overt patriotic messages in the movie, and the US government and military have largely acceded to China's demand to attack.
  • Apocalypse Anarchy: Downplayed. The news report about increased violence and looting in the wake of the alien invasion. After the national guards failed to reinstate the order, the president declares a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
  • Arc Symbol: Circles.
  • Arc Words: "Come back to me." Said first by Louise to newborn Hannah, later at her deathbed and taking on a whole new meaning when we learn that Louise is perceiving it all as a Stable Time Loop.
  • Artificial Gravity: The heptapod ships have gravity relative to the width of the ship, which is a bit disorienting for the humans since they essentially have to enter the ship sideways then land on their feet.
  • Artistic License – Linguistics: The Sanskrit word for war is not "gavishti" (the word Louise is referencing when she talks to Colonel Weber, which is more of a "battle"). It's "yuddha".
  • Artistic License – Military: General Shang was referred to by a newscaster as "the chairman of the People's Liberation Army". In reality, there is no such role, with the real-life title instead being the chairman of the Central Military Commission, who, by convention, is simultaneously the President of the PRC and the General Secretary of the CCP.
  • Baldness Means Sickness: Louise's daughter Hannah is briefly shown with a bald head as she dies of cancer.
  • Because Destiny Says So: Played with. The Heptapods, and later, Louise after learning their language, can seem fatalistic from a human perspective, but there are suggestions that they accept it happily. Louise for her part seems to value the experiences she has even if her fate is predetermined, treasuring moments with Ian and Hannah when she has them.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: The alien ships appear on Earth at twelve random sites and do nothing but attempt to communicate with the humans they encounter. It even seems that they're deliberately affecting the atmosphere in their ships to accommodate the humans. Still, the worlds' governments must remain suspicious of the aliens for fear of human extinction, and a few of the aliens' more ambiguous statements give a lot of credence to the idea that they are attempting to divide humanity before an attempt at war. It turns out the aliens arrived to help humans see beyond time, as repayment for saving the aliens in the future.
  • Big Good: The Heptapods.
  • Big Honking Traffic Jam: Early on there is a traffic jam in the university's parkade with lots of honking cars because everyone is on edge after the news of the arriving aliens was broadcasted.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Although there are no subtitles during the scene, General Shang speaks in Chinese and says, "War does not make winners, only widows." These were his wife's Last Words, and what Louise uses to convince him not to attack the aliens.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Louise is able to stop China from firing on the alien ship, the ships all leave peacefully, and presumably the nations of Earth will work together with all the information they learned to create FTL travel. And Louise and Ian will get married and have a girl. However, Louise also knows now that in the future, Ian will leave Louise once she tells him something she knew from the start of their relationship: that their child will get inoperable cancer and die in her teenage years. Chronologically, the last we see of Louise is her walking away from the room where her daughter dies. However, at the present time, she seems at peace with this.
  • Book Ends: The movie opens and closes with the same shot panning down from the ceiling of the lakehouse with Max Richter's "On The Nature of Daylight" playing on the soundtrack. This can be seen as a temporal palindrome and echoes Louise's ability to perceive memories in a non-linear way.
  • Canary in a Coal Mine: When the hazmatted scientists enter the alien craft, they bring along a bird in a cage just to see if "the air is clean".
  • Casting Gag: Forest Whitaker had played a civilian 'expert' with a specialist skill (he was an 'empath') who was recruited to assist with the first contact of an alien species in Species. Here, he plays a military officer who 'recruits' civilian experts with specialist skills to assist with the first contact of an alien species.
  • Central Theme:
    • Circles or circular logic, pertaining to the cyclical nature of life and death, and the heptapods' language as well as their entire perception of reality and time.
    • Communication as well. All the problems in the film are caused by miscommunication, both between the humans and the aliens, and between the different human nations trying to deal with the aliens.
    • Palindromes, too. In fact, Jóhann Jóhannsson's score contains musical palindromes which would be Foreshadowing only for those with an ear for music!
    • See Language Equals Thought.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: One of the soldiers accompanying Louise and Ian to the shell is seen later on the phone trying to calm down his nearly hysterical wife, who's convinced he's going to be killed by the aliens. Later he is shown listening to an Alex Jones-esque right-wing talk radio host demanding a preemptive strike on the aliens. He and some like-minded soldiers eventually set a C-4 charge in the ship trying to destroy it, mortally wounding "Abbott" in the process.
  • Close on Title: The movie title only appears at the start of the end credits.
  • Conveniently Precise Translation: Played for drama. Weber is initially frustrated at Louise's slow progress until she spells out just how hard "Why did you come to Earth?" can be to translate, at which point he backs off. Everyone is spooked when the heptapods respond to this question with "offer weapon", even though Louise points out that what the humans think is "weapon" could also be something more like "tool". She's ultimately right, as it should've been "gift".
  • Creepy Good: The heptapods. The very first time we see them is a genuinely unnerving scene and their intentions are unclear for much of the film, but it turns out that they're trying to save humanity from itself because they'll need humanity's help 3000 years in the future.
  • Cunning Linguist: Louise is the foremost expert on linguistics in the USA, and it's the reason she's invited into the research team. She eventually becomes the only one to crack the heptapods' language enough to truly understand their motivations for arriving on Earth.
  • Cut Phone Lines: China shuts off communications and other nations quickly follow suit. Louise has to steal a satellite phone from the CIA man to illicitly call General Shang on his private number, which she only knows because of a Stable Time Loop.
  • Daydream Surprise: Louise is apparently having a discussion with Ian about whether the aliens are affecting her dreams. Then we see an alien and realize she actually is dreaming.
  • Deadly Euphemism: Though one due to language rather than deliberate ambiguity. Louise asks where the other heptapod is, only to be told the alien was mortally wounded in the explosion and dying.
    "Costello": "Abbott is death process."
  • Death of a Child: It is shown in the beginning of the film that Louise loses her daughter to cancer. Or rather, she will lose her daughter to cancer.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: Louise's daughter died in a climbing accident in the original story; in the film, she dies of cancer. The change was made to streamline Louise's choice — to accept Hannah's life, knowing that it means also accepting her death — and avoid watering it down with distracting questions like, "Okay, but what if Louise has Hannah but just tells her not to go climbing that day?"
  • Double-Meaning Title: The title refers to the physical arrival of the Heptapods on Earth, but it also alludes to their unique perception of time: once you can perceive all of time simultaneously — but can't change its direction — you can only wait for the predetermined future to arrive.
  • Downer Beginning: Louise's daughter is shown dying in one the opening scene.
  • Drone of Dread: Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson recorded layers and layers of piano drones at different speeds and slowed them down to achieve the drone sound heard in the movie.
  • Dub Name Change: In the Italian edition of the movie, Abbott and Costello are called Tom and Jerry and the band who had success in The '80s in each of the ships' landing sites is Pink Floyd instead of Sheena Easton: these changes were made because both Abbott and Costello and Sheena Easton are not well-known icons in Italian culture.
  • E = MC Hammer: There is a big whiteboard filled with complex equations at the army camp. It helps to establish Ian as a top mathematician.
  • Enhance Button: The army video-record the session between Louise and the aliens. Later the footage is analyzed and we see Louise make incredible zoom-ins.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Ian argues that Louise's claim in her book that language is the cornerstone of civilization is wrong (he instead says that science is). Still, the conversation only comes up because he happens to be reading a book she wrote when they meet on the helicopter, implying that he's open-minded or at least interested in fields of study outside of his specialty.
  • "Eureka!" Moment:
    • Ian when he realizes that the aliens shared exactly one-twelfth of their language with him and Louise, meaning that they need to put together the messages from all ships.
    • Invoked by Louise Flash Forward-remembering a discussion with her daughter about "a non zero sum game" in which all players don't lose.
  • Facial Dialogue: Captain Marks' thought processes are shown through this as he makes the decision to attack the aliens and recruits the escort team to his cause.
  • Fat and Skinny: The two aliens aboard the shell. The one who appears on the left (from the scientists' and the viewers' perspective) is slightly taller and skinnier than the one on the right. This leads to their nicknames, Abbott and Costello.
  • Faux Fluency: The climax revolves around Amy Adams’s character having to say a phrase in Mandarin. She doesn’t speak Mandarin and had to learn the phrase phonetically. She tried for two weeks to memorize it (Mandarin is notoriously hard for native English speakers) but inevitably taped index cards with the pronunciations on the wall of the room. At best her pronunciation is What the Hell Is That Accent?, at worst it’s unintelligible gibberish.
  • First-Contact Math: The humans try to communicate using prime numbers, Fibonacci numbers and linear algebra, but don't have any luck. When they transmit multivariate calculus — the math of three-dimensional shapes — this leads to an immediate "Eureka!" Moment from the Heptopods.
  • Flashback B-Plot: The film aternates between Louise's memories of her daughter and the present-day story of translating the alien language, though the flashbacks aren't specifically chronologically ordered.
  • Flash Forward: All of the scenes of Louise and her daughter.
  • Foregone Conclusion: In-Universe, from the aliens' perspective. They knew that First Contact will succeed, somehow. They may even know which one of them will die.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Early in the film, Ian reads a quote from Louise's book: "It is the glue that holds a people together, and it is the first weapon drawn in a conflict. Without language, we are nothing." The quote makes the analogy of language as a weapon. The alien's cryptic message "Use weapon" refers to their language.
    • After the heptapods are first contacted, Ian narrates some information about their language, and makes an analogy about writing a sentence from each end with both hands. Later, Louise is given some of the heptapods' writing smoke, but she is unable to write a circle using both hands. One of the heptapods helps her complete the circle.
    • The circular nature of the heptapods' writing can be read as foreshadowing both the Stable Time Loop nature of the plot and their nonlinear perception of reality.
    • In one of the flashbacks, Louise's daughter asks her for help recalling a particular science term, and Louise tells her that she should go to her father for help with science problems, indicating that her father is a scientist. Her father is Ian. This is an early hint that the supposed flashback is actually a flash forward. Louise also doesn't seem able to answer her daughter's question until after she hears Ian use the term in the present, hinting that Louise has already begun to perceive time as non-linear.
    • Hannah also has a clay Heptopod on her desk that she made herself, which should be impossible had she died before the Heptopods arrived.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Sharp eyes will notice that the computer translations of Abbott's response to Louise regarding "the weapon" includes words "donate", "humanity", "gift" and so on.
  • Futureshadowing:
    • In a weird way, what we were led to believe were Louise's memories are actually visions of the future, which makes every scene of her and her daughter this.
    • In a more specific example: Louise says that her ex-husband is a scientist. Of course, it's Ian.
    • The set design itself.
      "You can see elements of the horizontal ship chamber where Louise communicates with aliens reflected in her house and in the classroom," production designer Patrice Vermette told Vanity Fair. "For Louise, the idea of the chamber was pre-conveyed in her world." Villeneuve also told the set designers to incorporate circularity into their designs whenever they could "without making it obvious," Vermette said.
  • General Ripper: General Shang, leader of the Chinese military's effort to communicate with the heptapods. He very nearly causes World War III due to his suspicions of the aliens, but it's downplayed in that Louise is eventually able to get him to see reason.
  • Go Through Me: Ian stands in front of Louise and thus prevents the soldiers from shooting her while she is making her call to the Chinese president.
  • Gravity Screw: Once the humans go inside the alien ship, gravity turns sideways.
  • Hard on Soft Science: Ian, a physicist, says that the cornerstone of civilization isn't language, as proposed by Louise, but science. When she's proven to be right, he wastes no time begrudging her for it.
  • Hard-Work Montage: (Also a Training Montage.) Most of the effort that Louise, Ian, Abbott and Costello go through to learn each others' languages is summarized by a montage with narration from Ian.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: "Abbott" stays a little too long giving the message to Louise and Ian, and saves them just as the explosion is about to occur. It is mortally wounded in the explosion, revealed later by "Costello" ("Abbott is death process"). Furthermore, because of the heptapods' non-linear perception of time, it's highly likely that Abbott knew all along that it was going to die on Earth, but embarked on the mission anyway.
  • Hollywood Law: A news report soon after the arrival of the ships states that the federal government has put a temporary hold on all new gun permits. Firearm permits are not handled at the federal level and most states do not require a permit for firearm purchases. The federal government could theoretically halt the NICS system, which would prevent firearm sellers from completing legally required background checks (but would not stop private transfers), however in many states a valid concealed weapons permit allows a buyer to skip the background check. However, since the country is under martial law, those state-level laws are superseded.
  • Humans Are Special: The Heptapods want to save humanity now because they know that the humans will in turn save them 3000 years from now.
  • Imported Alien Phlebotinum: "Offer weapon" — this Wham Line from the heptapods suggested that they came to offer us advanced weaponry. However, it turns out that using the aliens' non-linear language would induce a non-linear perception of time in the practitioner. This is their gift to humanity, meant to bootstrap our technological level so that in return we will be able to save the heptapods 3,000 years down the line. A win-win situation.
  • Improperly Paranoid: Almost everybody in the military, really, but the ones who take the cake are the two random soldiers who believe Alien Invasion Conspiracy Theorist talk shows and, explicitly against orders (they even shoot it out with other soldiers who try to stop them) sneak a C-4 charge into the alien ship, almost killing Louise and Ian and murdering Abbott.
  • Infodump: After the scene where Louise and Ian are able to establish who they are individually to the Heptapods, we get a montage where Ian in voiceover covers various discoveries about the Heptapods and their language over a period of several months, allowing us to skip to the point where Louise is ordered to ask what exactly the aliens want. It sticks out a bit as it's the only non-diegetic dialogue given by Ian in the entire film.
  • Inscrutable Aliens: They appear without warning in vessels shaped like giant lenses, with no obvious technology inside or outside. They look like giant seven-fingered hands, and have nothing resembling a face. They let humans in at scheduled times, apparently just to tromp around in front of them making incomprehensible noises, sometimes making jagged black circles out of fog.
  • In Space, Everyone Can See Your Face: The environmental suits have lights directed on the wearer's face. For once this would be justified due to the value of the facial expressions to human communication. In the bonus feature documentary, the costume designer mentions that she thought of leaving the faces uncovered to show expressions as an Acceptable Break from Reality in otherwise realistic suits.
  • Internal Homage: The film includes a dream sequence in which Louise looks at something off-camera, and a cut reveals that it's an enormous heptapod that flexes its legs. This is a reference to the much more shocking last scene of Villeneuve's previous film Enemy.
  • Ironic Echo:
    • At the very start of the film, we see Louise joyfully playing with her freshly newborn daughter Hannah, saying "come back to me" as the nurse hands the baby back to her. Not even two minutes later, we've flashed forward to when teenage Hannah is terminally ill thanks to cancer. Louise tearfully says "come back to me" while leaning over Hannah's deathbed.
      • The original story parallels these same events with an entirely different echo. Her daughter dies from a climbing accident (rather than cancer), and Louise identifies the body with "That's her. She's mine." At a different point, she muses that a mother might know her child, even before giving birth, well enough to find her face among thousands. In this context she imagines saying "That's her. She's mine."
  • Jerkass Has a Point: The CIA agent at times comes across as exceedingly difficult, embodying the paranoia Louise has to fight in order to maintain peaceful communication with the Heptopods. She even snaps at one point about why the heck he's even in the room. However, the counter-arguments he brings up are actually very valid, considering what little the characters know, and in the end he's only doing his stress-inducing but necessary job. And whenever Louise's point of view is proven right, he concedes without a second thought.
  • Kuleshov Effect: The film received praise for its mastery of this film technique. We assume that the scenes after we see Hannah die indicate that Louise is sleepwalking through life in a deep depression over her daughter's passing and trying to recover from it. However, our assumption turns out wrong.
  • Language Equals Thought: A major theme. Ian and Louise even discuss this trope by its philosophical name, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, when Ian asks Louise if she's begun dreaming and thinking in the heptapods' language. She is, and her ability to view time non-linearly because of it is what allows her to deescalate the situation in China and know what happens to her daughter before she even conceives her. From the book:
    Usually, Heptapod B affects just my memory: my consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing sliver crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind: there is no real combustion. But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive — during those glimpses — that entire epoch as a simultaneity.
  • Littlest Cancer Patient: Louise' daughter becomes this.
  • The Main Characters Do Everything: The book had many scientists collaborating with Louise; for example, the idea that heptapod writing is not carried out sequentially but teleologically is suggested by a linguist in Massachusets. The film does hint at more collaboration, but the adaptation from book to film basically required the narrative focus be on Louise.
  • Married to the Job: Louise lives alone in a large lakeside house, and turns up for work even though the university has been evacuated. This adds to the false impression that she's buried herself in work after the death of her daughter, when those events are still to come.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • The nicknames for the two heptapods, "Abbott and Costello", could be seen as a nod to the duo's famous "Who's on First?" routine, the central joke of which is based around two characters trying and failing to communicate and understand each other, much as the central conflict of the film comes from the humans misinterpreting the heptapods' attempts at communication as a threat to kill.
    • When Louise's daughter questions the reason for her name, "Hannah", Louise explains that her name is a palindrome, that is, it is spelled the same backwards as it is forward. This reflects the theme of the film in that the story starts as it finishes, due to the story's events existing in a non-linear timeline. The opening few scenes of the film are simultaneously the beginning and the end, as is the case with the order of letters that make up Hannah's name.
    Louise: I used to think this was the beginning of your story.
    Louise: So, Hannah...this is where your story begins.
  • Mental Time Travel: The heptapods' gift to humanity. By studying the alien language, Louise acquired the ability to incarnate into her future self. Knowledge gained during those experiences later help her solve the crisis in the present.
  • More than Just a Teacher: The government selects Louise, a college professor, as the most qualified person to translate the alien language, since she's a linguistics professor.
  • Mother Nature, Father Science: Male theoretical physicist Ian and female linguist Louise. The "Mother" and "Father" part become literal at the end.
  • Never Give the Captain a Straight Answer: When Louise asks one of the other team members what the aliens look like, he answers that she will see soon enough.
  • No Antagonist: The main focus of the film is how Louise is affected by learning the aliens' language and how this connects with her grief for her daughter. Although other characters cause conflict, the paranoia and tension caused by General Shang, Captain Marks, or the aliens themselves are secondary to the focus on Louise's character. The lack of antagonist also plays into the open discussion of non-zero sum games and viewing time non-linearly. Even Hannah's death to cancer is something Louise knew long before she was born, and Louise clearly still valued the experiences and time she got to have with Hannah.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Averted. At all times, the aliens never get out of their ships, only allowing humans to see them through a window. The heavy mist that they're surrounded with also implies that they don't breathe our atmosphere. Played straight when Louise is allowed on their side of the window, and suffers no long-term damage from it.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • An angry right-wing radio host who complains that the government is mishandling the situation, accuses said government of defanging the military and ruining health care, and demands a military show of force to prove America means business. By all appearances, it's a thinly veiled portrayal of either Rush Limbaugh or Alex Jones.
    • Early in the film, when Louise is on the phone to her mother, she tells her not to watch "that network" because the people on it are "idiots," implying that the channel has a long-standing reputation of it. Viewers can fill in Fox News or MSNBC according to taste.
  • No Flow in CGI: Averted, presumably just for the hell of it. Louise enters a zero gravity situation with her hair tied up, only for it to come undone and spend the scene billowing around as it would in actual zero gravity.
  • Non-Linear Character: The heptapods experience time in a spherical manner and learning their language allows others to do so too.
  • Octopoid Aliens: The heptapods are very similar to giant octopus aliens, of course except that they have seven tentacles.
  • Ominous Fog: The very first time we see one of the ships clearly, it's hovering high over the fields as fog rolls off the nearby mountains, creating a very eerie atmosphere. This wasn't a special effect, either, as the fog just happened to be there on the day they shot that scene, and they kept it in because it added so much to the atmosphere. The inside of the ship itself is mostly shrouded in mist (which may be the atmosphere that the heptapods breathe), making the aliens look even creepier as they slowly loom out of it.
  • Opening Monologue: The movie is opened with a few lines about memory and time narrated by Louise.
  • Otherworldly Communication Failure: None of humanity knows why the heptapods have landed on Earth and communication attempts with them to learn why are hampered due to the heptapods Starfish Language. Because of this, most of humanity treats them with caution, at best, and are outwardly hostile (wanting to bomb them out of Earth's orbit) at worst. This reaches its climax about two thirds through the film when humans interpret the alien's "Offer weapon" message as a threat, causing every global power to pull the plug on the language decoding project and prepare for war. Captain Marks, already unnerved by the aliens, sees the message as the last straw and uses some explosives to try to kill them off. The explosion kills one of the aliens and almost kills Louise and Ian. In the end, though, Louise is finally able to fully crack the language and discovers that the heptapods are friendly and are actually here to offer humanity their language as a "tool" (the aliens conflated the words weapon and tool together in their message) they'll need to save the heptapods in the future.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Louise's daughter Hannah dying of cancer at the age of twelve, as seen in the prologue. Then comes The Reveal, which adds another layer of tragedy: Hannah is not born yet. By perceiving time in a circular way due to her knowledge of the heptapods' language, Louise knows that she will outlive her daughter long before she is even conceived.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Explored in several ways as the central theme of the work.
    • The main point of the film is to prevent this from happening. Louise, Ian and their team are recruited to find a way to communicate with the aliens as the world becomes increasingly paranoid of the alien's intention due to the inability for them to actually understand the Starfish Language of the heptapods.
    • The global leaders are unable to properly communicate with each other due to security concerns and general mistrust between each other. Had they better coordinated their resources and cooperated more effectively, they may have come to the correct conclusion about the heptapods (they are friendly and want to offer them the gift of language), sooner. It takes Louise experiencing the future and relaying a cryptic message in her present to the leader of China for them to stand down and not destroy the heptapods.
  • The Power of Language:
    • A literal interpretation as the heptapod language has non-linear communication patterns and those that learn it develop the ability to experience reality non-linearly. This is crucial in the climax of the film in which Louise prevents China (and thus the world) from attacking the heptapods by relaying to him a cryptic message she only figured out by jumping ahead to the future to understand how she saved the day in the past.
    • This is also the major theme of the story in a more symbolic way. The major issue of the story (what are the intentions of the heptapods? why have they come to Earth?) is not solved using coercion or threats or the use of force but through learning the heptapod language to directly communicate with them.
  • Power of Love: Even though the movie plays it off scientifically, Louise is only able to avert an interplanetary war because the Chinese general felt moved by his wife's Last Words and because Louise gets the right visions at the right time, so she can phone him.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The original story focused more on mathematical and linguistic details. The film cut them out in favor of suspense and action scenes. In particular:
    • In the story, the spoken and the written alien languages have been given a similar importance, referred to as Heptapod A and Heptapod B. In the movie, the spoken language is only relevant until Louise decides that there is just no way for her to learn it, much less speak it, and that written language is the better route to follow. Late in the film, Louise talks to an alien ("ABBOTT IS DEATH PROCESS"), so at some point at least the aliens did learn the human language.
    • In the story, Ian played a major role in unraveling the mystery. In the film, he's almost Demoted to Extra.
    • In the story, the aliens view time as a whole and are unable to grasp the concepts of "cause" or "purpose". In the film, they view time spherically, have a clear cause (they will need help in the future) and a purpose (they want to give humans their language, time perception and ultimately, bootstrap our technological level so we can help them in the future, completing the circle).
    • In the story, the memories come to Louise all at once and she cannot change anything with respect to them. In the film, they come in a series of plot-convenient visions and she's able to react accordingly.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • Colonel Weber is a hardass, but respects that they brought on Louise and Ian because they were experts in their field. He does not always go with their requests (though more often than not he does), but he does recognize when they get results. When he questions their actions, he is only wanting to know "why" in Layman's Terms because he has to justify their actions to his superiors. He also never, ever acts without solid logical reasoning behind it, being fully aware what stakes are on the table. A truly rare case of level-headed, calm and collected military guy in a movie, especially one dealing with First Contact.
    • Even General Shang, who had been built up to be the film's Big Bad and was responsible for escalating tensions with the aliens and other Earth nations, is only antagonistic because the aliens China is communicating with are more confrontational than any of the others, which may or may not be a side effect of how the Chinese went about teaching the aliens language. Either way, he's willing to back down once convinced by Louise.
  • Recurring Camera Shot: The first shot is a view of the lake outside Louise's house seen from her porch as she's talking about the beginning and endings of stories regarding her daughter. It's seen a short time later as she is taken by the army to the landing site, the helicopter shown flying out over the lake, as she begins the main story. It's seen a final time at the end by which point the audience knows that her memories of her daughter are actually what will happen rather than what has happened, and the end of the movie's story is actually the beginning of her daughter's story.
  • Rewatch Bonus: Given the themes of circles and non-linearity, almost everything in the opening minutes of the movie has added meaning on a second viewing. As an example, in an early moment of Hannah and Louise playing in the garden, there's a brief moment where Louise bows her head looking suddenly sad; she's reminding herself that her daughter will die eventually, despite this happy time.
  • Riddle for the Ages:
    • It's never explained what exactly the heptapods need humanity's help for 3000 years down the line. We are given no hint to exactly what it is.
    • On that note, why did Hannah scream "I HATE YOU!" at Louise? Was it just another argument, or did Hannah learn of the predetermination of her life? In the short story, this just happens to be a simple argument between them.
  • Scenery Porn: Being a Denis Villeneuve movie, it naturally features quite a bit of this. A standout example, however, is Louise and Ian's arrival at the base camp, with the heptapod ship hovering just above the ground as blankets of mist roll over the mountains and down into the valley.
  • Scientist vs. Soldier: One of the central dilemmas of the film: Louise keeps insisting that it's impossible to figure out what the aliens have come to do unless it's made absolutely, flawlessly clear that both sides can understand each other while everybody in the military and intelligence sectors want the answer right now and jump on any conclusions that make them think they are hostile (two random soldiers in Louise's camp try to pull an Independence Day with a sneaked bundle of C-4 and Louise almost becomes a collateral casualty, and all of the trouble at the climax involving China almost starting an intergalactic war-slash-World War III occurs because the aliens use the term "weapon" when they mean "tool").
  • Sequencing Deception: The scene with Louise raising her daughter only for her to die at twelve years old doesn't actually take place at the beginning chronologically, but represents the heptapod language allowing her to know this will happen in the future.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Ian nicknames the Heptapods Abbott and Costello.
    • Scenes of Louise and Ian running their gloved hands over the surface of the alien ship, and looking through the faceplates of their protective suits in astonishment and wonder, are very similar to shots of Heywood Floyd's encounter with the monolith on the Moon in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
    • The two main characters, if his first and her last names are combined, are Ian and Banks, a likely reference to speculative fiction author Iain M. Banks.
    • The final scene is most likely an homage to James Joyce's Ulysses, which also ends with a woman having a flashback to the day that she agreed to marry her husband. Just like in the novel, the last line of the film is "Yes". For bonus points: the central couple in Ulysses also lost a child at a tragically young age.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • The film (and original story) may as well be called Sapir-Whorf: The Movie.
    • Louise's explanation of why they have to teach and learn basic vocabulary first before asking "What is your purpose on Earth?" to the aliens is a great breakdown of the nuances of English linguistics.
  • Sinister Geometry: The aliens' ships look like a slice of orange or watermelon. They're featureless except for a door underneath, and 450 meters tall.note 
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: It's played with, but ultimately the film leans far more on the Idealism side. Even though a war is nearly started because of arrival of the aliens, it seems as if ultimately it did bring differing nations a lot closer together than ever before.
  • Stable Time Loop:
    • Louise learns how to sway General Shang because she already did in the future. It's strongly hinted that he had to close the loop, saying he came to the conference specifically to speak to her, and to show her his phone number and tell her his wife's dying words in Chinese - which she uses in the "present" to dissuade him from launching an attack on the aliens.
    • A minor one earlier in the film: Louise realizes the aliens are playing a non-zero-sum game because her daughter asks her future self what the more scientific term for a "win-win" is.
  • Stacked Characters Poster: The movie poster shows the three major characters stacked into a column where the size of the characters indicates their importance to the plot.
  • Starfish Aliens: The aliens look like giant seven-fingered hands, though they're mostly covered by the mist surrounding them. In actuality, they're much bigger than they appeared at first, but still look mostly like giant arms. There's also the issue of them experiencing time in a spherical manner, instead of our linear fashion. However, Concept art does show they have rather human-like musculature and upper body shape.
  • Starfish Language:
    • The aliens use lines in circles as written language, and their spoken language sounds very different from our own. They also literally can't say the same things they write because writing can factor out time, while speech can't.
    • Louise suggests that the aliens might not understand the difference between a weapon and a tool.note  It turns out that what they meant was "gift".
  • Stress Vomit: Ian is seen vomiting after one of their sessions.
  • Symbolism: After Louise's daughter dies in the prologue, Louise is seen walking down a hallway that is clearly curving into a circle indicating both the films Arc Symbol and the nature of the heptapods', and later her own, abilities.
  • Tag Line: "Why are they here?"
  • Take a Third Option: Near the end of the film, Col. Weber talks about ending the radio silence by physically driving to the individual countries' borders and shouting the information to the guards, and Ian suggests using the communication link between the 12 ships to end the communication blackout. Louise goes with the unmentioned third option of calling the Chinese general's private phone number.
  • Take Me to Your Leader: One of the problems addressed about the unexpected First Contact is that humans don't have a single leader for the aliens to deal with.
  • Take That!: Though it's never mentioned by name, there's a TV news channel in the movie that whips up xenophobia, urges reckless military action, and features a host griping about how the government "ruined our health care." (Ironically enough, all of the news stations operate under Bland-Name Product names, so real-world cable news presumably does not exist in this setting.)
  • Tempting Fate: When Donnelly goes to board the alien spacecraft not knowing that Marks has planted a Time Bomb on board, he says he just needs five minutes to talk to the aliens. Cut to the bomb ticking down from four-and-a-half minutes.
  • Time Bomb: Captain Marks and the escort team plant C4 with a visible timer inside the alien ship. They didn't expect anyone to show up, it's facing off to the side, it looks like another piece of equipment, and it doesn't conspicuously beep or have a flashing red light, so Louise and Ian fail to notice it. The Heptapods do notice, but they can't properly convey the danger to Louise and Ian until it's too late to do anything. Knowing how they perceive time, they had to wait to eject the scientists to ensure events played out as they were supposed to.
  • Touched by Vorlons: Learning the heptapods' language allows one to experience time in a circular way which, among other things, means one can predict the future. It is heavily implied the Heptapods' arrival on Earth was to specifically empower Louise and by the extension humanity with knowledge of their language.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: Louise's memories of her daughter, before her heartbreaking early death. Technically not a flashback, but the troubles still exist.
  • Trust Password: Louise is able to convince General Shang to stand down by calling him on his private phone number and tell him his wife's dying words, two pieces of information she only has because he tells her a year and a half later.
  • Unstuck in Time: Louise — and presumably anyone else who learns the heptapod language — begins experiencing time like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen.
  • Urban Legend: Louise tells the story of the first European explorers in Australia meeting some Aboriginal people and asking the name of the hopping animal, to be told "Kangaroo", which she says meant "I don't understand." Shortly afterward, she acknowledges that the story isn't true (it's a common myth that's been debunked), but says it's still a good story about the dangers of assumption when trying to communicate.
  • War Is Hell: Referenced. General Chang's wife's last words were "War does not make winners, only widows." When Louise Banks learned this from General Chang in the future, she contacted him in the present and with those words convinced him to stand down.
  • Wham Line:
    • Said by Louise addressing the scenes with her and her daughter Hannah.
      "I don't understand. Who is this child?"
    • Said by "Costello" to Louise explaining how she is able to see scenes of the future through understanding the heptapods' language.
      "Louise has weapon."
  • Wham Shot:
    • In one of the Hannah scenes, the little girl is shown happily making clay models of animals including what looks like a heptapod — this is one of the first indicators that the scenes take place after the alien contact, not before.
    • Louise's book is revealed to be fully translated Heptapod language — she opens a copy of the book to the inside cover to reveal one of the circular symbols on it.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The fate of Captain Marks after he goes rogue and plants the bomb in the shell before engaging in a violent Last Stand against the military is never revealed; either he was killed in the shootout or taken captive, though considering the fact that he fired on and possibly killed fellow soldiers, he could very likely have faced capital punishment if he was captured — particularly after the heptapods are revealed to be benevolent, offering gifts and asking for our help.
  • When All You Have Is a Hammer…: Referenced by name. The Chinese research team chose to communicate with terms related to mahjong, a competitive game. Possibly because of this, everything the heptapods say to them carries implications of confrontation that might not have been intended.
  • White-and-Grey Morality: Everyone we see in the movie is trying to do what they think is in Earth's best interests. Even though China begins to become hostile to the aliens and nearly wages war on them, it is because they misunderstood what the aliens were trying to tell them and thought they were trying to turn humanity against each other for their own ends. Once Louise is able to convince the Chinese general that the aliens are peaceful, he has the army stand down.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The heptapods are fairly clearly influenced by the Tralfamadorians from Slaughterhouse-Five, particularly their language and perception of reality both being nonlinear. The Framing Device of Louise's nonlinear perception of reality also mirrors that novel's narrator Billy Pilgrim being Unstuck in Time, although in the latter case there are ambiguous hints that he is not actually experiencing time nonlinearly and is simply suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is not the case for Louise. Third, the antiwar message of both works is fairly difficult to miss, although Arrival isn't as blatant about it. Finally, one can also see parallels between the works' focus on fate, although literary critics have debated Vonnegut's meaning ever since the book was written. One interpretation holds that, while the Tralfamadorians and Pilgrim himself are fatalists, Vonnegut meant the novel as an argument against fatalism. In the same way, people have already provided different interpretations of this film's arguments about fate here on this very wiki.
  • Window Love: A non-romantic version when Louise and one of the aliens touch the window that separates them.
  • Worth It: The strongly implied reason Louise goes on to marry Ian and have a daughter she knows will die young.