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Headscratchers / Arrival

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  • What's up with the Chinese? They get a message which they interpret as "use weapon", and they talk about how "the aliens want to divide us". This ties in with the theory that an American proposed earlier, namely that the heptapods want humanity to engage in a Battle Royale of some kind, and the last nation standing gets some sort of prize. The Chinese are either on board with this plan, or else they're not. If they're on board, they ought to cut off communications and launch a surprise attack on all the other nations (or at least the nations they don't like), in hopes of getting a head start in the Battle Royale. If they're not on board with this plan, they should keep in touch with all the other nations and send a message of solidarity, so we can stand together against the alien menace that plans to divide us. But for some reason, the Chinese response is all over the place. They threaten to blow up the aliens, but they also cut communications with the other nations. If you're planning to blow up the aliens, why cut ties with other countries? Wouldn't you want to coordinate with the other countries, so you can all shoot the aliens at the same time and hopefully kill them all in the first volley?
    • Even the "cut communications" part is contradictory; they cut the video chats between their scientists and ours, but they still send statements to the international media. Why exactly do they want to stop talking to the other scientists? Upon getting the message of "offer weapon", an American proposes that they keep this message secret in case bringing it up somehow triggers a war. Fair enough, I can see why you would keep that secret. But the Chinese go right ahead and tell the whole world that they received a message of "use weapon", so apparently they're not concerned about revealing this information. So why do they cut the video feed that lets their scientists talk to ours? What information were they trying to conceal, when apparently they don't intend to conceal anything?
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    • And why are the Chinese in such a rush to blow up the aliens, anyway? The aliens just said "use weapon"; they didn't actually shoot anyone. They didn't say "We will kill you all next week", in which case the Chinese might want to strike first as a precaution. If the Chinese are interpreting "use weapon" as "we want all the earthling nations to fight each other", and if China doesn't want to do to that, you'd figure that they'd just...refuse to do that. There's no need to attack the heptapods immediately, and there's no telling what sort of retaliation they might provoke.
    • It's because uncertainty breeds fear, and when you're in fear, you don't make rational decisions. China was essentially pulling the equivalent of a kneejerk reaction because they were always operating under the assumption that the aliens were here to invade and when the word "weapon" popped up in their translation it created a confirmation bias which sent them into full alert mode.
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    • They were convinced from the start that this was an invasion, and just looking for an excuse to begin retaliation. By acting first, China proves itself to have been superior to other Earth nations in first seeing through the aliens' deception and becomes a world leader in similar situations in the future.
  • Why did those American soldiers decide to bomb the heptapods? There was some reference that they had been "watching too much TV", and I guess earlier we saw one of those guys talking to his wife on the phone and she's concerned about the looting that's been going on. But seriously, how the hell is bombing the aliens going to stop the looting? Especially when your whole plan is going to kill one shell at best and there are 11 other shells that can presumably retaliate afterwards. And the aliens haven't even attacked anyone yet, so it's hard to see why they're perceived as a threat. Oh, and these soldiers are totally willing to let Louise and Ian get killed, instead of actually trying to keep them out of the heptapod shell. Do they just hate Louise and Ian for some reason?
    • The line is referring not to the rioting, but all the 'aliens are here to invade us' fear mongering that was also on TV.
      • That still doesn't address the fact that these trained soldiers came up with an incredibly irrational plan ("Let's blow up one shell and just hope that the other shells won't retaliate!"), and they did this in cold blood (it wasn't a split-second decision or anything), and they managed to pull it off in what is presumably one of the most secure spots on the planet right now, where there ought to be lots of other soldiers or supervisors around who would be able to intervene.
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    • It makes at little, and possibly less, sense when applied to whatever happened at one of the Russian sites—Halpern (the CIA Man) claims the Russian team found a secret so valuable they'd "execute" a scientist to keep it concealed. A scientist who somehow had access to long range communications when he was "executed", as oppose to detained or interrogated (which would actually make sense considering he must've been a valuable scientist in the first place). Unless Halpern's deliberately misleading (which is possible), it's far more likely what happened at the Russian site was thanks to a few lone actors (who might actually attempt to stop a radio broadcast with gunfire), or they just shot a radio set (marginally more believable) in lieu of switching it off.
    • Scientists = smart, rational, sensible, sane; ordinary soldiers = grunts, uneducated, unthinking morons. It's the classic sci-fi dynamic where the intellectuals are the pacifistic good guys and the military are the problem, with these soldiers being young and stupid and watching bad media thrown in for good measure. Basically, they were that dumb.
      • The escort team is probably not going to be idiots, and the fact that they managed to smuggle a bomb out to the site indicates that they're pretty clever. The problem isn't that they weren't thinking, or that they were idiots. The problem is that they were thinking too much, and confirmation bias crept in once they had the slightest excuse.
    • It is probably the least plausible aspect of the film, given how tight a control military operations keep on explosives and weapons.
  • Why did the heptapods come to Earth? They spent the whole movie on that question, and I still don't know the answer. They say they want to help humanity, and that humanity will repay the favor in three thousand years. That's all well and good, but how are they helping humanity? They basically show up on earth and create an international crisis, and then they help Louise to solve the crisis...which they themselves created. Not especially helpful, when you think about it.
    • Quite possible Because The Script Says So. Literally. If you know the future, and they do to some extent, then decision making stops being an issue and you're basically following an instruction list of things you were always going to do. This presumably is the same reason they didn't use the same cheat used in the film to instantly learn and use the human languages. The 'script'/history they were following says contact happened in such and such a way, and they went with it.
      • One way to interpret it is that the Heptapods had no interest in learning our language, and their only objective was to teach theirs, and that is why they do not use the 'cheat'.
    • When Louise meets with the Chinese guy in person, they are attending a "unification" ceremony. Apparently, working together to deal with the heptapods has somehow inspired...I don't know, world peace or something? Maybe that was what the heptapods had always planned on. They give us world peace (somehow), and then we help them out later.
      • This is exactly it. The heptapods needed a unified humanity so we could (using their non-linear language) develop much faster into a species capable of helping them in 3000 years. They even call it out early in the film when Halpern says "We're a world with no single leader. It's impossible to deal with just one of us.". Humanity is so divided that it makes dealing with problems more complicated, lengthy and maybe even impossible.
    • There's a reason why they landed in 12 different countries with each ship only giving 1/12 of their language. They wanted to encourage humanity to work together, which presumably plays into the events that will happen in 3000 years time. There's also the implication that they gave humanity enough data to essentially uplift them.
    • They gave humanity "Weapon", the "Weapon" being their language which allow humanity to perceive time in a non-linear fashion. Through Louise, they are teaching the language to the whole of humanity - we see Louise learning their language from a book that she will write and publish in the future, and we can assume that all human beings will learn the language in the next few hundred years. The language allow a lightning fast development of human society since it allows anyone to use the knowledge gained in the future, right NOW - they still have to go through the motion of discovering that knowledge, but they can utilise it immediately. Very soon, probably way before the 3000 years are up, humanity will be just as advanced as the Heptapods.
      • The gift was more than language — it was knowledge, a huge data dump of information. The language was a necessary prerequisite to understand the gift, but it wasn't all of it. So in the end, Ian and Louise were both right.
  • Near the end, it's revealed that the heptapods are signalling "one of twelve". Louise figures that this means the various nations are supposed to cooperate somehow, and once China agrees to stand down there's a newscaster who says something about how the nations are working together to "solve this puzzle". So...what exactly did the nations do together? Did they simply need to "work together" in the effort of not blowing up the aliens? Or was there some additional task that we didn't get to see, one in which the scientists all had to work together in order to get something done?
    • It isn't determined. The 1/12th of the message they were given was going to "take years" to understand. However, it also contained more references to time than anything else and the information that it was only a twelfth in order to convey the heptapod understanding of time and the need for Earth's people to work together on it. What it contained isn't necessarily important to the film's context, and could be anything from Ian's guess that it's FTL equations to even being all of the heptapod's technology. Whatever it is, it will ensure that humanity helps the heptapods in three thousand years.
      • It took 18 months, as Louise had published her book on the language and was hosting a historic international seminar on the language.
  • So the security at the Montana site can detect an outgoing satphone call, but can't monitor or regulate people's personal web traffic? If they can monitor peoples web traffic, shouldn't the fact that CPT Marks was visiting a site that advocated a preemptive attack against the aliens have raised a few red flags, and probably resulted in him being removed from the site and having his security clearance revoked?
    • It could have been his actual job to monitor such programs. He just took it to more heart than he should have.
      • Except that wasn't his job, his job was to escort Louise and Ian onto the ship and assist them when needed in communicating with the aliens.
      • Louise and Ian do other work when they aren't visiting the aliens. Presumably their escorts do as well.
    • Maybe the call was flagged specifically because it was going to China. Marks probably knew how to get around the filtering.
  • Even if it was later discovered that it was Louise's call to General Shang that led him to order his forces to stand down, Louise still (as far as anyone knew at the time) committed an act of treason. Why then was she not detained and escorted off the site in handcuffs, along with Ian for helping her?
    • Simply put, it wasn't treason. She was repeating the General's dying wife's words back to him. There was no information given that the General didn't already know, aside from Louise somehow knowing this personal thing.
    • Well, in time everyone would figure out that Louise's phone call saved the world, and naturally that would earn her a pardon or whatever. But in the short run? Yeah, that phone call looked very suspicious. You'd think they'd lock her up for a couple days while they launched an investigation or something.
      • Play back the tape of the call, have someone in the CIA translate it. That would take a few hours.
  • With the Heptapods' ability to perceive time spherically and perform Gravity Screw at will, why did they not perceive the bomb was a bomb sooner and act to remove it?
    • It's possible that they knew it was a bomb all along, but Louise showed up at exactly the wrong time and didn't understand when they tried to warn her about it. That forced them to sacrifice one of their own to make sure Louise got their full message before everything was locked down. Still didn't explain why they allowed Captain Marks on board to plant the bomb in the first place.
    • Possibly they end up with a similar view to Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen - they've already seen it happen and therefore allow it to happen even though it hasn't actually happened yet. As a culture/species, they don't believe you can fight fate.
    • Considering their ability to see the future, they might have considered it a necessary evil in order to impart Louise with the knowledge they wanted her to have.
      • Just because you have the knowledge of future events doesn't mean you can change them. Louise understood that, which is why she still goes through the motions and has her daughter, even knowing the terrible fate that awaits her. Similarly, both Abbott and Costelly knew what was going to happen with the bomb, but they accepted that things had to go that way.
  • Why did the heptapods build such a small window when they're over twice its height? In Louise's final conversation with Costello, the camera cuts to a vaguely head-like structure on the top of his/her/its body, which was way too high to be able to see out the window.
    • Presumably, concealing their height was meant to avoid intimidating the comparatively smaller humans. In the short story, the heptapods had two mouths: one at their bottom (for feeding, and positioned similarly to a squid or octopus's mouth) and one at the top (for creating sound and communicating verbally). Assuming that they follow a similar evolutionary logic to terrestrial animals, their eyes would probably be located around their mid-section (closer to their feeding mouth and tentacles/grasping appendages) rather than at the top near their speaking mouth.
    • The whole set-up is the Heptapod idea of hospitality. They provided a small window so they don't intimidate the humans quite as much, and they even "walk" on the ground in the same orientation as the humans to appear more inviting, when they show later that they can swim around in their environment just fine.
  • If the Heptapods experience time non-linearly, why didn't they already come to Earth speaking one or more of our languages and/or come to Earth with some kind of alien Duolingo/Rosetta Stone/Language Textbook? Heck, why even come to Earth at all when you can just use FTL communications to email us the necessary documents to learn their language? Considering we have people on Earth learning Dothraki, Sindarin and Klingon, I think the novelty of first contact would be enough to get people to learn it.
    • Same reason many real-life foreign language teachers refuse to speak the native language in their classrooms even if they can. Immersion is the best way to teach a foreign language. We don't know why they need humans to save them in 3000 years but it is important that we speak their language, not just that they speak ours. If the Heptapods revealed they could speak human languages, it would lessen our incentive to learn their language. We would start asking about medical technology, FTL travel, etc. rather than learning what they want us to learn.
      • The problem is that the heptapods had to teach the humans how to read the language in a certain time frame as well. Louise was still operating in a linear time frame, spanning from her first contact with the heptapods, to the bomb going off in the ship. Immersion is probably a big factor, but also the aliens already knowing the language not only have hindered the learning process, but also set off alarm bells with the authorities, prompting a defensive action.
    • The film doesn't really tell or show us much about the Heptapod biology beyond having 7 legs and being roughly 15-20 feet tall. In the one scene that shows a full body shot of a Heptapod, there doesn't seem to be a clearly visible face (with eyes, mouth, etc.) anywhere. In the same way that a dog can understand human speech (to a limited extent of recognizing key words such as its own name or specific commands from its owner) but can't speak it due to having less developed vocal cords, it's entirely possible that the Heptapods can't speak human language due to lacking the right kind of vocal cords (or something equivalent) to do so.
    • Even though they can't speak it, the Heptapods understand spoken English just fine. When Louise visits the other side of the window she speaks English to Costello and it responds to her questions in Heptapod writing. No whiteboard needed.
  • Why didn't Louise prevent her daughter from getting cancer? We know that she can use her knowledge of the future to intervene in the present, as she does with General Shang. The random cell mutation that caused cancer in her daughter required a specific set of circumstances at the molecular level – it's very bad luck. If she simply waited an extra 24 hours to conceive her daughter, those circumstances would never combine in the same way. Yes, the film tells us that the future is 'set', but how would this differ from the General Shang situation?
    • You're assuming that Louise has any agency to influence her future. Take General Shang. She sees the vision of him telling her what she told him - and then she tells him in the present because that's how it always happened. Maybe Louise does do something that she thinks might prevent Hannah from getting sick - but the girl ends up getting sick anyway because that's how it always happens. Louise can see the future, but how do we know if she can change it or not?
    • It's likely waiting a day would "prevent" the cancer by causing said daughter to never be born and a different child to take its place. Whether or not that is a "more beneficial" decision gets into really murky questions about the value of equal human lives.
      • But it wouldn't be Hannah in that case. Louise is making the choice to allow Hannah to exist and make her contributions to Louise's life and the world even though she knows Hannah will not live beyond early adolescence. The only alternative is to prevent Hannah from ever existing at all. And Louise loves Hannah. As she is.
    • Nobody said it was cancer. There are plenty of other incurable diseases, unfortunately. Even cancer itself can be cured if discovered early enough - and since Louise had as much head-start as she could possibly have, it is safe to rule cancer out.
    • In the opening we see Hannah with very short hair in a hospital gown at one point, and when she dies she's bald. So it could be cancer. There's also a shot in between the one of her with short hair where it's longer - so that suggests Hannah could have been sick for years and gone in and out of remission before dying.
    • Ultimately, the question of 'why didn't she prevent it/not have Hannah' misses a very crucial point of Louise not just 'remembering' the future but experiencing it. When you're talking about a person that doesn't (yet) exist or some other hypothetical person, it is indeed very easy to say "Well.. just don't do that". However, from Louise's growing perspective, Hannah is NOT someone that 'might' be born - from her perspective, Hannah is, for all intents and purposes, already born. Louise has memories and emotions about Hannah. Hannah IS real. The decision for Louise would not be 'should I prevent my unborn child from dying of cancer' but 'Should I kill my child that is, functionally, alive to me.' And that is a highly unlikely choice for a parent to make. A easier but similar construct can be seen as thus: if you had a pill that would make you infinitely happy (or at least, orders happier than you are now), you'd probably want to take it. But if taking that pill would result in you hating - or even killing - something you currently cherish and love immensely (like your spouse, your children, your pet, your career), most probably wouldn't want to do it even if the purely pragmatic way of thinking would be to do so.
  • Why is Louise so out of it at the beginning of the film? It's implied that she is reeling from the death of her daughter, but we learn later that that hasn't happened yet.
    • There is mention of a divorce early on, so maybe Louise is depressed from that? Or it might be because she's just lonely. She has no friends, no boyfriend, and her students don't even show up to her lectures. So her life might just be empty. Note that the movie leads us to believe that Louise was happy, then she lost Hannah and now she's still grieving for her. But what actually happens is that Louise becomes that happy person because Ian and Hannah give her life meaning. She's out of it simply because she's lonely.
    • The start of the film is chronologically a later event after the death of her daughter and the divorce of her husband.
    • Louise is having visions of a daughter she doesn't know growing up and then dying of some rare disease even before the aliens arrive. Wouldn't you be confused and possibly depressed?
  • More of a meta-question: Why is everyone calling the disease "cancer"? Louise says it's an "extremely rare disease" that's "unstoppable." Could be a cancer, sure, but could be any number of other things, too. Her daughter's baldness implies chemotherapy, but 1) chemo is used to treat other things as well, and 2) the baldness may result from something other than chemo.
    • Filmmakers tend to go with the obvious choice. If you see a girl sick and with no hair, that usually means she's got cancer. It could be something else, but we don't need to know the specifics. We just know that Hannah dies of an incurable disease.
  • When Weber first comes for Louise, she tells him to ask the other candidate the Sanskrit word for war and its translation. It turns out that guy said it meant "argument," while Louise says it means, "a desire for more cattle." This is an Establishing Character Moment for her and nicely encapsulates the theme of the film, but what about it convinced an Army colonel—who knows so little about linguistics that he doesn't understand why Louise can't "translate" five seconds of a completely new language from an audio recording—that she was the right choice? He also makes that decision before even hearing Louise's answer.
    • Perhaps superficially because Louise's answer is more hopeful - and it gives them the impression that she will look past the obvious and get them the real meaning.
  • Okay, elephant in the living room, but Sapir-Whorf does not work that way. How in the absolute hell did learning the aliens' language rewire Louise's brain and give her Mental Time Travel superpowers? The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that your worldview and the way you approach problems are informed by the language you speak; the use of it in Arrival is not only inaccurate to the hypothesis, but also completely the fuck nonsensical.
    • And not only that - the alien language will retroactively give you visions of the future! Obviously, this is the one impossible premise of the movie (okay, maybe the other impossible premise is aliens landing on the Earth in the first place), and the rest of the plot is based on "what would happen if this impossible thing took place"? (The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is mentioned just as an analogy and shouldn't be taken literally.)
    • The implication is that our linear perception of time is a matter of our worldview and the way we approach problems, and that a change of perspective is all that's required to view time otherwise.
    • Those of us who are bilingual can attest to the fact when you switch between languages, your thought processes literally change. Yes, the language you speak can change the way you think.
    • It’s an alien language. There’s nothing in the movie to imply that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (AKA linguistic relativity) is true of human languages. Not to mention the weak version of the hypothesis is still held by some modern linguists. Louise starts to explain it but is interrupted. Actually a little Genius Bonus since Whorf’s most extensive argument for linguistic relativity was based on the Hopi Tribe’s conceptualization of time, that their view of time was circular, not linear, (his claims were largely false). Also, since Louise is actually dreaming at the time, it could be a sign her subconscious is figuring out what is happening.
  • The Stable Time Loop of Louise speaking to General Shang is a bit problematic (as they all are). In her vision of the future, Louise seems quite surprised that General Shang is approaching her at the reception and doesn't seem to know what he is going to tell her. But...18 months ago, in the present, she received a vision of this incident. So why does she appear surprised in her vision? Shouldn't she be saying to herself "ah, here is the conversation where Gen. Shang gives me his wife's dying words and his private phone number. I better listen up so my past self can make the phone call that saves the world"? In other words, when she gets to the actual reception, there's no way she should be surprised. So the vision seems to be of events that can't possibly happen in that way.
    • For the same reason that Shang had to speak to her in the first place. While Louise is capable of remembering things before they happen, information must enter the loop at some point - the alternative is a paradox. The reception was not only the point Shang gave her the vital information, it was also the point where Louise realized that Shang had to give her that information, which her past self "then" remembered. She had to be surprised at that point, because that is "when" that information was introduced to her non-linear mind. That's also why she breaks down in tears when the doctor confirms Hanna's illness; while she remembers that event before, and presumably after, it occurred, that was when she was "first" informed about it. It would seem that non-linear perception does not allow you to know everything that happens at any given point in your life; it simply lets you remember things out of order.
    • So for the intervening 18 months, was Louise able to tell everyone who asked the phrase she told Shang that saved the world? Or did she forget it just right before the reception, when she received the information and had to be surprised, as per the vision? Does Louise's memory of important events come and go, depending on whether she has reached the point in time where she received information she had already received in visions?
      • Sure, why wouldn't she? As for "Well why couldn't she have contacted Shang earlier or whatever?". Well, her contacting him sooner wouldn't ultimately change anything - the cause and the purpose of the meeting don't matter, only that she had it. And even if she didn't try to reach out but simply passed the phrase around, there's any number of ways it could shake out (some of which get very timey wimey) but the most simple would simply be that for anyone else, the words don't actually mean anything so there's no reason for them to keep using the phrase. Even if she further tells people something and it indirectly gets back to Shang, think about the chain of connection that would imply - it would imply that a close contact to Shang tells him these words, which, from his perspective, is perfectly sensible because a close co-worker or friend would probably already be aware of the meaning. Either way, again, it really doesn't matter how or when that information gets connected, whether one's vision of the future is 100% accurate or only 99% accurate, only that the information itself is communicated to another individual. Which is a subset of the entire plot device itself.
    • I don't think her reaction to Hannah's illness works the same way. I would break into tears if my daughter was diagnosed with a fatal illness, even if I fully expected that diagnosis.
    • Maybe he learned the Heptapod's language during those 18 months? As Louise said, anyone who really learns the language can see the time as they do. For his knowing look, I had the feeling that he knew exactly what was going on and also makes the whole exchange less random.
  • So the heptapods talk by "writing" with ink. Do their bodies constantly produce this substance? Do they run out of this ink and are unable to "talk" until their bodies make more?
    • The writing IS writing, the Heptapods do have a spoken language. While this is not made clear in the movie (we do hear them doing vocalizations, though), in the book they do make a point that they actually have two unrelated languages, one spoken and one written.

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