Alright so Arrival is one those movies that I think will stick with people long after they watch it. Dealing in hard science concepts this altered the landscape of alien movies much in the same way that Close Encounters of the Third Kind did. Whereas in the past we’d had films about Aliens attacking Earth and blowing up the White House, here Arrival does things differently to tell a human story about life, love and loss.
Throughout this video we’re gonna be breaking the entire movie, it’s ending and also talking about the hidden details and things you missed in it. Before touching on the movie though I feel we have to talk about the short story that it’s based on.
Titled Story Of Your Life this work by Ted Chiang deals with inevitability set to the backdrop of theoretical physics. Ted went to see the play Time Flies When You’re Alive and this centres around a man having to deal with the notion that his wife is dying of breast cancer. At this point Ted came up with the idea to tell a story about a mother who had a daughter well aware that that daughter was going to die.
Now the short story is roughly 50 pages long and its packed with diagrams of sun beams and how light travels. It’s very complicated and in-depth discussing how predestination works within ideas of free will.
In the story there’s a line that discusses how a ray of light has to know where it will end up at so that it can choose the point in which it fires off from. There’s very much this idea in space travel that you choose the destination and then travel towards it and thus all that’s in between is already pre-determined and unchangeable. This is something that the film deals with too and in it we follow Linguist Dr. Louise Banks as she put in charge of attempting to communicate with aliens known as heptapods.
Who is Louise in Arrival?
When we create languages and sentence structures we often take letters, place them together and these make words which we then combine to form a sentence so that we can get our point across. Thus we move very much in a manner of point a to point b. Where the heptapods differ though is that they don’t really speak in sentences and instead the form the entire idea and concept which is then presented in a circular looking image. Because of this they have completely different ways of viewing reality and they’re able to see all time at once, pulling together both the past and present into one cohesive moment.
Now Louise does this too and throughout the film we get what are seemingly flashbacks of her daughter who died at a very young age. However this is actually revealed to be the future with Louise seeing her daughters untimely death. In the original work she died when she was in her mid twenties during an accident but here they make it even more heart-breaking by having her pass away as a child from cancer.
Ted Chiang has given numerous interviews about the movie in which he’s discussed the big bang, entropy and how time moves in general. There are theories that due to the big bang that everything is already pre-determined because the entire universe set out from this one stationary path and then it all travelled in set directions thus creating set outcomes.
The TV show Devs did a great job of explaining this and they used the example of rolling a pen on a table. They said that if you roll it backwards then that very much represents the past and the journey it has been on. If you roll it forward we know what direction it will go because of where it set out from and thus we can predict the future and determine where it will end up before it does. Applying this to a grand scale means that everything’s path in the future can be predicted because we know where it starts from and thus this cause and effect is all pre-determined.
There’s even ideas in science that we only remember things because of the Big Bang and we are able to think back to prior things because it all originates from points in the past that we’ve experienced. Ideas of Palindromes are laced throughout and even the score of the film features this.
The notes we hear are the same forward and backwards so if you play the music reversed it still sounds the same. Titled On The Nature Of Daylight we can’t play the song in the video for copyright reasons but the entire thing can be found both forwards and backwards.
Even Louise’s first and last words to her daughter are exactly the same, “Come back to me, come back to me,”.
Her daughter’s name is also Hannah and Hannah itself is a palindrome.
Lots of timey wimey wibbly wobbly stuff that I wanna talk more about as we get further in. I hope you’re enjoying the video so far anyway and please hit the thumbs up button if you are.
Now in the short story they do something different to the film and that has Louise actually being able to change the events of the future if she wants to. However she goes against this and still decides to live out the life with her child knowing that it’s doomed to end the way it does. This is different to the movie as I never really got the feeling that she has a choice and instead she is living out the days knowing there’ll be good and bad ones.
Either way I think there’s definitely a lot of beauty in this as she is accepting her life and spending the short time that she has with her daughter because it will bring so much happiness to her. I’ve just had kids myself and I wouldn’t trade the time I’ve had with them for anything else which I think is very much the case with Louise. She knows that life is precious and that just because something is short doesn’t mean that it means nothing. I think this is very much the opposite ideology to her husband Ian who is played by Jeremy Renner.
The pair meet on the mission with the Heptapods and he can’t deal with the fact that she still had a child knowing that they would die one day because of the pain it would cause. I know some people that simply will not get a dog because they’ve already had one that they ended up losing. It’s so heart-breaking and the pain for Ian has him wishing that she was never born in the first place. If it never happened he could have been spared the fate of losing his daughter which is described as being the worst thing that a parent can go through.
He sees it as a loss whereas Louise sees it as a gain even though it was very brief.
Now in the opening of the movie we pan down from the lines in the ceiling of Louise’s home. This is a shot that’s later mirrored at the 52 minute mark when we pan up from the ship floor. When crafting the sets of Arrival, the creative team deliberately put markings in rooms and this can be seen in the classroom and on the ship. When discussing why this was done, Denis Villeneuve stated that he wanted these to all resemble each other and that the three settings could very much dictate the past present and future.
As we pan down we see a giant window and later on in the movie Louise stands in front of this.
The director shot this with the idea that we would also see repeated imagery in this and later on we get a similar shot on the ship. The window itself is meant to mirror the divide between the Heptapods and Louise and even the trees in the background is supposed to be similar to the way the creatures look. However this environment creates some familiarity between her home and the ship and when creating a dialogue between different languages, familiar environments are often used as a way to find common ground.
We cut to Louise holding her child for the first time and this is reflected in the moments in which we also see her in the same hospital holding her for the final time.
Cut to the pair playing out on some grass and Louise moves her fingers to resemble the Heptapods whilst her daughter also has a horse costume on that makes it look like she’s riding one. This was done deliberately as there’s 8 legs in total, reflecting how the creatures themselves carry this too.
Heptapods: what are the aliens in Arrival?
Now the Heptapods themselves are basked in a thick fog and due to us not really being able to see where they come from they do look like hands sticking down through the smoke. It’s almost like they’re connected to arms and a body that we can’t see the face of and I’ve always thought that this was meant to make them act almost like the hands of God. To me they kinda look like the aliens from the Simpsons but we’ll not get into that. Denis Villeneuve also stated he wanted to give them a feeling like the grim reaper which would make humanity fear that they brought death with them.
In the source material they were called Raspberry and Flapper whereas here they’re named Abbot and Costello.
These comedians did the Who’s on first sketch which centred around two people that constantly miscommunicate with each other similar to what we see in the movie. Abbott is later killed and throughout we see him rarely interacting with the humans because of this. However the Heptapods are very much a species based around unity and coming together for the greater good. This is why Abbott doesn’t mind sacrificing himself though he of course worries it. Abbott shows up late just before his death and he was likely preparing himself for it which is why he turned up after Costello. Costello flies away and this is because he has to be there for Louise in order to have conversations with her after this event plays out.
In the movie the military actually state that the pair aren’t communicating with each other and they wouldn’t need to because they already know everything about the past and future. They are very much altogether as one and even their mission is to bring humanity together through a universal language that will make us see life differently. They want us to do this so that in 3000 years they can return and we can help them out and the entire movie is about coming together.
We see Hanna’s life including all the ups and downs.
We also discover when the lump was found and even though Louise knows this it’s still heart-breaking because the moment is upon her.
After Hannah’s death we then see her walking down a circular corridor at the hospital. This was deliberately chosen because the idea that time is cyclical is something that repeats throughout the movie. The language is of course presented using circles and with time no longer being something with a beginning, middle and end it instead loops around.
Now though this shot happens early on in the movie this is actually the last scene in terms of the story if its being told in chronological order.
It’s all sort of looping around which is shown here.
This circular location is later mirrored when Louise meets General Shang. He gives her information that she needs to use in the past and this scene takes place at the Place Des Arts in Montreal which is also circular. Here Louise wears circular spiral earrings tying into this notion. Denis wanted to even make the Heptapods ship circular but they felt it was too on the nose so they elongated it to make it almost like a contact lens. This is actually based on an asteroid as well which is why it has a stone surface.
Even the music itself is based around the circle of fifths and an interval known as the perfect fifth. This is created by placing multiple fifths together that gives you a cyclical melody.
Now Louise looks depressed and lonely when we first see her which I think we’re meant to assume is because of her daughters death. However we learn that she’s ok and is probably just looking down because she just saw Jared posted a video or something.
This is the day that the Heptapods arrived and we learn that 12 showed up on the planet at key locations. In the short story there was 112 but I think…right and I might be reaching but I think they chose 12 for a reason. The movie is obviously dealing with time and clocks have twelve points on them which also form a circle.
Might be reading into that but the school is evacuated and humanity is sent into a panic. Louise quickly rushes out the room leaving the tv on. In a nice bit of continuity she returns the next day and it’s still out in the open because she never had time to close it.
Now the Heptapods were meant to bring us together but it’s actually pushed us apart due to the world being divided. Nations all refuse to speak to each other and I love how this idea of communication or lack thereof is something laced throughout every aspect of the film. Not only do we see it in the heptapods and Louise but we also see it between Louise and Ian when she refuses to tell him about Hannah.
On the news we see a report for Montana and the reporter says this: “first contact”
Might be a reach but this was the site of First Contact in Stark Trek First Contact.
Now the ships never touch down on Earth and this was done for a specific reason by the director. He acknowledged some might find it weird that they travelled trillions of lightyears but never landed however they wanted humanity to make the final step themselves. This is why they float in the air and we very much have to go to them.
The military come in with Colonel GT Webber played by Forrest Whittaker. Due to working on insurgents in the war in middle east she still has top level clearance and he needs her because she’s the best of the best.
He plays a tape of someone talking back and forth with the Heptapods and later on we see a body being wheeled out when she makes it to the base.
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer was also working on Bird Box at the time and huge shoutouts to Now Playing Podcast for saying that he may have used ideas from that. In it the planet is swarmed by things that overwhelm the human mind so much that people just can’t comprehend looking at them which may be something that is too mirrored in how he dies with the Heptapods.
So judging by that he likely had the same dreams that we see Louise having when she starts to understand the language.
He’d see his own death, know it was approaching and thus in turn it would likely lead to his own death.
Scientists have discovered have learning a new one literally rewires the brain to think certain ways and with the heptapods one it allows Louise to see her entire life. It goes from being linear to non linear so things like the past, present and future no longer exist.
If you’ve seen Watchmen then you basically become like Doctor Manhattan which means that Louise can see her daughter again but it would have to be in the past which is why she says come back to me.
However in the moment of her death it’s still extremely heart-breaking and there comes with this the grief that Hannah can’t experience time like she can so she is truly gone.
It’s said that once you dream in another language that you start to truly understand it and the movie is littered with longer, more thoroughly detailed visions of Hannah as Louise begins to understand it more.
Eric also stated that originally the Aliens were going to give us the blueprints for an interstellar ship but after seeing Christopher Nolan’s movie he decided to change things up.
Also a breakdown of Interstellar on the channel right now.
He later shows up and says that he said the word meant an argument whereas Banks says that it actually means a desire for more cows.
This is a throwaway line but it actually has a lot of importance later on. The word Tool gets miscommunicated and thus people think the Heptapods are talking about weapons. One could view war as an argument whilst another could view it as a desire for more cows and thus language is very dependent on context and intent.
Russia almost start a war because humanity gets a word that could be interpreted as weapon.
This is later expanded to say “there is no time, use weapon”
This is taken as a threat but the word weapon and context is the key thing here.
They are saying there is no time because they do not view time as a thing due to the way they view it. They are attempting to pass on this knowledge to humanity and the use weapon actually means use the tool of language that we are trying to teach.
Also interesting to see Russia and China making allegiances on the TV, movie was kinda of ahead of its time or maybe history just repeats itself and we’re all just going through the motions.
Anyway Webber picks Louis up in a helicopter which is where she meets her future husband for the first time. Again there’s this idea of miscommunication as she doesn’t have headphones on when he first speaks and thus she can’t hear him.
He disagrees with this and says that science is the cornerstone of civilisation. However the entire headphone thing that happened moments before completely disproves this. Language is what he tried to use to speak to Louise first and then science was brought in through the technology in the headphones.
Now they approach the ship and I absolutely love this shot with the clouds rolling in. The CGI in this fil is astounding especially for the $50 million that it had and nothing feels wrong or out of place. Instead it all crafts this world in order to give us the idea that something like this could happen tomorrow.
The look of the movie was inspired by the work of Martine Hoveland Inglanov. This is dark and dreary and Denis stated he wanted the whole movie to feel like a damp Tuesday morning bus ride…which…yeah now you say it mate.
How language is used in Arrival
Normally in films dealing with aliens the movie skips over language and just lets everyone understand everyone. This is normally done through a universal translator or in cases like Star Wars, character like Han already speak Huttese so he can understand Jabba.
This movie really makes you think about how difficult it would actually be to try and start up a dialogue with an alien that had completely different terms of reference to what we do.
Language is a massive barrier and we’ve even seen in our own history how miscommunication has led to death and war. We watch as the English speaking countries like Australia don’t mind sharing information but the ones where English isn’t predominant do.
They suit up and head to the ship and we can see how clunky they are when Louise exits the tent. Now the ship has lower gravity to our earth and when they’re on it all of the Hazmat suits are CGI. This was done so that the actors could act like they were in a lower gravity environment without the restriction of movement that they’d provide.
They touch the bottom of the ship which is made out of stone and to me this has been chosen for a specific reason. The phrase written in stone of course means that something can’t be changed and whereas Metal can be welded, this structure gives the idea that everything is unchangeable.
They travel up into it and in a nice bit of detail we can see the wrist devices moving from portrait to landscape mode as the gravity re-orientates around them so that they can walk on the walls…or floors.
They place a bird on the ground and this was a practice carried out by coal miners which led to the phrase a Canary in a Coalmine. Dangerous gases like carbon monoxide would kill the canary quite quickly and thus this would let miners know that they had to leave the area immediately.
They end up going back and as Donnelly takes off his suit we can see it almost forming a yin and yang symbol. Yin and Yang is of course a circle that has circles within it but it’s also about balance. This is a theme throughout the movie with everything trying to act in harmony. At the hour 37 mark we see Louise unpacking her book in the future and this also has a black and white circle on the cover similar to a yin and yang symbol.
Huge shoutouts to makeshift quilt on reddit for spotting that and from here we watch Louise obsessing over the language.
The world starts to destabilise with looting beginning to happen across the country. Religious groups say that their arrival has ushered in the prophecy of the end of the world.
Again gonna take it back to this idea of miscommunication and because the government aren’t being transparent, people can run wild with their theory times.
If they’d just speak to people they’d quell the paranoia but instead they don’t which causes people to live in feat and lash out. This is something that is of course reflected in the movie later on with the word weapon causing a rogue faction of humans to attack the ship.
This also happened in Contact as well which I think that this movie has taken a lot of inspiration from.
Using a White board Louise tells them the word human and they create their own response on their own whiteboard.
However Webber is worried that this might not be helping and Louise tells him the story of James Cook and when he went to Australia. They pointed at an animal to ask what it was and the Aboriginals said Kangaroo. It was only later they learned this meant ‘I don’t know’ and this idea of misunderstanding is of course reflected in the term weapon.
Now it’s a great story but….as Louise says It’s made up. It was in the short story and I view it’s inclusion to show how language can be used to manipulate people.
Webber says we all know what happened to the Aboriginals and it’s clear that the story actually might push him into the corner to fear what’s happening.
Now in case you don’t there could very much be a hidden invasion going on in this film.
That takes us into theory time theory time theory time theory time.
So Reddit, bloody reddit, I seen on there from Ephermalize that this might actually be an alien invasion hidden under our nose.
When we look at our own history there have been several times where Britain has entered a country, propped up their language and religion and they’ve then become the ruling power. This is very much what the heptapods are doing and they’re showing us a completely new way to think that replaces our own. This would change our language and way of being and I’ve even seen discussions that this could be a metaphor for communism with them making everyone a collective rather than individuals.
I don’t think that’s the intention of the film at all but ey, I do think that that interpretation is worth going over. Anyway shut up, just shut up that’s the end of theory time theory time theory time.
Anyway we learn China is viewing the ships as hostile and that they’ve launched warships. This is led by General Shang who Louise ends up speaking to later on. In the future she learns of what his wife said to him on his death bed and in the past she uses this when calling him in order to get him to listen. This shows how the future has an impact on the past and it’s through this new way of seeing things that she can save us.
Interestingly the three main sides in the movie are all united by death. There’s Abbott and Costello, Louise and Hannah and the General and his wife. Death is something that unites us all and it’s through this that we are able to appreciate life and avoid death at all costs.
Louise breaks out the whiteboard to break down what question they pose and she’s very much using this as a concept to explain to Webber much like how she does to the Aliens. I love this repetition of every side having breakdowns in language and it adds so much depth to the movie.
Louise ends up taking the suit off and risking the atmosphere in order to speak to the aliens directly and this furthers the communication. After doing this she has her first vision of Hannah showing how immersing yourself in a language can get you to think differently. Later on Louise steps into a vessel that takes her behind the glass in the ship.
This exposes her directly to the heptapods atmosphere and there is a throwaway line in the movie about radiation levels. She coughs upon entering and it’s probably not a safe environment for a human to be in,
When looking over theories for the film I’ve seen some that state this could end up being what causes the cancer in her child but it’s something Louise has to do in order to bridge the gap between the two species.
We see a soldier on the phone speaking to his partner who’s panicking that the aliens are going to kill them. He says things like ‘you don’t need to worry’ but this isn’t enough and it demonstrates the panic that currently exists. Again there’s this breakdown in communication which causes peoples minds to wander. He himself also isn’t being told anything and later on we see several news reports and YouTube videos grifting that sent out misinformation in order to get people angry. Look…we’ve all lived through the last two years and I think the movie is clearly pointing out that in times of not knowing that there will be those that see opportunity to build and audience and thus money.
This later inspires the soldier to attack the ship showing how people that do this cause real world consequences by spreading ignorance and fear. The movie doesn’t pick sides though and instead it says that both the mainstream media and independent ones can be used to stoke division…which is why you should subscribe to the Kevin spoilers show.
Arrival Ending Explained
Obviously this is because they already know everything and therefore don’t need to learn anything from us.
We then get a shot of the 12 locations where they’ve shown up. The last one of this is Hokkaido which could be another reference to Contact.
In that we discovered there was a secret launch site after the first one was destroyed which allowed humanity to continue it’s journey into the stars.
We see that code is used to decipher the language and this is real world programme called Wolfram Mathematica. It allows for machine learning and complex symbols to be created which studies the language. The movie has been changed slightly so that it can perform what’s being shown on screen in order to create a dialogue and these parts were actually written by Christopher Wolfram who is the code creators son.
Their language is a palindrome and its the same forward as it is backwards. They know the entire concept and idea that they want to present and how much space it needs to occupy and thus they’re able to show it to us.
We then get a flash of Hannah discussing her parents and she’s done a drawing of them talking to animals.
This is the first clue that she’s in the future with the animals of course representing the aliens. We later see this picture in full with it having the canary in a cage and the animals being made out of play do to resemble the heptapods.
She then has a vision of a Heptapods standing in the corner of a room. Might be a reach but this reminded me a lot of the spider shot that’s in Villeneuve’s film Enemy.
We discover that a game is being used to converse with the Heptapods in the places that are beginning to view them as enemies. Games are of course competitive and thus they creative divides and both winners and losers. The heptapods are about coming together but games are the opposite to this and thus this is why these sites end up escalating their feelings to attack.
Louise and Ian end up heading onboard the ship but the explosive has already been planted. Abbot has to remain behind so that he can force the pair out and thus he sacrifices himself for the greater good. Louise and Ian are saved. In his final moments Abbot leaves behind thousands of spirals and this is everything that they know or ever will know in order for us to decipher it. This will take years but it’s enough to ensure that humanity will live for another 3000 years without destroying itself.
The ships ascend further into the sky and China escalate their threats to say that if the aliens don’t leave with 24 hours that they’ll be fired upon. Communication between nations is ceased and it seems like we’re doomed.
We get another flashforward of Hannah who asks her mother to explain what a win is using science terms.
Ian is obviously a scientist hinting at the reveal later on.
Now he’s studied the message and measured it and it divides perfectly into one twelfth. All of the ships have their own messages that will come together but humanity has to work as a whole in order to unlock it all.
She says that in order to get everyone to work together that the US should give up their knowledge first which Ian says is a none zero sum game.
This ties back to the win win science term scene and Louise uses this term in the future to tell Hannah the correct phrase.
This was of course told to her by Ian who is Hannah’s father showing how he was the one who could describe it using scientific phrasing.
The aliens send out their own vessel which Louise goes into. This is her finally seeing the creatures and the smoke itself was also it’s own form of miscommunication as we couldn’t fully see them, creating barriers between the two sides. Here Louise questions who Hannah is and she finally learns the truth.
She’s dropped back on Earth and we get another flash of Hannah
We get another flash of Hannah who asks about her father and we learn that Louise told him about her death. Ian views her as making the wrong choice and to him he’d rather avoid pain at all cost. The ships then change position and the countries start to mount their military.
We get flashes of Louise’s book in which she has understood the language and we see her teaching this in the future.
Louise is told by Webber that it’s over and that they’re lifting off in five minutes.
Finally she realises what she has to do and in the future we see her at a gala with a heptapods flag hanging up alongside the other nations. This is a black and white circle again tying into this notion of Yin and Yang. There are no shades of grey because everything is clear and all is known instead of there being different interpretations.
She speaks with General Shang who tells her that she reached out to him on his private number. Louise doesn’t what he’s talking about but he shows her his phone and then confirms that she called him which she then goes and does in the past. He tells her the last words his wife said to him which he kept to himself.
Again timey…wimey…you know by now.
This de-escalates everything and the ships seem to vanish into thin air which the humans can’t understand. However these are fourth dimensional beings that don’t perceive time in the way that we do. Because of this they can travel back and forth between what we’re unable to perceive. Therefore they don’t really disappear they just move through time and are no longer in the position that we were where we can see them. For example if you leave a football outside for a month, it was in that position for a month, however if you move it in the next month it’s now gone from there.
The person you were that month prior wouldn’t have been able to perceive this movement though because it hasn’t happened yet from the way we see time.
It does change position eventually though and if viewed in a non linear fashion we can understand where it eventually went to.
Humanity shares its information and this saves us all.
WE once more get a repeat of the start of the movie with us panning down from the ceiling of Louise’s home.
She pours out a wine glass and in the shot at the start of the movie we could see two, one for her and one for Ian.
She says that the day the ships left was the day Hannah’s story began and we see a blossoming romance between her and Ian back in Montana.
She walks to the window and we can catch Ian out on the grass. Louise ends up knocking on the glass to communicate with him and this is also something that the Heptapods did to her on the ship.
Louise embraces the good and bad. Like the ray of light that knows where it wants to go it knows what it has to go through to get there and the end of the journey. She accepts her life for all that it is and decides to embrace it instead of fearing the losses. Ian says that it wasn’t meeting the heptapods that meant the most to him and it was instead meeting Louise. Perhaps one day he might see why she did what she did and though she knows the future will be painful she wants to go through with it.
She hugs him in both the past and present and says that she forgot how good it felt to be held by her. You can see the pain on her face knowing about what she’s going to go through and Ian asks her at her home if shew wants to make a baby.
It’s going to tear her heart out having to lose Hannah but she still wants to do it.
And the movie ends with her saying Yes.
If that doesn’t have you tearing up I dunno what will and that closes out both the movie and our breakdown.
Now I’d of course love to hear your thoughts on it and if there’s anything we missed then make sure you comment below and let me know.
Huge thank you for all your support on these older movie breakdowns and if you want another one to watch then make sure you check out our one for Shutter Island. There’s so many layers to the film and we go through them all bit by bit to talk about why it works so well.
That will be linked on screen right now and with that out the way, I’ve been Paul, you’ve been the best and I’ll see you next time. Take care, Peace.
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