“Arrival” Explained (MAJOR SPOILERS)

Nov 14, 2016

So you just watched Arrival, and now you’re confused. Have no fear, this article explains everything. You can also skip to the spark notes if you don’t want to read this article.

Ted Chiang is a renowned sci-fi writer with numerous awards under his belt. Unfortunately, he is unknown outside the sci-fi community. When I heard about Chiang and this new movie (which took Eric Heisserer 6 years to script!) I bought his book The Story of Your Life and Others, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Having read the short story that the movie is based off of, I can comfortably explain what is going on.


First let me preface: this is actually what happens. It’s not like Inception where the filmmakers toss the ending in the air and let you argue online amongst yourselves. All the puzzle pieces are there, you just gotta put them together.


So…what’s going on? The first thing you need to understand is what Louise (Amy Adams) eventually learns through the course of the movie. Time is not linear. That’s what the Heptapods are trying to teach humans. Time happens all at once, simultaneously. That’s why in written form, the inky graphic forms a circle. In that circle, all that needs to be said is said all at once. Throughout the film, the scientist are able to crudely pick out elements of the circle in order to communicate.

Louise described the inky graphic as handwriting a sentence with two hands from the outside in. In order to do this you need to already know the exact words and spaces in order to accomplish a sentence. With the circle everything is said in an instant.


This premise applies to time. Events in time are all happening at once, simultaneously. As you are reading this, you are also celebrating your first birthday and you are also being buried at your funeral.

This explanation of time is similar to Alan Moore’s The Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan, is able to perceive time all at once. When he is on Mars, he says he is also at a carnival and also at a superhero gathering.

Tracking? If not, the takeaway is this. Time/events are happening all at once. Because you perceive events in a circular/non-linear way, you are able to see the “future.” Because the future is happening now. This is how Louise is able to call the Chinese general. The general shared with Louise his private cell number and his wife’s dying words at a party 18 months after the aliens left. Presently, when the Chinese were about to attack, Louise in her attuned state of mind, recalled the phone number from the future to call off the general’s attack.

So Louise saved the day, because she understood the “Universal Language” (term later published in her book dedicated to Hannah). Because she understood the Universal Language, she understood time and thus can see the future.

So what the heck was going on with the daughter Hannah? Aha, this is where the movie is playing tricks on you. The scenes with Hannah are not flashbacks. This is the big twist at the end. Remember, time/events happens simultaneously. Same thing applies to the movie scenes. You could argue that they are flash-forwards. On the linear timeline, after the aliens leave, Louise marries Ian (the physicist) and they have Hannah. In the beginning you just assumed Hannah happened before the aliens because the movie starts with Hannah’s story.


Remember, midway through the movie, Louise’s daughter drew a TV show for school. The TV show featured her mommy and daddy talking to animals (The Aliens). Another scene, the daughter asks for help with a science term, Louise replied “I don’t know, you’re father is the scientist.” That scientist being Ian the physicist.

It’s symbolic that Hannah is named Hannah because that word is a palindrome, meaning it can be spelled forward or backwards and still make sense. The same perception applies to events in time.

So we proved that the daughter (who dies) is born after the aliens leave. So what’s with Ian? What’s so sad about this story is that we learn Ian will divorce Louise upon hearing about Hannah’s deathly disease. Midway through the movie, Hannah is standing by Louise asking about her father. Hannah says he looks at her differently. Louise confesses that she told Ian that she knew Hannah was going to die (I’m paraphrasing). She said “I thought he was ready.”

In the present, just as the aliens are leaving Ian confesses his love to Louise. Louise asks Ian if he knew “the whole book beginning to end” would he go through with it. He gave some bullcrap answer (which doesn’t matter) and then hugs Louise. Once he hugs Louise, she recalls how wonderful it is to hold him and decides to go through with the relationship despite her knowing how it will end. In the future, when she tells Ian about his daughter’s inevitable death, he was not “ready” and leaves her. He was likely upset that Louise knew the future and chose to put him through the pain of losing his daughter anyways.

The weapon that the Heptapods were referring to was the ability to perceive time and “the future.” The giant splash page of circles was their way of saying if you piece their puzzle together, you’ll unlock the keys to their language (and time itself). “1/12” is their way of saying that humanity has to work together in order to piece this puzzle together. Doing so creates a more cooperative earth and advances society. The Heptapods share their secrets of time because they know that they’ll need Earth’s help in the future. When humans do master their findings, they’ll be able to scientifically advance their society and help their alien neighbors.


So to recap, here are the spark notes:

  1. Time is non-linear, all encompassing. The past and future are all happening simultaneously.
  2. By understanding the Heptapod language of simultaneous communication (everything is said all at once in the graphic), you will understand time is non-linear.
  3.  Understanding time means that you can see the future because it is already happening.
  4. Louise understood the language and time, and used this ability to stop the Chinese attack on the aliens.
  5. She also saw her relationship with Ian and the eventual birth (and tragic death) of her daughter. She decided to go through with the relationship anyways because the future is inevitable and she loves Ian and Hannah.
  6. Ian divorced her because he was upset that Louise went through with the relationship knowing what she knew, and now he has to see his daughter die.
  7. Because the Heptapods shared their secrets of time, humanity can now unite and evolve. This will allow humans to help the Heptapods in 3,000 years, when Earth is more scientifically advance.

And there you have it. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or reach out to me on Twitter @comicbookboom.

Ted Chiang is a genius and I highly encourage you to read his works. For starters, Stories of Your Life and Others is a good read with a variety of creative premises and thought-provoking stories.

Till next time, which is now and also already happened…