Brow Beat

All Your Questions About the Mindbending Plot of Arrival, Answered

Arrival, explained.

Jan Thijs/Paramount Pictures

Denis Villeneuve’s new sci-fi drama, Arrival, which was released on Friday, has—to put it mildly—a pretty complicated plot. Aliens “speak” by spewing intricate circular ink blots out of their tentacles. A linguist singlehandedly thwarts a world war by time-traveling. So here are answers to some of the most pressing questions we had after watching Arrival.

Louise learns the aliens’ language, and then suddenly she realizes she can see the future.


How exactly does Louise gain the ability to experience time differently?

The aliens communicate using logograms, symbols that can stand for a word, an entire sentence, or feeling. Because the aliens themselves don’t experience linear time, their logograms can put words in any order without changing the meaning of the message. (This is called non-linear orthography.)

Production designer Patrice Vermette designed the logograms to be circular, representing how way the aliens think about time cyclically instead of in a straight line. As Louise learns the language, she also begins gradually experiencing visions of her future, a sign that she too is beginning to experience time differently.

Can learning a new language really “rewire your brain”?

Er, not like this. The movie’s premise revolves around a theory of linguistic relativity called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which proposes that the language we speak reflects or shapes (depending on who you ask) the way we think. The hypothesis, which comes from the work of early 20th-century American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, is already widely disputed in the world of linguistics, but the way the movie uses it is pure science fiction. Betty Birner, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Northern Illinois University, told Slate that while the language you grow up speaking can influence your worldview, learning a new language definitely won’t suddenly radically alter your perception of time: “It would be like learning Swahili and saying, ‘I completely see how the speakers of Swahili view plant life now.’ ”

So when Louise is talking to General Shang (Tzi Ma) at that fancy party, she’s basically time traveling?

It might be more accurate to say that she’s seeing the future, but essentially, yes. At the end of the movie, when China is on the verge of launching an attack, Louise is able to “remember” a conversation she has in the future, in which General Shang offers his private phone number at a fancy party and tells her his wife’s dying words. Louise then persuades Shang to call off his attack in the “present” by telling him what his wife’s dying words were and thus proving to him that the aliens’ language has taught her how to time-travel.

Speaking of which, what were Shang’s wife’s last words? That whole conversation is in Mandarin, but there are no subtitles.

In war there are no winners, only widows.

Wouldn’t this time-travel scenario create some kind of temporal paradox?

Sure. This particular variety is known as a “bootstrap paradox,” and it can be found in a lot of sci-fi, including Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. The bootstrap paradox creates a nice, closed loop where cause and effect repeat continuously in a circular pattern.

When Louise is interacting with the aliens at the beginning, how does she know she’ll be able to breathe when she takes her suit off on the aliens’ ship?

Because of the canary in the coal mine. The aliens pump enough breathable air into their ship for humans to survive for two hours at a time (that’s why the humans have to wait on the platform beneath the spaceship for a period of time before entering), but the scientists aren’t taking any chances, so they bring a caged bird with them when they’re on board. As long as the bird keeps chirping, they know there’s no risk of poisonous gas or lack of oxygen. If it stops, they’re in trouble. That’s also why Louise glances at the bird before removing her hazmat suit to get a better look at the aliens—a move that is still pretty dangerous.

What’s up with that part when Louise goes into the foggy part of the spaceship by herself, after the explosion? How can she understand the alien without any of her reference materials? Plus, can she even breathe in that part of the ship?

By that point, Louise has been studying the aliens’ language for weeks, immersing herself and even dreaming in it. She has also begun to experience flash forwards to the future, so it’s conceivable that she’s drawing on knowledge of the language that she will have in addition to what she already knows. Plus, she’s the Chosen One, so there may also be also be a little bit of telepathy going on. I’m speculating here.

We don’t know much about the aliens’ atmosphere, except that it’s so different from our own that it takes the aliens 18 hours just for them to reset the human-friendly environment between sessions. But Louise seems to be mostly OK, if a little wheezy, for the brief amount of time that she’s in there.

If the aliens can see the future, then wouldn’t they know that some rogue members of the American military were trying to blow up their ship? Why didn’t they save themselves?

The aliens seem to be aware, considering how quickly Costello flees the scene. But the other alien, Abbott, nobly sticks around long enough to deliver his part of the message that the aliens came to deliver in the first place. Later we learn from Costello that his injuries were fatal (“Abbott is death process”), meaning he sacrificed himself for the cause while still managing to save Ian and Louise.

Wait, why are the aliens here, again? Surely they didn’t come all the way to Earth just to give humans the gift of their language?

They sure did. Costello tells Louise that in 3,000 years, the aliens will need humans’ help with some unspecified crisis, which is why they visited Earth in the first place, to teach humans Heptapod B. More intriguingly, we don’t know whether that human aid will stem from knowing the language itself, the time-perception-altering side effects of learning it, or the global unification that results from it.

Why send 12 ships, each with a separate piece of the message? Why not just send one?

To force the humans to cooperate. Plus, 12 is a pretty significant number in a movie about time—many calendar systems break the year up into 12 parts, and the basic units of time are all divisible by 12 (60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, etc).

How did the aliens decide where to send their ships?

There’s a lot of in-movie speculation about that. Ian suggests that the locations might correspond to rates of lightning strikes but also notes that Sheena Easton had a hit single in each spot in the 1980s, so correlation probably does not equal causation in this case (unless the aliens are just really big fans of “Sugar Walls”).

Most likely, the aliens chose different locations around the world to include as wide a variety of human cultures as possible. This meant sending pods to Australia, the Black Sea, China, Denmark, Japan, Pakistan, Siberia, Sierra-Leone, Sudan, the U.K., and Venezuela, in addition to the ship that touches down in rural Montana.

At the end of the movie, Louise says she realizes why her husband left her—or why he will leave her in the future. Why does he leave her?

Because she knew even before they became a couple that their daughter would eventually die of an unnamed disease. When Ian asks if Louise wants to make a baby, she agrees, despite the knowledge that she and Ian will both outlive their kid. Years later, Louise finally tells Ian that their daughter is going to die, and he isn’t ready to hear it: Louise explains to her daughter that the girl’s father left because he thinks she “made the wrong choice.”

Why do they call the aliens Abbott and Costello, anyway?

In Ted Chiang’s original short story, the aliens are called Flapper and Raspberry, but the movie takes its alien-naming approach a little more seriously. Like his real-life counterpart, the alien Abbott (who often appears on the left) is actually a little taller and skinnier than Costello. Costello is also, appropriately, the chattier of the two.

The names fit nicely with the movie’s themes of miscommunication and linguistic ambiguity—it’s really all just a big, interplanetary rendition of “Who’s on First?