The Ending of Arrival Explained
Behind the heavy themes, linguistic theories, and rich narrative elements is a hopeful and timeless ending.
In Denis Villeneuve’s arrival ending, Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) stand in awe as they watch the alien creatures vanish into space, leaving behind their “weapon” for the Earth use it to save the aliens when they need help in 3,000 years.
As they look up at the sky, louise shares a quiet moment with ian and asks if anything in her life would change if she could see her whole life from beginning to end. He responds by saying that he would say how he felt more often before telling Louise that he was more in awe of her than the aliens. the moment is tender as more glimpses of the distant future unfold between their conversation.
This is usually when the viewer realizes that we’ve already seen their story unfold. in fact, we have seen his marriage, the birth of his daughter, and the end marked by death to come before ian knows that he is in love with louise.
the ending is not really a real ending, but another moment in louise’s life that is connected to other moments in the past and future. when we get to the end, we are seeing both the end and the beginning of two stories happening at the same time. The side story that runs parallel to the main story focuses on the life of Louise’s daughter, Hannah. It takes most of the film for the viewer to realize that these two stories exist simultaneously, but Louise understands this because of her ability to accept the alien’s language and the practices that are created around that language. Louise can see and exist in the past, present, and past all at once.
is a bit confusing, so let me explain how we got to the amazing finish of arrival.
on linguistic relativity
Arrival is a complex science fiction drama adapted from the 1998 novel The Story of Your Life by Ted Chian. the film is clever in the way it edits moments from the present and the future into a singular timeline by stitching together small and seemingly insignificant moments. many sci-fi movies try to play with the idea of time and how it is perceived (I’m looking at you, interstellar), but none come close to the success of how arrival plays with the idea of time through the use of sapir. -whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity.
To fully understand what the sapri-whoft hypothesis is, we have to break down linguistic relativity.
In a nutshell, linguistic relativity is the idea that our experiences are shaped by cultural practices, such as language, and how they play a crucial role in how people think about the world and their actions. Our understanding of words and how we use them in our daily lives shapes the world around us. Debates about the effects of language have existed since the dawn of philosophy. Many proponents of the hypothesis that language can determine how you understand the world also argue that language simply influences your perception of the physical world around you.
In the 20th century, Edward Sapir developed a theory surrounding the idea of linguistic determinism, the way one’s language determines that person’s understanding of the world around them.
benjamin whorf, a student of sapir, drew on sapir’s theory to suggest that language shapes the speaker’s perception of the world. To prove his point, Whort compared the language of the indigenous Inuit and Hopi peoples in North America with the common language of European countries. Whorf found that the Uto-Aztecan language of the Hopi uses ordinal numbers (first, second, third) while English speakers use cardinal numbers (one, two, three) to distinguish time. one language does not objectify time while the other claims a kind of dominion or control over it.
The Hopi speaker’s understanding of life is very different from the English speaker’s world; therefore, those who speak Uto-Aztecan have a different perception of reality than the English speaker. linguistic relativism occurs because of how language forces us to think about the world around us.
the arrival only puts parts of the sapir-whorf hypothesis into play. in all honesty, the hypothesis itself is a challenge to test due to the numerous problems that appear. language is altered when translated, many speakers are bilingual and cannot fully accept the effects of language, if any, and language is constantly adapting and changing with its society. the arrival focuses on the general idea of the hypothesis, but only connects the language through the written form.
Although it’s a bit complicated, we can still break down the ending.
The end of Arrival
much of the plot of the arrival focuses on discovering a way to communicate the idea of language and how language shapes our reality. “Heptapods” (the name used by Ian and the military to refer to aliens) use a written language that is drastically different from any form on Earth with each symbol creating a complex thought and sentence structure in a second. the symbol is written in the form of a circle, writing the beginning and the end of the sentence simultaneously.
as louise discovers in a conversation with ian, the written language of the heptapods is based on fermat’s principle (the mathematical law that states that light takes the path that requires the least amount of time). heptapods’ written communication reflects the way they perceive time very differently from us: circular rather than linear. How her perception of time works is never made clear in the film, but we can see how it works through Louise’s interaction and acceptance of language.
Since heptapods’ linguistic relativity allows them to exist at all times in their lives, Louise gains this ability when she masters their language. the movie hints at this idea throughout its runtime and shows us from the start that we’re watching the movie in a non-linear format. We are shown moments of Louise with his family and the future death of his daughter before we are unknowingly transported to a later time when Louise walks into a conference room.
The movie is clever at first to hide little moments like this by weaving in moments from the secondary story through the main story. the viewer realizes that the beginning of the film is the end of hannah’s story, and that everything between the beginning and the end are moments that tell both stories, making it difficult to know where a story ends and where a story ends. start another.
but that’s not a fair way to look at louise’s experience. hannah’s life story, the story louise wants to tell at the end of the movie, is the story we’ve been watching. It is both the main story and the secondary story.
Because the arrival plot is told in a non-sequential order, Louise’s mind is free to wander from moment to moment. think of it as a dream. one thought freely falls into another without even having to try. this is how louise’s perception of time works in the movie.
By talking to Ian about zero-sum games in 2016 Montana, Louise is able to help her daughter Hannah with her homework in our future, her present. although she seems like she is regressing to a memory, she is actually living both moments at the same time. This idea is solidified when she is able to recite the words of General Shang’s dying wife (tzi ma) to him over the phone as he tells her the dying words of her wife at a gala in the future.
Louise is experiencing her life in the same way that the heptapods do. The heptapods view life all at once, moments bleeding to one another without any filter. Although it seems overwhelming, the use of the written language guides the user through the timeless perception of the world. Arrival does an excellent job at bringing a visual element to the screen to explain how Louise and the heptapods view time through the circular symbols. There is no clear start point, nor is there a definite end.
There is probably a theory that suggests that free will cannot exist in a circular view of time. that’s true if everything is meant to happen before it happens, but arrival doesn’t suggest that with its idea of time being a circle.
If time is a circle, who is to say that the circle cannot be altered? there is no reason to believe that we cannot deviate from the path we are taking to explore an unknown one. that’s why louise asks ian at the end of the movie if he could change anything in his life if he saw his whole life from beginning to end. Although his response is not a revolutionary revelation, it is enough for Louise to know that he is choosing to follow the life he currently sees.
In the end, Louise chooses to continue with the choices that will grant her a family that she deeply loves as well as helping the heptapods by writing her book, The Universal Language. Although she is aware of the pain and heartache to come, there is beauty and boundless amounts of love that she would rather experience than miss out on completely. Every moment in her life will happen at once—joy and sorrow will live hand and hand with her—but her potential to be the “weapon” that saves an entire alien race is outweighed by her own emotions.
the arrival end is tricky. As humans, our emotions have a huge impact on our decisions, and knowing that pain comes with a choice is a difficult idea to deal with. Could we sacrifice our happiness for the unimaginable and inevitable pain that comes with choice? the film plays with the idea, but the conclusion finally offers a warm hug as it tells you that whatever you do, do it for the life you want to live.
what do you think about the end of the arrival? let us know in the comments below!