Behind the heavy themes, linguistic theories, and rich storytelling elements is an ending that is both hopeful and timeless.
In the ending of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, 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 Earth to use to save the aliens when they need help in 3,000 years.
While they stare into the sky, Louise shares a quiet moment with Ian, asking if he would change anything in his life if he could see his whole life from start to finish. He answers by saying 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 from a distant future play out between their conversation.
This is typically when it dawns on the viewer that we’ve already watched their story play out. In fact, we’ve watched their marriage, their daughter’s birth, and the end marked by the death-to-come before Ian even knows that he is in love with Louise.
The ending is not really a true end, rather another moment or Louise's life that is connected to other moments in the past and future. When we arrive at the end, we are watching both the end and the beginning of two stories that are happening at the same time. The secondary story that runs alongside the main storyline is focused on the life of Louise’s daughter, Hannah. It takes the viewer most of the film to figure out that these two storylines exist simultaneously, but Louise understands this because of her ability to embrace 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.
It’s a bit confusing, so let me explain how we got to the amazing ending of Arrival.
About linguistic relativity
Arrival is a complex science-fiction drama that is adapted from the 1998 novella, Story of Your Life, by Ted Chian. The film is smart in the way that it edits moments of the present and future into a singular timeline by tying small and seemingly insignificant moments together. Many sci-fi movies attempt 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 the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity.
To fully understand what the Sapri-Whoft hypothesis is, we have to break down linguistic relativity.
Putting it simply, linguistic relativity is the idea that our experiences are formed by cultural practices, such a language, and how they play a crucial role in the way people think about the world and their actions. Our understanding of words and how we use them in our everyday life shapes the world around us. Debates about the effects of language have existed since the dawn of philosophy. Many advocates for the hypothesis that language can determine the way 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, built on Sapir’s theory to suggest that language shapes the perception of the speaker’s world. To make his point, Whort compared the language of the Indigenous peoples of the Inuit and Hopi in North America to 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 doesn’t objectify time while the other claims a sort of dominance or control over it.
The Hopi speaker’s understanding of life is vastly different from the English speaker’s world; therefore, those who speak Uto-Aztecan have a different perception of reality from the English speaker. Linguistic relativism happens because of how language forces us to think about the world around us.
Arrival only puts parts of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to play. In all honesty, the hypothesis itself is a challenge to test due to the numerous problems that appear. The language becomes altered when translated, many speakers are bi-lingual and cannot fully embrace the effects of language, if there are any, and language is constantly adapting and changing with its society. Arrival focuses on the overarching idea of the hypothesis, but only connects the language through the written form.
Even though it’s a bit of a mess, we can still break down the ending.
The end of Arrival
Much of Arrival’s plot focuses on discovering a way to communicate the idea of language and how language shapes our reality. The “heptapods” (the name used by Ian and the military to refer to the aliens) use a written language that is drastically different from any form on Earth with each symbol creating a complex thought and sentence structure within a second. The symbol is written in the shape of a circle, writing the beginning and the end of the sentence simultaneously.
As Louise discovers from a conversation with Ian, the heptapods’ written language is borne from Fermat’s principle (the mathematical law that states that light takes the path which requires the least amount of time). The heptapods’ written communication reflects the way they perceive time far differently than we do: circular rather than linear. It is never made clear in the film how their perception of time works, but we can see how it works through Louise’s interaction and acceptance of the language.
Since the linguistic relativity of the heptapods allow them to exist at all moments of their lives, Louise gains this ability when she masters their language. The film hints at this idea throughout its runtime and shows us right at the beginning that we are viewing the film in a non-linear format. We are shown moments of Louise with her family and the death-to-be of her daughter before unknowingly transported to a later time when Louise walks into a lecture hall.
The film is sneaky at first to hide small moments like this by weaving moments of the secondary story through the main story. The realization dawns on the viewer that the beginning of the film is the end of Hannah’s story, and everything in-between the beginning and end are moments that tell both stories, making it hard to tell where one storyline ends and another begins.
But that isn’t a fair way to view Louise’s experience. The story of Hannah’s life, the story Louise wants to tell at the end of the film, is the story we’ve been watching. It is both the main and secondary storyline.
Because the plot of Arrival is told in non-sequential order, Louise’s mind is free to wander from moment to moment. Think of it as a daydream. One thought falls freely into another without you even having to try. That is how Louise’s perception of time is working in the film.
By talking with Ian about zero-sum games in 2016 Montana, Louise can help her daughter Hannah with her homework in our future, her present. Although it looks like she is flashing back into a memory, she is actually living both moments at the same time. This idea is solidified when she can recite the words of General Shang’s (Tzi Ma) dying wife to him over the phone while he tells her his wife’s dying words at a gala sometime 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 out there that suggests that free will cannot exist on a circular viewing of time. That is true if everything is bound to happen before it’s happened, but Arrival does not suggest that with its idea of time being a circle.
If time is a circle, then who is to say that the circle cannot be altered? There is no reason to believe that we cannot diverge from the path we are taking to explore an unknown one. It is why Louise asks Ian at the end of the film if he could change anything in his life if he saw his entire life from start to finish. Although his answer is not a ground-breaking revelation, it is enough for Louise to know that she is choosing to follow the life that she 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 end of Arrival is a complicated one. As humans, our emotions make a heavy impact on our decisions, and knowing the pain comes with a choice is a hard idea to grapple with. Could we sacrifice our happiness because of the unimaginable and unavoidable pain that comes with the choice? The film toys with the idea, but the conclusion ultimately offers a warm embrace while telling you that whatever you do, do it for the life you want to live.
What are your thoughts on the ending of Arrival? Let us know in the comments below!