still of Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams as Ian and Louise in Arrival movie

Understanding Arrival Movie | Full Arrival Movie Explained with Spoilers

Finally got some time to write the explanation of one mind-bender of a movie Arrival! Such a beautiful concept Arrival movie has that it explodes you, when you figure it all out. It is a movie that teases you with its inklings until it drops the bomb at you. But the true nature of its beauty lies in its profound direction, of how the rest of the world interprets the word ‘alien’, and their incapability to understand the unexplained.

Without wasting any more time let’s dig into it. Also, if you haven’t seen Arrival movie yet, there was no point coming to this page. You should go first watch it, read our review maybe first,  and then proceed, coz it’s full of spoilers!

Arrival Movie Explained (Major Spoilers Ahead)

The best way to understand Arrival movie is via the fact that there is no definite order to things. There are no tenses. So if you are being shown a scene that looks like a memory it could very well not be.

  • We see what appears to be a flashback of memories, frames that show our protagonist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) playing with her daughter, raising her up all by herself. Then we see her grow up to be a beautiful teen, but unfortunately one day she passes away from a disease that looks like cancer.
  • We move on to gather the profession of Louise Banks. She is a linguist who teaches in a college. That’s when 12 Alien Spaceships appear all across the globe at different locations. Everybody freaks and leave as she too gets the day off and decides to hit home. She is least interested in what’s going on, as she speaks to her mother.
  • Forgetting about the huge repercussions of Alien ships, she goes to the university yet again to find it deserted. That’s when enters the U.S. Army Colonel Weber asking for her help. She is briefed on to help them understand why the Aliens are here, as she joins the team that comprises of Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner).

You can understand communication and still end up single.

Visiting a Spaceship

  • In Montana, they are brought in to check out one of the spacecrafts. On entering they find the spacecraft had its own strong gravity that explains how throwing something upwards rivets it to one side.
still of suited up scientists from Arrival movie
  • They follow the path to meet two huge aliens behind what appears like a protective glass. Ian names those heptapods Abbott and Costello in an effort to make them understand the concept of introduction.
  • It is there where they discover their language was, well, alien. Huge confusing circular symbols are drawn on the glass with a disappearing ink. With that begins ceaseless session of questions and answers in an attempt to understand what the hell the aliens were really trying to say.
  • Meanwhile, Louise Banks keeps getting visions of her daughter. Let’s not forget that! Till this point she thinks those were mere dreams. Also, Ian makes an allusion that Louise could be dreaming in a foreign language, the language of Heptapods.

The Huge Twist of Arrival

  • Then comes the huge twist. When Louise and Ian finally fixate and relate their letters to our letters, Louise asks a question about the nature of their visit. They answer with the word ‘Use Weapon’. Even though Louise is convinced that the word weapon is open to more than one interpretation, the rest of the world goes loco and opts to attack the pods instead.
  • Further communications are barred as Louise and Ian make one final attempt to understand what Abbott and Costello were trying to say. In the backdrop an explosive was put in the spaceship to knock it out of space. A series of complex messages are left by the Heptapods, to decipher in a hurry. But the bomb goes off, as Abbott saves their lives in process.
  • Ian and Louise wind up in military beds, and the spacecrafts go further up in the atmosphere for their safety. Ian deciphers the symbols that were left by the aliens to be pointing towards the concept of time. That it was nothing but one-twelfth of a gift they intended to give. Thus they figure out that the heptapods want all the nations where the 12 spaceships were present to cooperate with each other so that the intended gift can be utilized.
  • But it is too late. Chaos has ensued. Entropy of life has seeped in. All communications have failed, and the world is ready to attack the innocent ships that have come seeking our help and are hanging mid-air gawking at their certain sealed fate. That’s when a pod is sent for Louise by the heptapods.

Epic Revelation

  • It is here that we get to understand what is really happening. When she reaches the spaceship Costello communicates with her telling her that Abbott was on its deathbed.
  • When she asks the heptapod who was the girl she has been seeing, you realize that her daughter “Hannah” wasn’t actually born, and that it wasn’t a memory we were being constantly shown.
  • The heptapod explains to her that what she has been seeing (her dreams) the future all this time. That time is non-linear from their perspective.
  • 3000 years from now they would be needing humanity’s help, and that it is crucial for them to teach us how to use the gift which was nothing else but their language, something that gave us the ability to fathom time, its surreal non-linearity. If we understood that, using its help we could be helping them out in the near future somehow.
still of Louis and Ian in Arrival

Dodging off War | Arrival Ending Explained

  • When Louise returns with this epiphany, she envisions her distant future where she has managed to unite everybody, and has written books on Heptapods and stuff. She is felicitated by General Shang in a United Nations meet saying that it was Louise who had changed Shang’s decision to suspend Chinese attack. To her surprise he even goes as far as to show her his personal no. that she had dialed in order to waive off the Chinese attack.
  • In the real world, China was about to attack the pods. This gives her the inkling to act quickly and so she runs for a SAT phone and calls the General on the no. from the vision. Now she doesn’t know what to say, so she scours for it in the future vision yet again, only to realize Shang telling her the exact words she said on the phone that did the trick. It was Shang’s dying wife’s last words,

“In war, there are no winners, only widows.”

  • It was the only thing that could have possibly changed Shang’s mind. With that intimate knowledge Shang calls of the strike, and the other nation’s follow suit, eventually cooperating to understand their language, the cardinal gift.
  • When the heptapods realize their job was done, they disappear.


We realize through plethora of allusions that the physicist she used to talk with her daughter about was none other than Ian. The following line then eventually gets delivered:

“If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”

It gets responded immediately by Ian:

“Maybe I would say what I felt more often. I don’t know.”

Soon he adds,

“You know I’ve had my head tilted up to the stars for as long as I can remember. You know what surprised me the most? It wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you.”

This confirms that it is Ian that she ends up marrying. That she conceives Hannah with Ian in the near future, and that her knowledge of Hannah dying, forces Ian to leave her. That’s why we see Louise raising her alone.

But the line about the future leaves it to viewer’s imagination as to whether or not Louise would do something different to change her doomed future. Because it is after all, what she gives the aliens to learn from.

Why does Ian Leave Louise in the Future?

One could debate on the point of why Ian leaves Louise in the near future. Wasn’t he the understanding kind? Why would he leave Louise all alone during her tough times?

It boils down to the fact that maybe, just maybe it hurt him that Louise despite knowing all along what was going to happen to their daughter, kept that from him. She didn’t try to change it, while she had a chance. Maybe she should say what she felt more often, is what Ian had asked of Louise. That’s the only complaint Ian had of her.

So I am guessing she didn’t at some point in the long run, and that she started keeping things to herself. Things could have blown out of proportion at one point about Hannah’s condition, and that could have forced him out of her life.

Bottomline of Arrival Movie

The bottomline in Arrival is that aliens don’t know how to save themselves from their looming downfall, their imminent death in the future. So, they have come to learn to handle this from us. So when they tap in our understanding of freewill, they have a shot at it. That they are to benefit only when we unite to understand their language. As to what is that imminent threat, we don’t know. And I think it is not important either.

The moment we work on World Peace, they leave us, because time being non-linear their impending doom gets called off, by something some human did in the non-linear version of time.

Well, to put it bluntly as I have put it, might sound stupid to some, but the thing is the movie’s true strength lies in its concealed timeline. It tries to cloud your judgment by showing glimpses from a different juncture in time. But it also patiently waits with its titanic climax to reveal everything in the end. It leaves you intensely satisfied, and that’s what a good movie should do.

Arrival movie is simply a work of genius. The more you think about it, the more awesome it becomes. Let your thoughts shower in.

You can check out the trailer of Arrival here:


  • Excellent synopsis and explanation. Thank you, oh wise one. I have a whole new appreciation for this movie now because of your insightful and profound grasp of it.

      • What did I miss!?!? I watched this movie twice and did not catch that Amy Adams was seeing her future with Jeremy Renners character, nor do I comprehend how she could scour her future for what to say to the General when she would never have had a memory or knowledge of what his dying wife’s last words were? In order for the general to tell her in a future timeline or loop, thank you for stopping him from making the worst mistake of his life she had to have visited the past to hear what his wife said, Right? I was going to get the book when I came across this posting. Thanks for clearing some of it up for me.

        • Hi BD,

          No problemo. Currently what you are living, what any one of us is living is actually a timeline that doesn’t allow us to tap into our past or future. Now image a scenario wherein you are at the center of time, and around you, surround you, your past and the future. There are parallel timelines existing together intermingled within each other. You could see and are well aware of each timeline’s existence. Since they exist all at the same time, you know what your future is, you can very well tap into the past and relive it. Something like that.

          So, now if there’s a dilemma you are in, if a thing that has already happened to you is stored at some point, if there’s a way you can access it, wouldn’t you go to it to see what choice you made to write your future? That way it would be less work for you, because you have already done that. Now to do exactly that you must get an inkling. That inkling, that hint is now actually a surety that you can in fact see loud and clear the decisions you made.

          What Amy Adams did was tap into a different time zone to see what she had said in the future so that she could use that info in the present to ensure she reached that future.

          It does sound far-fetched when you realize how could she be asking that exact same thing when she wanted that info. But memories are tricky only when you don’t have a clear glimpse of the past. When you are actually looking at, it might be very lucid.

          The answer to that could also very well be, in the future she is well-versed in the “gift” (the language). She has written books bringing awareness to others, teaching them how to use that language of time for their benefit. Shang must have then used the language to help Amy Adams at that very point where she went hopeless, to tell the exact words that could have made him stop the onslaught. It’s loosely stranded on causality theory.

          Hope that clears things up.

          – Scottshak

  • Thank you for your response. I do understand the concept as you have explained it regarding all time surrounding your memory, but if that is a closed loop from birth until death and you want everything to remain the same in that lifetime, then are you not referring to Divine Intervention or fate or God’s Will? At which point choice and/or freewill are taken out of the equation and the only thing anyone person could do different would be to do nothing but even if that were the case something would have to auto correct the loop in order for everyone’s memory loop and the world’s fate to remain the same. Just a thought…

  • Me thinks you got the plot, but don’t understand the movie:

    In the end of the movie, Banks learns “how to think like the aliens” which gives her the capacity to “open time”. We can see from the movie that she can “remember” both past and future events. She also has the ability to change the present based on future events, which is demonstrated by the climax with the call to the Chinese general using future knowledge. The aliens also demonstrate this capability by dealing with the demo charge prior to its explosion.

    Banks is also shown memories of some of the horror of her future life. Her child Hannah is going to die early and painfully from a rare disease. Banks has to choose this future. Donnelly would have made a different choice and will leave because he feels shocked and betrayed. Banks is choosing to have a tragic life, alone and grieving in the end.

    But the real reason why the movie is an instant classic for me is understanding why Banks made the choice and how it helps one “think like an alien”. We probably all have regrets and fantasies about how one might go back in time and fix some issue. Banks has actually been given this choice. She could choose a different time and have a normal child and happy marriage. But instead Banks chooses to be *absolutely* reconciled with her life path and pain. Why? Love. The slightest move she makes will “undo” Hannah, the true love of her life. Banks greets her new daughter into the world, not with the joy of a one sided “in time” duality human, but from the eternal view of both the joy and deep sadness of the tragedy of it. This is one of the best renditions of buying into life ever. The plot makes the choice black and white.

    When thinking like Banks, like an alien, one accepts the entirety of life. The aliens language symbols are always circles, whole. And if you are lucky, your life will be like this too, where you completely buy into your adventure, your disaster, because love for who and what is, as it is, becomes too strong to wish to undo anything. Donnelly doesn’t understand. Do you understand and actually act this way in day to day life? Zero regrets, zero doubt, each day vividly resonant both with it’s brilliant glory and thorough sadness. Glorious sadness is the framework of the human symphony. Love is the only reason strong to accept what is and what will be.

    • Extraordinary Pete. Bravo! I was a tad confused about the ‘choice’ she makes reason why I stopped thinking in that direction, but now that you have assertively put it, I think this is what we should be taking away from the movie. Despite given a choice to change everything, you don’t change anything because it takes away the one thing you love most.

      When you buy into your life, you take everything as is. It is this acceptance that should define life.

      Thanks again for taking the time to write this. Much appreciated.


    • I have one issue with her choice….in choosing to have Hannah she has condemned her to suffer through a long, painful death at a young age. It’s the only thing about all this that bothers me. In her place I would have chosen to not have Hannah in order to spare her the fear and suffering she would have to endure.

      • I was thinking about this and had to come find the comment again.

        I feel like Louise knows that Hannah’s death is slow and painful and knowingly making the choice is what makes the story so full circle, pun intended. Louise explained her theory early on that speaking different languages changes your perception of things, and perhaps even time itself. She learned the language of the heptapods, and in doing so, acquired some new perception and understanding of time. That is why she is able to make the choice of having Hannah even though she knows the outcome.

        The story perfectly makes its point: time is a matter of perspective.

  • I’m wondering if Louise’s dna became messed up when she (ran back, boarded the transport pod and) visited 1 on 1 with the alien – in those strange atmospheric conditions, etc.. Then Hannah developed the “rare disease” due to the faulty genes from her mom. Perhaps Ian non-linearly time-travelled towards the end of their marriage (at first unbeknownst to Louise since, for awhile, she didn’t seem to know why Ian left) and learned that Louise’s genes became messed up. Then he left, silently blaming her for the daughter’s ultimate sickness. Maybe Hannah wasn’t even sick yet when he left the marriage, but he “looks at her differently now” because he knows she will become sick and die.

    But I’m wondering: Why wasn’t Ian with Hannah when she died in order to help comfort her?

    • Maybe he died? Because Ian would have been there, given the character portrayal we were fed. He wouldn’t have left her daughter on her D-day. Now that you have mentioned it, I think it’s the only plausible answer. About Louise’s DNA becoming messed up, that’s a highly likely scenario and a nice theory but then Louise would have never helped them if she would have found out it has something to do with them. Or in that moment of truth between Costello and her, she would have mentioned it to Costello at least something about it. Just thinking.

      – Scottshak

      • Going back to my earlier comment about how language creates perspective, the concept would hold in regards to why Ian wouldn’t have an appreciation for such a non-linear choice. Hannah learned the language, and while Ian helped decode it, he wasn’t fluent in it. He didn’t have that perspective, and like the rest of us humans, made the very human choice of wanting to change the discomfort.

        Wow, such a thought provoking movie. Honestly refreshing.
        (also thorough article. Kudos!)

  • Hey Scott.

    Just watched the movie again with my son (first time) and some questions came up:

    We believe that the only way Louise was able to talk to the General in the future to obtain the crucial info avoiding the war was if : A – he knew the language allowing him to meet her there, which could only occur B – if the war was in fact avoided in the first place.

    But the war – without the phone call – was simply inevitable.

    Could you help to resolve the puzzle for us? Thanks!

  • Hi Pinot,

    No you are correct in believing that it was Shang too who was responsible for calling off the war since he deliberately showed his personal mobile number and told her exactly what was supposed to be said. It is a two way thing. Louise couldn’t have done it all by herself. She had no clue up until the point when she begins to get the non-linearity of time.

    Shang too, at one point of time, where he might have come across the language, might have understood how and when he was supposed to intervene with the dumber version of himself to say that trigger word that could end the war. So he places himself in the future to plant that idea of his personal number and the trigger word to help her end the war.

    Yes, war without the phone call was inevitable. But since Shang and Louise were picked up to be shown the non-linearity of time as if it were a dimension, they were able to decide a future they chose to live for themselves.

    Thank you for asking such beautiful questions. It helps us think and be more human. 🙂

    – Scottshak

  • Ok. I need it explained to me like this, because I’m sitting here pissed at this movie. She gets to experience all 3. Cool

  • I had to comment, I know you were all here chatting but I’ve only just watched the film, but hey that was on a timeline so hopefully won’t matter!!
    Upon reaching the end of the film, which I thoroughly enjoyed I had no clue what had gone on, so asked the internet & this thread helped, thanks!
    Before the end I got that it was Ian’s kid & that it was a future scene but still couldn’t piece together why he left amongst other things. We saw more scenes if he dying before we knew it was a future scene, so in the end I wondered if she still dies, I guess so as Hannah says he’s looks at me differently now. But then he should stay? When he did go to visit they all looked v happy together. I do remember a line from earlier on in the film though, Ian was asking Louise about whether your brain gets re-wires if you immerse yourself in another language. So maybe that’s why she goes ahead, she sees time differently, her dna/genes were not changed by going on board the ship, but when she understood the language her brain was re-wired, she saw things differently so she went ahead, Ian didn’t experience that?

    Just a thought. Still pretty sad all round though.

  • So, in a sense, by having the two of them able to connect in this manner also proved to be a form of confirmation for we humans(at least perhaps the first two made aware of the deeper essence of the new language) as to the reality of this new language imposed mindset.

    The question that leads me to is while Louise is grasping the new perspective, she’s shifting back and forth between linear and non linear time, will there come a long where the new format takes precedence? And as a metaphor for humanity, will she continue on in linear fashion to a point, then as a whole transform to non-linear perception, forsaking the prohibitive constrains and inflexible strictures of the previous interpretations and interactions with reality?

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