This article contains major spoilers which will reveal and explore Arrival's big twist — so if you have any intention of experiencing this film, you should do so before reading. Some twists should not be spoiled.
How do you remember a future you haven't lived yet? It's a question none of us are likely to have pondered (at least, not in our pasts) before seeing Arrival, or reading the short story it's based on, Ted Chiang's Story Of Your Life. Having now seen the movie, its daring take on memory and time is all I can think about.
In Arrival, college professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called in by the US military to decode the language spoken by an alien race, termed Heptapods, and use the translations to discover their motives. For well over an hour, the film deceives us into thinking that once Louise has become fluent in interpreting the ink-like circular symbols the Heptapods shoot from their tentacles, the aliens' motives will be revealed. But that's not where we're headed.
Framed against the science-y, slow-burn narrative are a series of what we assume to be flashbacks to Louise's earlier, happier life with the young daughter she raised alone, who would be diagnosed with a terminal illness as a teenager. It's a fair assumption — by definition, the past gives context to the present, and Louise's loss appears to have shaped the person she is today.
But far more than just constructing a sense of what Louise's life looked like once upon a time, those scenes of her playing with her daughter, helping with homework, usually shot in an orange glow to contrast the way humanity's future hangs in the balance in the present, also drop a series of hints that all is not as it seems.
Arrival's big twist — that Louise is living out her future in parallel with her present, essentially experiencing memories of what will be the best and hardest period of her life, that her daughter will die young but hasn't yet been born — is revealed gradually toward the movie's end, those tiny seeds sown in both timelines suddenly blooming into a moment of stunning realization.
The first and perhaps most obvious clue lies in the visual language used by Abbott and Costello, the two Heptapods with whom Louise and Ian come to form a bond. Their ink-blots are circular, non-linear, just as time is revealed to be non-linear. The variations in the blots are used to distinguish between one word and another, just as the events in Louise's life exist at different locations on her circle, accessible at any time because her future has already occurred.
In what we assume is the past, Louise asks Hannah what day it is. The question feels strange, only later making sense with the epiphany that Louise is experiencing playtime with her daughter in parallel with her stressful "present," spent liaising with the Heptapods, and therefore struggles to keep tabs of what time it is in the two realities she's balancing. Another clue: Hannah's name is a palindrome, its backward-forward identical nature resembling the fluidity of time for Louise, and her ability to travel both backwards and forwards simultaneously.
When Hannah asks Louise to help her with the mathematical term for a scenario in which neither party loses, Louise uses Ian's words at camp — "not a zero-sum game" — to provide her daughter with the answer she's looking for. In some ways, that scene also cleverly suggests that even when Ian has become an absent father in the future, he's still guiding his daughter in ways he could never even comprehend. And in the present as we know it, Ian gives names to the Heptapods only he and Louise share a personal bond with, which could be read as foreshadowing the fact they will find themselves in the same situation with their own child.
But Arrival's most audacious, most breathtaking moment arrives when Louise — living out a present in which China is about to trigger a global assault on the Heptapods' ships simultaneously with a future in which her linguistic breakthrough has saved humanity — instructs General Zhang in the now that she'll need his help in the future, where she's rewarded with his personal phone number. In the present, she uses that number to put in the phone call that calls off the war. It's an incredibly textured piece of storytelling which elevates Arrival to the very apex of what sci-fi can be.
And really, isn't that what this genre is all about? Taking a theory from the fringes of science, in this case the concept of time and language as non-linear and intertwined, and applying it to predict a future for the human race which feels both plausible and startlingly alien in the present.
More than just a superb piece of cinema which surprises and satisfies on every level, there's a chance we may look back on Arrival one day in the distant future as the movie which second-guessed man's biggest breakthrough. Somebody, somewhere, may even be living that day right now.
Arrival is in theaters now.
Did you notice any other clues foreshadowing the big reveal about the non-linear nature of time? And will Arrival become a future sci-fi classic?