In the opening scenes of Arrival, expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is heard in voiceover talking about the life and untimely death of her 12-year-old daughter, Hannah (Julia Scarlett Dan), who is first seen in full health reveling in a myriad of picturesque activities: hiking and frolicking in a cowgirl costume, the recipient of everlasting hugs. But the Rockwellian facade drops once Hannah is shown lying in a hospital bed, where she soon draws her last breath.
The film quickly shifts to another urgent matter: Louise is tapped by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to act as translator for an alien race — called Heptapods — that have docked ships at 12 different, seemingly random locations on Earth. She soon meets mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), her partner in the endeavor to decode the alien language and ascertain why they’ve come to Earth. As the US team works to decipher the aliens’ elaborate visual language, something strange happens to Louise as she becomes increasingly fluent in Heptapod speak. Like the outer-space visitors, she gains the ability to see her past, present, and future — the very timeline of her life — in any sequence she desires.
That ultimately leads to Arrival’s astonishing twist: The film’s first sequences and all of its subsequent scenes with Hannah actually take place after the alien’s arrival, in Louise’s future; and Ian becomes her husband, and is Hannah’s father.
In the film, the story of Louise, Hannah, and Ian is told out of order. That means Louise knew even before she married Ian that they would later divorce. Before Hannah was born, she already knew that she would die as a child. And, yet, Louise still makes the choice to spend those fleeting yet rewarding years with each, even knowing they would bring her pain.
From a cinematic perspective, it’s a savvy twist; from an emotional perspective, it’s an extraordinary decision that both breaks the heart and lovingly puts it back together in almost the same instant.
“It was my intention from the start for [the reveal] to never feel like a magic trick so that at the end it was like we suddenly turned over a card and told you that Bruce Willis was a ghost the whole time,” Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview, referring to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. Heisserer adapted Arrival from Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life." “We put in a lot of nonlinear bits and pieces in the script and then pulled out as many of them as we could without breaking the story.”
Toying with the audience’s perception of time is Heisserer’s “candy of choice as a storyteller.” He previously deployed a similar narrative structure in 2011’s Final Destination 5, where the closing scene reveals the sequel is actually a prequel to the very first Final Destination film — and, therefore, the prequel to the entire franchise.
On crafting Arrival’s slow reveal, Heisserer said, “We had to lay down rules and a deeper level of understanding of what was going on there so that we felt that we weren't committing some sort of paradoxical crime we hadn't earned earlier,” Heisserer said. “Something that I wanted to establish … is the more Louise had those nonlinear moments, the harder it was for her to keep up with herself and keep up with what was past and present and future.” One hint he wrote in was at the end of the second act: Hannah is putting on her boots and Louise asks her, “What day is it?”
But the biggest shock is saved for Arrival’s last turn, where Louise’s newfound ability proves to be the gift that saves all of humanity. At that point, communications between the 12 nations where the aliens landed have completely broken down because China’s convinced that the Heptapods’ intentions are deadly, and the country threatens to lead a charge of nuclear war on the visitors. As China’s General Shang (Tzi Ma) readies their weapons, Louise uses her advanced mental acuity to — in a jaw-dropping double timeline sequence — simultaneously speak with General Shang in the present and in the future, in order to convince him to take his finger off the trigger.
In her leap to the future, Louise is “introduced” to General Shang, who thanks her for having called him on his cell phone on that fateful day. Shang gives future Louise two essential pieces of information for present-day Louise: his private phone number and his wife’s dying words, which present-day Louise uses to convince present Shang to call off the military strike.
“It was critical. Everything hinged on that,” Heisserer said of those intimate clues. As for those all-important dying words from Shang’s wife — which are spoken in Mandarin and with no subtitles in the film — it was something Heisserer stressed over for weeks. “For so long, in the script it was just ‘say something in Mandarin,’ and that survived many a draft.” But when director Denis Villeneuve insisted Heisserer write a phrase that the film’s Mandarin translator could teach Amy Adams, he drafted roughly 50 possible lines before landing on what Villeneuve deemed to be the perfect one.
That sentence wholly encapsulates the global crisis depicted in the film: “In war there are no winners, only widows.”