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Arrival – Analysis

The Following Contains Spoilers

The following is an analysis of the movie and contains major plot reveals please watch the movie first and then come back to this.

Linguistic Relativity

The principle of linguistic relativity hold that the structure of a language effects its speakers world view or cognition. Popularly known as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or whorfianism is often defined to include two versions. The strong version says that language determines thought, and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories, whereas the weak version says that linguistic categories and usage only influence thought and decisions. So, whichever the case, Language does influence thought but might extend to cognition if we go with the strong version.

Whorf’s most elaborate argument for linguistic relativity regarded what he believed to be a fundamental difference in the understanding of time as a conceptual category among the Hopi. He argued that in contrast to English and other SAE languages, Hopi does not treat the flow of time as a sequence of distinct, countable instances, like “three days” or “five years,” but rather as a single process and that consequently it has no nouns referring to units of time as SAE speakers understand them. He proposed that this view of time was fundamental to Hopi culture and explained certain Hopi behavioral patterns.


Whorf’s illustration of the difference between the English and Shawnee gestalt construction of cleaning a gun with a ramrod. From the article “Language and Science”, Originally published in the MIT Technology Review, 1940. Image copyright of MIT press.

“Arrival” assumes that the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is true. It experiments with the idea that if we are indeed limited in our cognitive categories because of our limits in the linguistic categories learning a language that does not share the same linguistic limits might expand our cognitive capabilities.

So we are limited in our perception of time as a result of our linguistic limitation of considering time as a linear phenomenon. Where as, the “Heptapods” don’t share this limitation as evidenced by their circular non-linear language. Proficiency in this language enables Louise to perceive time as a non linear phenomenon as well and see all time at once. Perhaps by accessing a dormant part of her brain.

Hence, the visions of her future notably her daughter’s death and the phone call with the Chinese Military General Shang.

In particular ,the phone call with Shang perfectly demonstrates that Louise is not only able to see the future but seemingly alter it. But seeing as how she is just using information from her vision of the future to convince Shang leads us to believe that she isn’t really altering the future but just accessing time as whole and using the information from other parts of her life in her “present”.

This is possibly how the aliens know that they will need human’s help in a 1000 years and so they must give humans their language to prepare them for a shared future. An argument can be made here that perceiving time in a non linear fashion doesn’t necessarily enable you to alter it in every possible way as her daughters death isn’t prevented. The only way that would happen is if Louise decides not to give birth to Hannah at all. Perhaps this is why Louise names her daughter “Hannah” which is a palindrome meaning it reads the same backwards as forwards.

Perhaps time isn’t linear and neither is it non-linear but perhaps circular. Whatever is to come  will come regardless of our knowledge of it (Hannah) or perhaps our knowledge of it, is what enables it (Shang).

Kuleshov Effect

The Kuleshov effect is a film editing effect demonstrated by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov in the 1910s and 1920s. It is a mental phenomenon by which viewers derive more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots than from a single shot in isolation.

The Kuleshov Effect is nothing new to cinema. It is well known among modern film makers and studied by many psychologists. But Arrival’s use of the Kuleshov Effect is not only experimental and edgy but also serves an important part of the narrative . Part of the credit also goes to Amy Adam’s masterful performance.

The movie opens with a montage of Louise and Hannah at the end of which we see that Hannah dies of cancer. With this information we read the next scene Incorrectly. we misinterpret Louise’s disinterest as sadness.


And we constantly see Louise through this lens throughout the film until it is revealed that the events in the first scene have not occurred yet. Thus completely shattering our previous conception of Louise’s character and we suddenly see her in a whole different perspective.

Also, the movie ends with a vision in which Louise witnesses scenes similar to the montage we see at the beginning.

This solidifies the narrative’s theme of time and our perception of time even more. Masterfully achieved through clever editing and excellent acting.

Arrival Review


Arrival is a 2016 American science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve and adapted by Eric Heisserer from the 1998 short story and novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It stars Amy AdamsJeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker.

The Story

Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist (played by Amy Adams) is brought in by the U.S Army Colonel Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) on the day twelve extraterrestrial spacecrafts land on seemingly random locations across the world. She is to join physicist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner) at a military camp in Montana and help their team to decipher the alien language.


Inside the spacecraft Louise and Ian make contact with two seven limbed aliens or “Heptapods” nicknamed Abbot and Costello who reveal that they have a written language made up of complicated circular symbols.


Human in Heptapod

Louise’s mission is to understand the alien language and ask the extraterrestrials a simple question “Why are you here ?” the answer to which result in distrust among the nations of the world and political tensions rise. Communications between the UFO sites across the world are broken down and China prepares for an offensive move against the alien beings.

Louise at the Montana site however continues to learn the alien language. As she becomes more proficient she starts seeing vivid dreams and images leading her to make decisions that will affect not only her life but the future of humanity as well.

Not just another science-fiction film

In recent years there has been a surge in science-fiction movies that ditch the expected galactic adventure path and opt for a more subdued personal story path. Movies like “Interstellar” and “Gravity” do this particularly well. Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” is another great movie to join their ranks.

It is an intelligent and dramatic take on humanity’s first contact with alien life and not just an overblown spectacle like “Independence Day – Resurgence”. It is a film about grief and communication rather than lasers and spaceships. Where movies like “Gravity” and “Interstellar” explore the human survival instinct and space-time relation, language and communication are the major themes of “Arrival”. The idea of “Linguistic Relativity” of how understanding another language might alter our world view or cognition is masterfully realised through Louise, Amy Adam’s character. The nations of the world prepare their weapons as Louise strives to understand the alien language despite of fear among the people around her making a solid case for communication over conflict.


Amy Adams at her best

The opening scenes of the movie shows Amy Adams’s character and her daughter “Hannah” and detail their life in a montage of images. Hannah’s birth, her brief life and eventually her death at an adolescent age from cancer. Throughout the movie you carry this information with you as you read Amy Adams’s expressions. The movie is not CGI heavy resulting in a space for her to work that is more grounded and relatable. This is quite possibly the most subtle yet complicated science-fiction movie performance I have seen and much of the films success is a testament of that.



Jóhann Jóhannsson began writing the score as shooting started, drawing on the screenplay and concept art for his inspiration. He developed one of the main themes in the first week using vocals and experimental piano loops. Max Richter‘s “On the Nature of Daylight” that opens and closes the film is much like the film, subtle but effective, and will surely stay with you.

Thank god for this film

Recently I have come across much hate for this movie on the internet and I must address that here. It seems that it is edgy now to hate on a movie that does not patronise but challenge the viewer in any way. “Arrival” is not a crowd pleaser movie. It is a movie that asks questions and challenges its viewers to ponder upon those questions. Like with every film there are plot holes here as well. But the movie was not intended to perfectly portray reality but to present the limits of communication, how individuals handle grief and understanding our place in the universe. I agree that the movie does focus too much on cramming everything into the film and might no longer seem as subtle as it should have been. And it does particularly suffer from a slow and uninteresting middle part sandwiched between an intriguing start and an excellent end. But honestly, after a parade of stupid films that exist only to please the masses “Arrival” is a breath of fresh air.