Major, major spoilers for Arrival follow.
If you’ve seen — and argued with your friends about — the surprise box office hit Arrival in recent weeks, then there’s one moment in the film’s climax that you’ve likely discussed over and over, largely because it seems to break either the rules of the film or the rules of, well, reality.
You’re probably willing to go with the idea that protagonist Louise (Amy Adams) suddenly starts seeing glimpses of her own future thanks to learning the language of the alien Heptapods (who experience time nonlinearly and know what’s coming). You’re probably even fine with embracing the movie’s big reveal — that the dead daughter Louise keeps "remembering" is one she hasn’t actually given birth to yet.
But then you get to the scene where Louise gets on the phone with Chinese Gen. Shang (Tzi Ma), who’s building up a military strike against the Heptapods, and you watch as she experiences flashes of a future self who gets exactly the information she needs to let Present Louise call the general and avert the strike.
If you’re like a lot of viewers I’ve talked to, that’s when the movie falls a little flat for you.
How is it possible that Future Louise seems so surprised to learn what Shang is telling her, if she had already learned that information in the past, by observing her future self? Does this moment break the rest of this carefully constructed movie, or at least let it down a little bit?
I would say no, and I think I can explain why.
First, let’s talk about how time works when you understand Heptapod
Which of two interpretations of the Shang scene you buy will largely depend on how you believe experiencing time nonlinearly would affect the human brain.
To my mind, the flash-forward scenes of Louise with her daughter Hannah — in which she makes it more or less clear that she knows everything that’s going to happen to her daughter — suggest that once Louise is sufficiently talented at speaking Heptapod, she becomes functionally omniscient about the scope of her own life. She knows when things will happen, how they will happen, and how she will react to them. She presumably knows not just when Hannah will die but when she herself will die.
But it’s also possible that the human brain isn’t quite built like a Heptapod’s brain, which means that we would experience flashes of the future as just that — flashes that function as fugue states that are more or less forgotten, unless they’re particularly emotional and impactful.
You’d remember the life and death of a child you had not had yet, certainly. But would you remember a random phone number somebody dashed off to you in what’s effectively a hallucination if you didn’t have a phone there to plug that number into? Probably not.
So is Louise omniscient, or does she just receive flashes, some of which she remembers and some of which she only remembers dully? There’s evidence for both.
Maybe Louise just receives flashes of her life about to be
The foremost piece of evidence for the idea that Louise experiences her future in flashes that she doesn’t always remember comes earlier in the film. In it, Ian (Jeremy Renner), Louise’s fellow Heptapod communicator, asks the audience to imagine writing a sentence with both hands, starting at beginning and end and working back toward the middle, somehow knowing exactly how far you’d have to space words apart to meet in the middle. This, he says, is a metaphor for how Heptapods communicate.
Naturally, this is going to be difficult to depict on film for those of us who remain third-dimensional beings, but perhaps the Shang scene is an attempt by the filmmakers to more or less show how this would function in practice.
Thus, the timeline — always fluid — is changed on both ends, because Louise is only now realizing that a sentence she begins in the "present" is actually completed 18 months later. Now, in some sense, her consciousness is slipping between past and present, seemingly at random, so the Louise of the future really is the Louise of the past — she’s just become untethered from time.
This is, more or less, what happens to Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel Slaughterhouse-Five. He, too, time travels, but largely only by his consciousness going to different places in his own life cycle.
If this is happening to Louise, then it doesn’t matter that "Future Louise" knows she’s about to have a conversation with Shang that will give "Past Louise" necessary information, because she also knows she’s about to vacate her own consciousness so Past Louise can look between two points in time, 18 months apart, like you might look between two rooms in a house. Future Louise is probably at least somewhat used to this.
Thus, Past Louise and Future Louise aren’t the same woman at two different points in time — they’re the same woman who occupies two points in time simultaneously. She’s having a conversation with Shang that, like that hypothetical Heptapod sentence, begins at both beginning and end and moves back toward its middle.
But I prefer the other interpretation of this scene, which is that Louise is omniscient.
This is why I think Louise is omniscient
Now it’s possible that the Heptapods, too, simply see time as a giant house where they can move between rooms. Maybe they, like Louise, are constantly living in many different moments of time simultaneously.
But pay closer attention to the scene right before the Heptapod known as "Abbott" is killed in the blast set up by disgruntled soldiers who want the military to strike back against the aliens. Abbott arrives late to the conversation, maybe because he knows he’s about to die. In one fashion, this mirrors Louise’s ultimate dilemma with whether she should have Hannah or not — an inevitable tragedy can’t be changed, because it must happen for the greater good. But in another, it suggests that the Heptapods, who can now move freely throughout the timespan of their life cycles, know more or less what’s coming at every moment.
Crucially, we see no other scenes where Louise seems to exist in two times at once. What we see when she thinks about Hannah is closer to a memory or a flashback. She has a brief daydream about the girl, then returns to her "present self." We’re led to believe that Louise "remembers" the future — she even frames it in this fashion when she tells Ian that she forgot how good it was to be held by him when, at that point in linear time, she hasn’t been held by him at all.
And if Louise exists in all points of time at once, then she wouldn’t likely be as broken up by Hannah’s death, because she will always have some version of Hannah she can turn to and interact with. Her final decision to have her daughter wouldn’t have so much weight.
How, then, to square this with the Shang scene? My interpretation — which is bolstered by Adams’s performance, if you notice how she seems a little blasé during this entire life-altering conversation — is that Louise is omniscient about what’s to come in her life, but she also knows that she needs to play along with what Shang is saying to her to get vital information to herself in the past. She’s not genuinely surprised by what he says; she’s playing a part. He might be, too, for all we know.
Admittedly, the film could have made this clearer, and if you read Adams’s performance to be more shocked or confused, then you’re more likely to buy the other interpretation.
But if my interpretation is the one you prefer, then Louise’s physical body is bound by linear time, as we all are, but she has memories of both her past and her future. She knows what’s coming, but she also knows that if she doesn’t behave exactly as she remembers herself acting, she might screw up the moment when she realized what the Heptapods’ "weapon" was — perhaps prompting intergalactic war.
Think of all of the time-travel stories you’ve heard of where the characters must treat the past exactly as it happened, lest they irreparably change their future and screw everything up. Arrival does the same thing — it just flips the placement of future and past. Here, Louise can’t mess up the future, lest she ruin the past. Thus, she has to talk to Shang like she has no idea what he’s going to say, and she has to give birth to Hannah, a child she knows will die, all while keeping a secret she knows will tear her marriage apart.
This ties in neatly with the film’s central theme: Knowing the destination doesn’t change how rewarding the journey can be. Louise, to some degree, has even more appreciation for her own life, because she knows all the spoilers are coming.
How often have you thought about how you might have done something differently, had you known that everything was about to change, or that a loved one was going to die, or that you were going to lose that job? Louise really gets the chance to cherish those moments — but she can’t change a thing.