Arrival (2016): Understanding Language and Time from the Aliens

Arrival (2016) is an American sci-fi film from Denis Villeneuve, the cinematic genius. It was adapted by Eric Heisserer from the 1998 short story, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. The film was hailed as one of the best films of 2016, appearing on many critics’ year-end lists. It was also named as one of the top ten “Movies of the Year” by the American Film Institute. Amy Adams, Denis Villeneuve and Jóhann Jóhannsson were particularly praised for their work. The film received eight nominations in the 89th Academy Awards, and won one for Best Sound Editing.

Before furthering the analysis, here is something that one must keep in mind for a better understanding of the plot’s significance. The Voyager 1 spacecraft is the farthest man-made object from Earth. It is speeding through interstellar space with valuable cargo: a golden record. There are sounds from Earth, mathematical truths, scientific absolutes, diagrams, and greetings in 55 languages. It also has two messages. “Hello,” and “We have no idea how to communicate with you.”

The film Arrival tells a story of what happens when 12 alien ships arrive all over the earth. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a linguist entrusted with asking the aliens why they’re here. Jeremy Renner plays Ian Donnelly, a theoretical physicist who assists her. Banks must communicate with the Aliens (also named as Heptapods) in order to ask that question; and in order to do just that, she must learn their language and assist them in learning ours.

Aliens communicating with humans in their language
Aliens communicating with humans in their language

Spoilers follow from here on! If you are yet to see the film, it is highly recommended that you watch it first before reading further.

Analysis of Arrival (2016)

We have seen countless times in films, throughout history, about how the Governments and general population responds to the Aliens. So, not delving into the obvious things, let’s jump to the subjects that are essential for a better understanding of this mind-bending film. Arrival (2016) revolves around two major concepts: language and time.


Arrival is a challenging work of sci-fi, written for and about intelligent people. These people are the ones who try to solve problems, instead of rampaging through them. To be explicit, Arrival is a product of ideas related to Linguistic Relativity (aka Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). Simply put, it means we all don’t live in the same world. We share the same planet and breathe the same air, yet our perceptions of those things vary depending on the words and grammar we use to describe them. For example, to some, a shade of color Red will be Scarlet, Crimson or Cherry Red, while for some the same shade could simply be Red. Unless the second person doesn’t learn about different shades of Red, they might not even know that such shades even exist.

Banks and Donnelly trying to understand the language of Aliens in Arrival (2016)
Banks and Donnelly trying to understand the language of Aliens in Arrival (2016)

Time will no longer be linear for anyone who understands the Alien language. Banks successfully understand the Aliens’ vocabulary by the end of the film. She shares the language key she made with similar groups of scientists and military at other sites throughout the world where the ships have landed. However, when one of the Heptapods‘ messages is misinterpreted as “weapons” by the Chinese team, communication with the visitors is shut off and the message is regarded as a threat. Banks understands how important it is for Earth’s people to maintain their relationship with the Heptapods. It is because she has witnessed the power their language holds first-handedly.


Arrival is a perfect match to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in many aspects. Both the films give complex ideas about space and time. To fully comprehend this intricate play of time, one must first be familiar with Linguistic Relativity. Banks is offered hints of her own changing mind before she fully understands the alien language. The closer she gets to comprehending the Heptapods, the more visions of Hannah, her daughter, she gets. She questions the Aliens at the end of the film, “Who is this child?” At that point, she finally accepts the fact that her brain has been rewired, and it has occurred as a result of her learning their new language. As Banks learns the language of the Aliens, she also learns to think in their way. Her thoughts, like the language of aliens, are not bound by the linearity of time.

The film demonstrates that intellectual curiosity is a superpower in itself and how language shapes our reality.

That beautiful ending of Arrival (2016)

Instead of startling us with new information, Arrival‘s twist does what the finest twists do – it explains what we just saw. From the start, we see that Banks had given birth to a child that would die young. We just didn’t realize that this is yet to happen. We think these are flashbacks because that’s how cinematic language works. Banks appears to be a lonely working woman. So the fact that she has lost a child does not come as a surprise. However, as the film’s climax shows, those aren’t flashbacks at all. They’re visions of a future in which Banks and Donnelly will have a daughter, who will die in front of their eyes. And despite knowing everything, Banks chooses for it to happen.

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival (2016)
Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival (2016)

The revelation is a bulldozer, slamming us in the face with the brutality of our lives, which are so reliant on the unknown. To a species that has no idea what the future holds, such knowledge appears to be the end of fresh experiences. What does it mean to live your entire lifetime at the same time? At the same moment, you are in your 20’s as well as 60’s! You are living your past, present and future, all three at the same moment. It’s like these Aliens, with the help of their language, were making us humans omniscient beings. It’s a stunning realization, both tragic and captivating. The Aliens have arrived on Earth for a favor that will pay off in 3,000 years. The film’s plot comes full circle by the end, just like the language of the Aliens.


Denis Villeneuve, aided by Johann Johansson’s opulent score, provides a tremendous sense of building to something immense and beyond our comprehension. There are very few alien films that accomplish such impression. Most of them are simply sequels to Independence Day (1996), in slightly altered forms. The visuals of you entering the spacecraft, the strange gravity effects, the encounter with the aliens through the opaque wall, their efforts at communication – all captivate you. Nothing in this film can be classified as cliche, and it stays continuously intelligent throughout.

Arrival (2016) isn’t an easy film to comprehend and is not everyone’s cup of tea. Those who dare to watch it will appreciate how amazing the story, direction, cinematography and acting is!

Swaham Mohanty

I am just another socially awkward human-being, trying my hands on writing.

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