Arrival: The Theory Behind the Film


I saw this film almost a week ago and it still hasn’t left me. If you get a chance, don’t miss out on this thought-provoking sci-fi.

I’ll start the discussion with a brief analysis of the movie itself. No background knowledge of the scientific theories involved necessary. Just a plain and simple movie review for a not-so-plain movie.


Arrival was adapted from a short story titled “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (top of my Kindle reading list right now) by Eric Heisserer. He did a good job. The plot was well paced and kept you engaged in the characters and development of the story, even though it got somewhat convoluted and far-fetched by the end.

The basic concept of the story is that aliens (good old fashioned heptapods) show up one day and a highly regarded linguist (Amy Adams) is employed to study and translate their language. Later we find out (MAJOR SPOILERS) that upon learning this language Amy Adams rewires her brain in such a way that she can now see into the future. Only to learn that the attractive (but pretty much pointless) physicist she is working with will become her husband and they will have a beautiful daughter who will die from cancer in her early adulthood.

Tragic? Yes. But overall, the plot isn’t why I am so excited about this movie. As is inevitable with any time-travel/future-seer related movie, it was full of questions and plot holes. It cannot be avoided, but this movie definitely treated the science more carefully than say Interstellar (which I also loved – don’t get me wrong but… Watch the hilarious HonestTrailer for Interstellar and you will understand my feelings towards this film).

Why did the aliens even show up, you might ask? Well this is probably the biggest thing which frustrated me about the plot. The aliens showed up because they can see the future and know that in ten thousand years they will need humanities help. So they give Amy Adam’s – and I assume humanity – the ability to see the future. Makes sense, right? No. No it does not.


As the movie poster so succinctly asks; WHY ARE THEY HERE? The answer – they are a plot device. Aliens could easily have been replaced with magical elves or unicorns and nothing would have changed (except the incredible special effects and the fact that aliens are WAY cooler than elves).

(Sorry, my rant isn’t over yet. Jeremy Renner was literally only in the movie to eventually marry Amy Adams. Throughout the whole film he contributed one notable scientific breakthrough which had nothing to do with physics…? He was supposed to be some kind of physics genius and he said basically nothing about physics…? Mate.)  

As usual, I will take some time to gush over the direction. I have always been obsessed with the intricacies of movie-making and direction is something in particular which I like to study. Denis Villeneuve (who I had never heard of before either – Google tells me he is a well respected arty kind of director who has won awards I have never heard of. Kudos!) did a marvelous job of telling the story with obscure camera angles and sharp lighting to give the story an almost disjointed, disturbed feel. And the cinematography was incredible! Eerie and beautiful enough to leave you feeling slightly creeped out – especially when concerning the aliens and their ships. *shiver*

The music and sound effects were perfectly disturbing. The spoken language of the aliens was creepy as all heck (think low whale sounds mixed with a fog horn) – and was matched with brilliantly creative special effects to bring them to life. Only complaint with the sound editing was that sometimes the excellent music drowned out the dialogue.

The aliens were AWESOME! Very natural movement wise and visually amazing. I completely believed that those aliens were real while watching them move. I’d also like to add a quick little note about the written alien language which I found enthralling and beautiful.


Aaaaand the acting. Star studded cast (love Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner) who were engaging and believable. Not really any surprises there. Really, they made a good movie. If you want more reviews check out Rotten Tomatoes – HERE.

Now to the fun stuff…


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis forms the basis of the plot arc in Arrival and provides the justification for Amy Adams’ development of the ability to see through time. The hypothesis (commonly known as Linguistic Relativity – how cool is that name?!) is a concept which basically states that the structure of a language affects its speakers perception of the world. It is argued that language determines the way in which we think and influences our approach to life – such as our thoughts and decisions.

It’s an interesting concept which has been verified in a very minor sense. If you have ever tried to learn a second language you will know that the process completely rewires your brain. But does the language itself change your perception of the world – the grammar and intricacies – or can that be attributed to the new fountain of knowledge provided by a second language? Does someone who grew up speaking French see something differently when they look at a table compared with someone who speaks German? Do they think differently?

Either way, this is the step which was used to make the leap from ‘language changes your perceptions of the world’ to ‘learning an alien language can let you see the future’. It’s a pretty massive leap, but the science is exciting enough that I don’t care too much about that.

Now, to discuss the perception of time. It’s always a dangerous decision to make in any book/movie/tv show to let time be considered non-linear. The plot holes will never be perfectly filled and there will always be loose ends. But, if it is done well enough, the viewers will hardly notice due to their minds exploding with possibilities.

For example, if you can see into the future to see that your daughter will die tragically after your marriage imploded, why wouldn’t you change something? Is it even possible to do so, or is time fixed so no matter what you do to try and prevent something, it will only cause it to happen? Determinism or free will? It all goes around in one big circle and I LOVE trying to solve these impossible questions in my head.


Well… This blog post was packed full of open ended questions and mind puzzles with no answer. And I’m not sorry! *laughs maniacally*

As always, feel free to comment and let me know what you think.

Hope you are having a wonderful day.



6 thoughts on “Arrival: The Theory Behind the Film

  1. Pingback: A Year in Review: alittlegemblog Statistics – alittlegemblog

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