For the record, I absolutely adored Arrival (2016). I found it to be rich in substance as well as concept, all of which only bolstered by fine visuals and fine acting. It was a brilliant piece of filmmaking, as the story slowly burned to its conclusion, throwing out bigger and bigger ideas and concepts, making it a very, very imaginatively rewarding, intellectually stimulating story.

Also, I find that 99.9% of the questions and points raised are addressed in return, making for each concept to be complete and come (excuse me) full circle.

One thing that stood out to me as potentially problematic or at least slightly convenient as far as bridging the gap between the mystery of the aliens’ desires, to finding their desire to communicate, was the revelation of written communication.

I concede that there were alternative methods experimented with- the film remarks that the visitors potentially communicate via sound, and it seems apparent that they do as recordings from within the lens shaped craft offer interesting-sounding assumedly-communicative sounds, however to discern patterns and inflections from what they obtained would be a fruitless exercise. The scientists even pointed out that they tried playing aloud recordings of what they assumed would result in an attempt at communication, but the aliens chose to play recordings of the humans back, in an attempt to mimic their attempts of communication. This in itself proves that the visitors had an interest in bridging the language barrier and were attempting similar ideas, or at least were attempting ideas that they knew humans were familiar with, as we had tried the same. As well, they were visibly patient and had their intent been anything other than communication, I believe they would have already executed their plans for domination, trade, etc, on their own terms. The aliens in this film seemed to in fact allow themselves to be a blank canvas for the humans to hypothesise over, lowering their expectations of humanity to zero, allowing humans to work at their own pace. Unfortunately, the film proves that ‘our own pace’ is actually a fractured pace as we compete within our own species to solve the puzzle.

Alas, I may have digressed, but my question is- why, when the visitors can view our world and that symbolic, written language is widely used and understood, would they not attempt an exchange of written language from the beginning? As well, if they know future events, why not create a reference point, or a Rosetta Stone type portion of language for humans to use to decipher their questions/intent? I realise there was a sort-of test at play, but the humans were on the brink of an attack, so why not prevent this and allow us to continue amicably?

Also, I’m aware this is a fiction and the story is built to create tension and suspense, but the rest of the film really works- this is the only small snag which I can find with the plot, though it ruins nothing.

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    One idea could be that you need to really develop and experience that language on your own and out of nothing, rather than just "looking stuff up in a dictionary".
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 17:12

2 Answers 2


The way I see it - The aliens' written language is basically the sole purpose of their visit to planet Earth. They wanted to pass this "tool" (which was first addressed by Louise as "weapon", which is in my opinion a flaw in the script - such an intelligent person as Louise, should have understood the outcome of saying the word "weapon", especially when their intentions were absolutely unclear at this point; I think it would have been a lot more reasonable if she had said "tool" anyway, regardless of the obviously overwhelming feelings she'd experienced during this specific encounter/meeting) to humanity, in order to push our civilization to a un-natural fast-paced progress - due to the fact that they basically know that this is going to be pretty useful to them, during some crisis they're going to face in 3,000 years. As Ian described, studying a language to a certain depth may result a "re-wire" process of one's brain/mind. This "evolution" was the tool the aliens came to pass to our civilization.

To my opinion, they knew that in order to really comprehend and understand their language in a relatively short time period, one must have extraordinary learning abilities and a specific "set of mind" which will allow him to truly take the process seriously as possible and make this language a part of one's self. This person turned out to be Louise, which have literally took this experiment so seriously, that she actually made this language a part of her - Ian even asked her, in one point, if she dreams in the newly acquired alien language. That was approximately the point in time when Louise started to to see those "visions" of the future (which she obviously couldn't understand and categorizes by "dreams" / "strange daydreams").

I think that the aliens probably had extremely low expectations from humanity, and that's why they've been so patient - they've waited for the" right" person for the task to reveal himself. They probably didn't want just to "pass" the symbols to all the scientists which arrived to the "meetings" with them, due to the fact that they could have just learned this language in a very superficial manner - which wouldn't get them any closer to revealing the "weapon"/" tool" behind it. If you think about it - it's not such a "long shot" to hope that one of the scientists would start communicating with them using written symbols / language.

Louis turned to be the person they were hoping to find (in another probable scenario, they couldn't find a worthy candidate on Earth - and just moved to the next planet). Maybe it's some sort of alien "pride" - after all, it's a hell of a weapon they've invented.

Also, it's pretty probable that they wanted to test humanity - they wanted humanity to prove that they can acquire and comprehend the extremely advanced tools that the alien language offers. Maybe, least advanced civilizations have proven to be "unworthy" or physically incapable (in a specific point of their evolution, not in general) to hold and use this tool.

Again, this is just my interpretation of the plot.

  • I think it would have been a lot more reasonable if she had said "tool" anyway, The dictionary they build is based on trial and error, asking the aliens to label something (e.g. show them an apple, they show the symbol for apple). If Louise showed them a rifle (since the military is there, it's possible), and the aliens call that a "tool" (because they see no difference between a soldier's gun or a carpenter's hammer), then the dictionary that Louise is creating will label the symbol for "tool" as "weapon" because that's what Louise expects the aliens saw it as.
    – Flater
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 15:08

Part of the aliens' goal was to make humans work together and communicate with each other. Since they can see forward in time, they already knew that Louise would take the right steps to say the right thing to the Chinese general to reopen communication and prevent an attack.

This is foreshadowed when the aliens allow the bomb on their ship to count down until there are seconds left before ejecting Louise and Ian and shutting the blast door -- they know when the bomb is going to go off, they know how much time it will take to protect their guests, and they know how to shield their ship from damage.

It's the same with the Chinese attacking them: they know that it won't happen because of what they're teaching Louise and what she will do. Letting different countries cut off communications among each other, and letting Louise be the one to open communications again, teaches humans to work together. The aliens knew this ahead of time, and just let the humans go through the steps they needed to in order to learn to cooperate.

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    +1 All of the strange behaviour from the Heptapods can be readily explained by the fact that they know the future, so everything, from their arrival, to the landing sites, to their mysterious methods, were deliberate in order to achieve the goal they had foreseen. Louise does the same when calling the Chinese General, from his point of view, her actions and knowledge are a total mystery, but from hers, she's only using her foreknowledge to achieve her goal.
    – Oskuro
    Commented Nov 28, 2016 at 13:40
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    I'd argue that the bomb is not a good supporting argument, seeing as how they pushed it to the last second and as a result, Louise got a concussion--an injury which didn't advance their cause or be the direct catalyst for Louise's epiphany. One could argue that they even just had a better sense of awareness of the number counting down on the LED indicator. I'll admit, it's more dramatic, but with the power they wield, allowing her to get a concussion was just poor time management on their part.
    – hexparrot
    Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 15:49
  • 1
    @hexparrot Great point about Louise unnecessarily getting a concussion. The heptapods could have even moved the bomb into a safe place at the start of the conversation. Or launched it a mile into the air, for it to explode away from everybody. Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 18:20
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    @hexparrot: and one of the 2 heptapods seems to be dying after the bomb exploded (the one who was closer to the window, warning the human and who pushed them away when they failed to realise the danger they were in and stop the explosion?) Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 19:35
  • @OlivierDulac They outright 'say' that Hardy "went through death process" - just because they were able to discern the future doesn't mean they fine tuned every reaction. For beings living in non-linear time, all of these things meant different things to them than us. The things we're describing as shortcomings they probably saw as inevitabilities. Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 19:52

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