I once asked a question about the time line of an incredibly complex time travel movie on this site and received some incredibly elegant explanations. I'm wondering if you guys can explain Arrival too.

She learns an alien language which allows her to think in such a way that she knows the future. In the future, an important leader tells her at a world convention that he remembers when she called him on his personal number and got his attention by telling him his wifes dying words.

He then proceeds to give her his cell number and tells her his wife's dying words. In the "past", as she "sees" this "memory" of the future conversation, she uses this number to call him and tells him those words.

How does that work? Mind blown. Is there even a logical way to explain this?

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    There is some specific wording in the movie to explain this but I don't remember it exactly. Basically the gist is that time is not linear so she can travel through time like one would through space but that doing so doesn't affect or change time. Compare it to moving through our own spacial dimension. Say for example you need to look up a word from a dictionary in your living room you walk into that room, get the info you need, and go back to wherever you came from. You don't change the house by doing so because you are only moving through it but not physically changing it.
    – sanpaco
    Dec 10, 2016 at 6:37

3 Answers 3


No convoluted time travel logic is required to explain the events in Arrival.

The two keys to understanding the movie are that the alien language rewires the brain so it perceives all of time happening at once and the movie makers are playing with the chronology and linearity of the script (either to mess with the audience or to enhance the oddness of the alien perception of time).

Once you accept that your mind can see all of time at once, you no longer need any time travel to explain knowledge of the future. Louise knows the wife's dying words because of this, not because anyone has travelled in time.

But the director plays with the audience's understanding of time by unveiling the story in a non-linear sequence (which makes a point using movie technique about just how odd it is to see time this way). The family scenes with Louise and her daughter, for example, are seen at the start of the movie. The audience assumes they are in the past: they are not; they are from the future. It isn't clear whether the scene with Louise and the Chinese general at the book launch (which the audience assumes happens long after the main action) is a future scene or Louise's memory in the present of a future event (there are odd features in it about what she remembers from the past). I suspect the ambiguity is deliberate (again to highlight just how odd the alien perception of time is in terms that an observant cinema audience can feel and perceive).

All of this makes sense given the nature of the alien perception of time and none of it requires time travel. The director has masterfully used to art of cinema to muddle our normal perception of linear narrative to create some of the same oddness in our heads as an audience.

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    Louise has the "gift", but the chinese general has the intelligence and arranges to meet Louise and then shows her the telephone number long enough for her to dial it in the past and then slowly dictates to her (she can hardly understand mandarin) exactly what his former self in the past needs to hear in order to get china to back down. The Chinese general is the one steering the show and Louise is just a conduit.
    – leancz
    Dec 14, 2016 at 9:35
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    @leancz That's a very convoluted explanation. And entirely unnecessary. If Louise has the alien sense of time then she will get this knowledge without the general having to have it. Or maybe he does realise exactly this in the future. Bugger, non-linear time is a very mind bending concept.
    – matt_black
    Dec 14, 2016 at 12:06
  • Well, thoughts and memories or people, it's still pretty much a time travel story nevertheless, even if noone phyiscally travels through time.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Jan 13, 2017 at 16:53
  • @matt_black: When showing his phone number, the general specifically says that he thinks Louise needs to see it. There are options here (Louse told him to show it when they meet; or the general is intentionally sending a message to Louise in the past by showing her his number after the fact) but the general is part of the ploy to some degree. Louise still only knows her future, she cannot know something unrelated to her. She knows the number because the general shows her, but why the general chose to show her the number is unknown (and the core question).
    – Flater
    Feb 13, 2019 at 14:52
  • @NapoleonWilson, is it time travel if there is no physically time travel? Does this mean that in any movie when someone is remembering something from the past they are time traveling?
    – nilon
    Apr 16, 2021 at 14:30

Ref - Arrival Explained

I believe that incredibly complex time travel movie was Predestination. While films like those involve actual time travel... Arrival involves no time travel at all.

Just like we can see our past and present simultaneously... Louise can see her past, present and future simultaneously. Why? Because she has learned to understand the alien language.

Ian mentions a theory about how immersing oneself in a language can rewire the brain. We can see that Louise has been really connecting with the alien language by trying to interpret the nuances of each of the symbols. She's immersing herself into the alien language and as a result her brain is getting rewired to perceive reality like the aliens. Here's the catch about the aliens and their language. They don't see time as linear.

Looks like the Chinese leader has eventually learned to understand the language too. So over the 18 months after the aliens leave he sees visions of the future where he gives Louise his number and message.

Since time is non-linear for Louise, she gets information from her future and uses it in her present. On the other side, Shang is probably also learnt the alien language (over 18 months) and is able to see time non-linearly. 18 months later, he understands the importance of giving his private number and the Mandarin message to Louise so that she can use it in the past to change Shang’s mind.

Both of them have combined the usage of their gift to solve a crisis.

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    I like the idea that when both participants have the gift they can collaborate to send messages back in time. I rewatched the conversation with the general and he hints at this in what he says to Louise.
    – matt_black
    Dec 22, 2016 at 11:16
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    yeah, which also is what the aliens have gifted the humans - unity. Only now the humans can be the species that evolves and survives long enough to go and help another advanced alien species.
    – John
    Dec 23, 2016 at 7:02
  • Well, thoughts and memories or people, it's still pretty much a time travel story nevertheless, even if noone phyiscally travels through time.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Jan 13, 2017 at 16:55
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    But didn't she already have visions about her future child before meeting the aliens and learning new language
    – Abhishek
    Jan 17, 2017 at 14:58
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    @Abhishek, the first part of the movie is not a vision. It's a narration where she is recalling events from her past.
    – John
    Jan 19, 2017 at 14:18

From my perspective, one paradigm behind the time travel topic in Arrival is the idea of a static, predefined time, where beings travel through like on railtracks.

Still, I believe this is not th main point of Arrival. From my perspective, the main point is the idea how the languages we use determine the way we think, even determine what we are able to think. One example for this coming into my mind is the possibility to express politeness in the Japanese language (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honorific_speech_in_Japanese).

The „Gift“ of the Aliens is the universal language allowing those who are able to use it in a proficient way to think independent of time. This is how Louise has her visions of the future: she starts to dream and think in the universal language and by doing so she can express thoughts in any direction in time.

However, time or the chain of events happening in time are predetermined to become logical.

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