(Some spoilers ahead)

The plot of the movie Arrival (2016) is that aliens come to bring peace among humans and ask for a favor to be given back in the future. This is possible. But what if this is not the only interpretation?

One of the key developments of the film is that an interpreter of languages is challenged to understand the way the aliens communicate, via visual signage, logograms: pictures that represent a group of ideas and words simultaneously, hence giving the "speaker" the ability to see reality beyond the present time, and so, foreseeing the future.

This skill can be called many ways. In the movie it is called tool, gift, and also even misinterpreted as "weapon" by the Chinese who have interacted with the aliens through the analogy of games, in which winners and losers could be assumed on each side of the game. Some characters in the movie understand, under certain logograms, that the aliens are saying "use weapon", and others understand "accept gift".

"Use weapon" seams to place the idea that this is the reason why the aliens are in Earth. How this is interpreted varied across different countries and characters through the movie as well as audience. The trick part here is that "use anything" sounds as the aliens are coming to help. Here is where one could see a problem of interpretation of the aliens intentions.

One could easily ask: what would happen if they had not arrived? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps human extinction. It does not matter. What matters in the context of the movie is:

Are humans free to accept the gift?

Or may it be "an offer not to be refused"?

Is there any hint of in which way the humans should help the heptapods in the future? And would this be simply a token of appreciation or mandatory?

Of course the movie hints to a positive understanding. Just seems a fun question to ask.

Another note on the other section of the aliens main proposal: "use weapon" has two parts, and the first one is "use". This could be understood as "accept offer" as well as "receive gift" but at the same time it could appear mandatory such as "do as commanded": an interplanetary and through time and space mob. Not quite likely to be honest, but still a possibility.

2 Answers 2


In keeping with the theme of the film: it's none of these. Our languages attach value judgements to things (gift, curse, imposition) and carry implications about how they should be used (weapon, tool, debt).

But it seems to be a feature of heptapod thinking that they are completely neutral about such things. Things simply are. Think how matter of fact the communication was that one of them had began his (?) death cycle.

It's simply a step in a causal chain that preserves their species. There's no good, bad, should or should not when you see the whole causal chain including the end. It simply is, was and will be one step in a chain that involves the humans saving the heptapods somehow.

This is also the difference in thinking that wrecks the marriage: from the linguist's point of view, who sees the whole causal chain, there was no good, bad, should or should not about the decision to have a daughter and not reveal that she knew would die young. It's simply something that happens in her life: one step in the chain that involves them all feeling love and happiness at many points while they're a family, while being alone before and after. From the physicist's point of view, seeing a sequential series of moments, there are things you should and shouldn't do at certain points based on what you and others do and don't know at that point, meaning certain decisions (like choosing not to tell your husband the daughter you are going to have is doomed to die young) qualify for value-judgements like "dishonest", "cruel", etc.

Whether you apply value judgements to actions and things is as much a matter of perspective as which value judgements you apply. We could look at the heptapods actions in a human way, applying value judgements based on viewing each action in the moment it was carried out, and see, for example, a complicated deceptive scheme where they withhold information, mislead us, and bring humanity to the brink of war for their own ends. Or we could look at it in a heptapod way, and see a chain of events which includes their species surviving and ours becoming more peaceful, where it makes no sense to judge any one item or action on its own because any change changes the whole chain.

  • I understand that it could be possible to see the heptapods view as neutral. But perhaps this is the same than viewing them in a positive way, meaning that the movie points that they are either benign or mean no harm. I would like to know if it is possible to see the aliens from an opposite point of view.
    – nilon
    Jul 18, 2017 at 23:49

Are humans free to accept the gift?

Yes, humans (individually) are free to accept or reject this "gift." Since gaining the ability to foresee the future requires learning the language yourself, people who don't want it can simply choose not to learn the language.

Obviously it's a powerful ability, and many people probably would choose to learn the language solely for that benefit, but I can also see some people refusing. After all, do you really want to know the exact date and time of your own death? Keep in mind that there's no indication within the film that the future can actually be changed - only observed. Even Louise herself proceeds to give birth to Hannah, even knowing all the pain and turmoil that will follow.

The Chinese General's comment to Louise in the future ("I'll never understand how your mind works") would at least imply that he himself never learned the Heptapod language.

Is there any hint of in which way the humans should help the heptapods in the future? And would this be simply a token of appreciation or mandatory?

No, there's no hint of what the Heptapods' crisis even is, let alone how Humanity will help to save them. It is at least suggested that in giving us their language, we will see for ourselves what needs to be done, and then do it. In that sense, giving us this gift would seem to be mandatory, although only in the sense of Humanity as whole receiving it - as above, individual people are free to remain ignorant of it, if they so choose. Also, considering that the Heptapods don't seek to change the future themselves, it would seem that they always knew they would give us this gift - it wasn't a choice on their part to do it.

  • Thanks for input. Only, does the last sentence imply that all is determined as in predetermined? Perhaps I could add an extra question to differentiate between Humanity and Louise. In the context of your answer seems Louise wouldn't be free if it has always been that way. I honestly don't know.
    – nilon
    Jul 18, 2017 at 23:48
  • Well, the Heptapods (and Louise, after the fact) certainly seem to behave as if it's all predetermined. Whether that's because they now understand some Great Truth that shows them it is, or they just choose not to change things, the movie never makes clear.
    – Steve-O
    Jul 19, 2017 at 0:21
  • Think of it as a human watering a sapling. The plant wonders why the human gave it water. And the human's reason is "because I need you to be a tree in the future".
    – Flater
    Apr 17, 2019 at 10:55

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