Just watched Arrival and now reading reviews and discussions to comprehend the movie.

The aliens could see the future and know that they would need help from humans in 3000 years, that's why they have come to earth to offer humans a "tool".

They sure have seen Abbott die in this process before they came to earth as Louise see her daugher's journey with life from future. Neither of them chooses to change the course of the future.

As some review says they are creating the future by knowing it in advance, I kinda disagree. Though they have an option, none of them chooses to alter the future. That's not creating, thet's just observing the future.

Also Louise used the information from the future (the conversation with Shang) to change the immediate future, i.e a war with the aliens, then why not change their personal future?

Why didn't they use the tool/weapon to change the future so that it can be a non-zero sum game for everybody?

4 Answers 4


My interpretation of Arrival was always that it suggested that the future was set in stone.

The Heptapods (and other speakers of the universal language) remember the past and future, and act accordingly, but they’re all helpless to behave otherwise.

Louise sees her daughter die, and chooses to become a mother anyway because that’s the choice she would make with that knowledge. Therefore she sees no other future than the one where her daughter dies, and her husband leaves her.

She has no ability to change the future, because the future is already set in stone by the choices she will make with full knowledge of the consequences. To do otherwise would require her to be a completely different person.

The Heptapods are the same. Abbott came to Earth to die, knowing that it was for a worthy cause.

  • If the future is already set in stone, if you cant change the future then how does it make a tool ? Is here any difference between us people(who can't see the future) and the aliens (who can see it) if you can't change it, because both of us are just acting as the future is set, one group knows and the other doesn't ?
    – Spectra
    Dec 24, 2018 at 6:49
  • I think the implication is that free will is an illusion. For a given set of inputs, people (or Heptapods) will behave in a fixed way. The difference is that Heptapods see more using their “tool” and so behave differently than they would if they weren’t aware of future and past simultaneously
    – s3raph86
    Dec 26, 2018 at 1:29
  • and so behave differently than they would if they weren’t aware of future and past simultaneously - you mean Heptapods get the whole picture and enough time to adjust to incidents like emotional outbursts for child death and so on, right ?
    – Spectra
    Dec 26, 2018 at 6:51

In 'The Woman Who Died a Lot' from Jasper Fforde, there was a good explanation of the how you can't escape your the future, especially when you know about it.
(I know there is so much different types of time travel/predestination it makes little sense to use one to explain another, but in this case, it seems to work the same way).

In this book, a few 'chosen ones' get to know their future. One of those got a dire future : He would be murdered in a week. Fortunately for him, the location of his murder(in England) was also disclosed.

So he did what everyone would do in this situation. He took a plane for Australia. And he changed his future... and forget anything about the other discarded future. So he 'wakes up'(figuratively) in Australia, without the slightest idea about why he's here. And take back the return plane. And revert back to the default future.
You can think of it as a grandfather paradox in reverse.

So it's basically the same here. If Louise choose not to have a kid, she will never know why she made this decision. And without the warning, she would probably would want the kid anyway.
Same for Abbott, the only way for him to know he will die, is to make the trip (and die). If he get cold feet, he will not know why he don't want to make the trip.

So future might not be predetermined, but you can't really use your knowledge to change it anyway. And if you do, you won't know that you changed it.

  • But at the same time, in the movie, time was described as nonlinear, like a closed loop. You can see the past , present and future all at once,no ?
    – Spectra
    Dec 24, 2018 at 17:34

I think there are a few reasons at play here for why this is the case, and they all play into the fact that the heptapods require help from humanity specifically.

  1. Being able to think in their visual language started the shift in time perception for Louise. By and large, this is all that happens to her, save for the piece of information she gets from the Chinese politician at the party in the future.

  2. Her ability to get that one piece of info came very late in her linguistic and cognitive experience with the language. While important, it was only one piece of info, and she didn't change the future, she was simply an observer.

  3. For reasons unknown to the characters and us, the viewers, something about humanity's ability to wield the tool of this time perception/juxtaposed experience will yield the kind of help the heptapods require.

I think that, for as talented as Louise is, she's still green when it comes to using this skill. Consider a real skill one could learn now: welding. You could take a course on structural welding, but know nothing about pipe welding, and vice versa. Even if you were to take classes on both, you still need to have the logical planning and creative capacity to problem solve a situation to make what needs to be made.

I'm thinking that, between Louise being new to this time skill and her lack of experience/depth of knowledge about what she can do with said skill, is what prevents her from being able to do more during the duration of the movie.

  • That's solid reasoning about Louise's abilities, but the question seems to be primarily asking why the heptapods didn't change their future (and prevent one of them dieing), or so I think at least.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Dec 23, 2018 at 23:56
  • I like the way you explained the capabilities of Louise and still wonder if they wanted, could they change the future ?
    – Spectra
    Dec 24, 2018 at 6:42

It has been covered in sister site already:

In the source novel, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Louise states that the heptapods can't alter the future but also aren't controlled by it (Emphasis mine):

The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons.


What distinguishes the heptapods’ mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history’s events; it is also that their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology. - Story of Your Life - Ted Chiang

So they don't want to mess with history (current events).

  • What the reviews meant by saying creating, I get that now, though not clearly. It's hard to rewire the brain at present ;) On a different note, I got another question, which I stated in the comment under s3raph86's answer. If we/they don't want to alter future/chronology of history, then what is the point of learning the future ? At any cost we will behave as the future is set !
    – Spectra
    Dec 24, 2018 at 16:16

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