Study Notes on Arrival (2016)

I have an upcoming presentation on both the short story and the film and I made a promise to write up a review so while I make very chur very extensive preparations for the presentation like screenshotting 250 pics from the movie and read a dozens of theories I thought it’d be fun to share them here. So in this “Notes on” you can see what I learn from film classes (writing down all sequences and what happens in them) as well as some commentary I made along the way! Nói chung là lỡ screenshot 250 tấm ảnh với cả take note dài dài mà bắt mỗi teammate đọc thì tội nghiệp quá thôi share lên đây ahihi cho bõ công sức =)))

ARRIVAL (2016)


Genre: Science Fiction Film 

Director: Denis Villeneuve & written by Eric Heisserer

Starring: Amy Adams (Louise Banks); Jeremy Renner (Ian Donnelly) – he’s Hawkeye from Avengers btw; Forest Whitaker (Colonel Weber); 

Based on the short story “The Story Of Your Life” (Ted Chiang, 1998); 

I. Things to think about after watching the film:

    1. What’s the suzjet of the movie? (Like what’s the general story that happens in the movie)
    2. How is the movie made to tell this story (or stories): 
    • What film language or cinematic techniques are used to tell the story of the heptapod’s arrival? 
    • What narrative / plot line is used to tell the heptapod story? Is it chronological or non-linear? If it is chronological, please address the beginning, the build up, the conflict, the resolution, and the ending. 
    • What feelings do it create in you as a viewer → do you think this narrative works? 
    • What film language/techniques are used to tell the child story?
    • What kind of narrative is it? Is it chronological or non-linear? What do you feel about it? Do you think this narrative works? 

3. From the observations above, what do you think is the main story of this movie: the heptapods or the child? → Do you agree or not? Do you think either story needs to be given more attention?

4. What do you feel about the “flashforwards” in the movie? 

5. How is your experience of watching this movie different from reading the story? Is the adaptation the same as the original story? Why? Why not?

6. Why do you think the movie is called Arrival, not Departure, or The Story of Your Life? What’s the significance of “Arrival” then?

7. Pick a scene you like and talk about it!

8. How does this movie influence your way of thinking about time and the language(s) you use?

II. Sequence Logs:

01:34: Opening Montage (soundtrack On the nature of daylight by Max Richter); Child Sequence 1

  • “I used to think this was the beginning of your story” → told in past tense → the audience is programmed to think of this sequence as happening in the past → flashback?
  • Starting from the child’s birth – hospital scene “Come back to me” → childhood → moments in her life → adolescent → her illness → this was the end → “Come back to me” (again)
  • The phrase “Come back to me” corresponds to the phrase “She’s mine” in the story, first when the child was born and end with the child at the morgue. 


04:03: Switch to present tense – “The day they arrived” → Arrival → again past tense

  • Teach Portuguese in college → “Language is seen as an expression of art” → in the story Louise mentioned her work in the Amazon with Portuguese that she can use; 
  • The “arrivals” reportage on TV → Colonel Weber came to find her to ask for help with the aliens → after going to Berkeley he returned to take her and Ian Donelly to the base camp; 
  • Louise: language as the cornerstone of humanity – Ian insisted that the cornerstone of humanity is science → the clash between the natural sciences and arts & humanities; 
  • Đọc truyện nghĩ con 7 chi này phải hầm hố cỡ Transformers hoặc be bé như Wall-E chứ sao các bác Hollywood CGI nó thành mực khổng lồ vậy cà :p


39:54: Base camp sequence

  • Louise introduced her and Ian as HUMAN 
  • Kangaroo story as an anecdote to prove her method → in the story the kangaroo story is mentioned early when she talked about her introductory class at college; 
  • Question sequence “What is your purpose on Earth” → explain the linguistic intricacies of language 
  • Ripping hazmat suits off to come into contact with the heptapods → call them Abott and Costello

51:51: Child “flashback –> 51:56: back to present –> 52:00: Child –> 52:03: present –> 52:05: Child –> 52:09: present –> 52:12: child –> 52:14: present → Reckoning montage? Or are we just flashback and chill now?

52:35 – 55:44: Ian’s part, voiceover in documentary style 

  • Recount the discoveries made by teams working on the heptapods
  • Explaining linguistic nature → replace most of Louise’s account in the story cuz in the story he sucks at alien language tbh 
  • Communication: opens ur our understanding of this word 

  • Romance at dawn corresponds to some romantic segments between Gary and Louise in the story 


59:03: child’s voiceover in the present

59:32 – 59:43: child’s project Mommy and Daddy talks to animals, drawing of mother and father with a bird in the cage (is it the bird in the cage at the heptapod working place?) → recognition: oh, it’s the two of them! The “flashback” hasn’t even started yet so this is a flashforward! 

  • 1:00:06: sad that your dad and I → oh he left 😦
  • 1:00:20: back to present
  • 1:00:49: walking outside → 1:00:59 → 1:01:00: baby hand → 1:01:02: outside again
  • 1:01:08: inside hospital room → 1:01:13: outside → 1:01:26: inside → 1:01:36: heptapod → 1:01:49: back to present
  • 1 minute of montage but so blurry and everything overlapping into each other → reality and consciousness become jumbled; 

The Sarpio-Whorf hypothesis of language about how language shapes the way you think → link to the Russian summer camp in the story → the story never made explicit this theory but the film does even though it’s more pop culture-ish and not very accurate.

  • 1:02:29 bird chirps and continues to chirp → 1:02:42: a heptapod appears out of nowhere in the room??? → 1:02:47: room, bed, wakes up at base camp 

1:04:03: Chinese General Shang recording → “sets”: advantage, suits, honor, flower → Louise is asked to do Mandarin translation but she can only translate the words from Chinese into English she doesn’t understand what suits and sets mean 

→ we realise that translation is not just about words but also a matter of context and culture 

  • 1:04:28: she realises that “suits, honor, flowers” are tiles in the game of mahjong → see lah translation is very cultural as well! 
  • 1:04:37: now they realise that the Chinese use game to converse with heptapods → uh oh → imagine teaching them chess instead of English
  • Problem: every conversation would be a game and there would be winning and losing and gaining → problem with understanding, translation and teaching language; 
  • Also reference Ferdinand De Saussure when he compares linguistics to a game of chess (see Course in General Linguistics) 


Conflict: China threatens to pull out and bring this to the UN after receiving “threatening” messages → they have to go back in to talk with the heptapods 

  • Offer weapons? Or Use weapons?
  • 1:14:06: write on the glass → 1:14:13: child sequence, the child was born → 1:14:40: she could write on the glass → then the heptapods unleash a whole glass of their written language; 
  • 1:15:49 – 1:16:08: boom sequence → 1:18:20 the heptapods flew up into the sky 

1:18:57: conflict #2: imminent war against the aliens 

1:20:19 – 1:20:30: child sequence: what’s the term here? → 1:21:10: present → 1:21:48: Ian cracked something 

  • He did some mathematical calculations → realises that it’s 0.083 or 1/12 but no mention of Fermat principle like in the story 
  • They got summoned to the meeting “There is no time” → the humans interpret it to mean that there is no time left until the heptapods join force and attack them (aka the attack is gonna happen very soon) but it’s later on that we will learn that the heptapod has a different perception of time than human (but I think this is much clearer in the story) → Ian says they offer their information in exchange → non zero-sum game → 1:24:15: child sequence non-zero sum game 

Last sequence with Costello:

  • In true Hollywood style suddenly Louise just needs to speak in English and the heptapod Costello understands LOL đúng kiểu Hollywood mất công học tiếng heptapod chi nói tiếng Anh nó cũng hiểu =)))) → 1:30:59: how can you know the future? 
  • Child sequence → who is this child? Mommy and Daddy talks to animal, the clay model is the model of the heptapod → the child is hers and knows the story of the heptapod 
  • → finally enlightened that the heptapod wants to offer their language as a “weapon” that can help open time in exchange that 3,000 years later the humans would in turn help them → heptapod can know the future because of their language → language is the “weapon” opens time 

1:32:25: pod leaving → child sequence 

  • 1:33:08 – 1:33:38: are you gonna leave me like Daddy did → revelation of why the husband would leave: she told him that she could see time and the future and that their child would die of an incurable illness but she went ahead anyway → he got angry and left both of them 
  • 1:35:22: child sequence
  • 1:35:30: I just realised why my husband left me 
  • 1:36:13: child → 1:36:19: camp → 1:36:23: child → 1:36:32: camp → 1:36:46: child → 1:36:52: camp → 1:36:56: child → 1:37:03: camp, zoom up → book → camp → 1:37:20: book cover “To Hannah” oh so that’s how she knows what she’s gonna name her child → 1:37:39: I can read it  
  • Montage with extremely frequent cross-cutting between present and future short (only ~ 2 minutes) but long enough to create the effect that she can read the language and experience the time transformation; 

  • Explains to the Colonel that the heptapod’s language is the weapon and that their experience of time is non-linear so they can tell what’s to come before it happens (like they can see the future lol) 


1:38:43: in the house of the child sequence → 1:39:00 at the party (there’s a heptapod writing flag) meets General Shang → “18 months ago”: they’re in the future talking back to this present moment → he told her she’s the reason why he’s at the party → she in the present sees what happens in the future then follow through with it: 

  • So she sees the General’s phone number in the future so she uses it to call him in the present 
  • Which means she has knowledge of it from the future to help her but then that future can only happens because she does things in the present → the future is a consequence of her present action that she is able to foresee and so she follows through with her action in the present because the future tells her what to do (if you know what I mean)
  • Like she sees that the future will look like it because of her action in the present so she goes ahead and follows through with it; → SUPER TRIPPY SEQUENCE

1:40:46: back at camp Louise runs to get the phone, but as she goes on the phone she doesn’t know what to say → 1:42:07: party, never forgot what she said to him → General Shang told her-future about what she said → she knows what to say in the present → her knowledge of the future is both by herself and from others; 

  • 1:43:25 – 1:43:39: end party sequence; back to camp → she called him on the phone and said his wife’s dying word → to fulfill the future → her present action is informed by the outcome in the future; 
  • Crisis averted, everyone share information, yayyy

1:45:42: back at the house at the child sequence in the beginning of the movie 

→ the story of your life → the day they “departed” because on that day Ian and Louise proclaimed their love for each other; 

  • 1:47:33: the only time we ever saw Ian’s face in the child sequence → 1:47:40 at camp Louise, after experiencing this future event realises that her husband is gonna be Ian → she decides to fulfil the future by following through action in the present
  • 1:53:00: ending sequence, they dance together, child sequence → END 

(and that kids is how you completely deconstruct a movie Derrida are you proud of me???)


III. Trivia: 

  1. The guy who plays Ian Donnelly also plays Hawkeye in the Avengers series. Idk why they don’t keep the name Gary – maybe Ian sounds more “intellectual”?
  2. Amy Adams is so pretty she has blue eyes while Louise in the story has “mud brown” eyes.
  3. I love the music at the child sequence – it’s Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight”, which I first listened to when I was 12 or 13 something. Actually all of his music is great, like cinematic-great. In 2017 I found a clip from Arrival with the music but I didn’t really get it but I do now, go watch it, it’s that good! Like I was deconstructing this movie and I know all the music and montage are cinematic techniques but I couldn’t help it and I just broke down and cry T-T


4. The Sanskrit scene in the beginning of the movie: I was generally intrigued after watching this film twice so I googled and apparently so many people have the same question! 

So at the beginning the Colonel visited Louise Banks at her university. After refusing to let her go see the aliens, he planned to go to Berkeley (I’d assume it’s UC Berkeley) to talk to another linguist, Wanders. She tricked the Colonel by telling him to ask Wanders for the Sanskrit word for “war” and its translation. 

Later on at night when she was sleeping the Colonel took helicopters back to take her to the base camp. She asked what the other linguist said and he replied “Gavisti” meaning “an argument”. She said it means “a desire for more cows”. The Colonel then agreed to take her to camp. 

So I consulted this website and they gave really excellent answers to this scene and I want to share what I found here! 

  • So basically Louise wanted to talk to the alien but she needed to prove that she is a better linguist than the other guy, and what’s a better way to demonstrate her more superior (?) better capability and knowledge by creating a situation in which the other linguist can answer the question just not quite accurate yet – so the pretense of asking for translation of words is subtle enough yet more powerful than yelling “I’M BETTER THAN HIM”


  • The context is that aliens have arrived on Earth and if you read this in the sci-fi tradition it would normally lead to war (Hello H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds???) so it’s pretty understandable to ask for the word for “war”, especially when the messenger is a military dude so yeah it all checks out. So this is like a very self-referential moment to the scifi genre.


  • Users on the forum provide some other Sanskrit words for “war” (check it out if you’re curious!) but they stress the point that translation, in context of the movie and even in real life, is very much about translation culture and mindset (ways of thinking) as it is about word-to-word. So Louise’s translation of the word “gavisti” is both cultural and linguistic because cows are considered valuable and sacred to people who speak Sanskrit and that a desire for more cows – greed and want is the source of conflicts and wars; while Wanders’ translation is much more simplified and trite cuz he made the assumption that “war” is just “an argument” leading to conflict, which may pose a problem if he’s on the field and conversing with aliens.


  • So as a military personnel the colonel must have understood this or he just thinks “Oh she’s a better linguist” and took her in.

Note: I don’t really know how accurate this is cuz I obviously don’t speak Sanskrit but this is a fun piece! Another example is teaching aliens mahjong instead of English! That’s also a good example of the thesis mentioned in the film about how language affects the way you think and perceive the world! 

TBC with Notes on “Chuyện Đời Con”

3 thoughts on “Study Notes on Arrival (2016)

  1. 2 more trivia:
    4) The sentence that Louise said to General Shang on the phone is “In war there is no hero, only widows”.

    5) Tzi Ma, the actor who plays General Shang, is an Asian American actor and he’s got a new movie out – Tigertail – a love story by Taiwanese American director Alan Yang (who wrote on Parks & Recreation and The Good Place to name a few). It’s on Netflix, go watch it kids! I cried so much T-T

    If you want more Arrival theories check out reddit! I’ve been using r/community for the thread on the TV show Community!

    Liked by 2 people

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