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This question has been in Meta to discuss whether it's a fit or not for well over a week, without response, so I will just post it and see what happens and change it if someone feels it's not a good fit for the QA format

Unmasked spoilers ahead

This question doesn't make any sense without knowing the movie, so I didn't mask spoilers, as it would render the whole thing useless.


During Arrival we learn that there is a sort of magical (for lack of a better word) writing system that, when learned fully, allows you to perceive time in all directions, as a whole.

The more Louise learns of the language of the aliens, the more she can travel or rather experience time and draw conclusions from events that have not happened yet to change her behaviour in the past.


This revelation leads us to wonder whether all that will happen has already happened (in the sense of inevitability, or fixed fate)

My interpretation is such that because Louise experiences Past, Present and Future (or rather; lack thereof) simultaneously, the audience is lead to believe that her future has already happened.

It appears as if she can experience all of her time at once. By that logic it would also mean that her mind is more or less "outside" of time, making her mind immortal (because she can jump indefinitely inside her timeline and relive it all again).

And; If that was true, it would mean that by knowing the universal language gifted by the Heptapods, you will become immortal, as you will be able to experience your life all at once - basically jumping in time to wherever you want.


Did the writers intend the implication that time is a closed loop or is did I miss a clue in the movie where it is explained how timelines work in this universe?

Is there any canon description of how this rendition of time travel should be interpreted in the book or by the screenwriter, director, etc.?

  • I don't know much about the universe you're talking about, so can't provide an answer. I can, however, tell you that since you're asking for a canon answer to a question about a specific sci-fi universe, then it is on-topic here and won't get closed. I can also tell you that you should probably include more tags than just "movie" if you can. – DisturbedNeo Dec 9 '16 at 12:21
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    I think you need to narrow this question to one particular question - you have seven question marks in the text, and they aren't all asking the same thing, so which do you want answers to address? I also don't really follow the connection between "outside of time" and "immortal", but maybe that's the question? – IMSoP Dec 9 '16 at 12:52
  • @DisturbedNeo I can't create new tags (for arrival-2016 or the like)... And I didn't want to include time-travel because it's basically a spoiler. – Florian Peschka Dec 9 '16 at 13:03
  • @IMSoP I reduced the questions a bit and boiled them down and tried to clarify the paragraph you referenced. – Florian Peschka Dec 9 '16 at 13:04
  • @FlorianPeschka would you care for an answer that cites the source novel? – Edlothiad Feb 16 '17 at 23:58
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I don't think this question is answerable for sure within the context of the information we received in the film; however, I'm going to tentatively say:

No, Louise is not immortal

Being able to access experiences from other parts of your life does not mean you're 'actually' there; your life is still progressing, your mind is still where it belonged. You're no more jumping to the future to experience it than you are jumping to the past when you remember your childhood.

It's true that the way the film portrayed those flashes made them appear to be extremely real and vivid, as if Louise was really there, but bear in mind that the same technique - the flashback - is commonly used to show ordinary memory in other films. Indeed, the structure of the film misleads us into thinking that the events of Hannah's life had happened in the past.

This is all getting rather confusing, using a three-dimensional language to describe a four-dimensional film...but no, Louise is not immortal. She's not travelling through time, she's just remembering time.

So, with that in mind, does she have free will?

YES. Louise can absolutely change events in the future

Although we didn't see it happen in the film, I believe that the implication is that the future can be changed.

The question hinges on the idea that knowing the future does not enable one to change it; this is implied by certain lines of dialogue, where Louise describes future events with absolute terms ("I know why my husband left me" "an unstoppable disease"). However, the heptapods seem to think differently. They have given humanity their language so that humanity can progress; if seeing the future prevents one from changing it, then that knowledge is useless. It's not a weapon, or a tool, it's a trap. One cannot use it for anything, one can only see what's coming and suffer.

Our brains make choices based on the information we have. We can't stop this. Thus the very act of sending information back in time will affect what our choices will be. This may still be deterministic, in the same sense that our past appears to be deterministic, but that doesn't change whether we are free to act in the moment.

  • The idea that we can still have free will in a deterministic world is usually called "compatibilism" by philosophers. I highly recommend reading plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism for more on that subject. – Ixrec Dec 10 '16 at 22:38
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    I wouldn't agree that they can change the future. First, in the book, they can't. That's very explicit. Second, the hectapods giving us the language to develop, doesn't necessarily mean they saw a bad future they had to change. Maybe they saw a future of Hectapod and Human prosperity and cooperation, and they set themselves to put us on the path. – CyberClaw Dec 14 '16 at 9:52
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Your immortal assumptions are at best a guess. Nothing points to that fact. There is a single timeline running through the movie, and the past/future is presented always as flashbacks and dreamlike sequences.

My assumption is that while Louise can experience past/future in vivid detail, the experience is still like when we recall a memory. Time in the present, doesn't stop for her. It will come a time she will die.

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    Agreed. She can experience her entire life for as long as she remains alive, in the form of "memories." She doesn't actually travel in time, and it's debatable whether or not she can change anything (although "not" seems more likely.) When her body reaches the moment of her death and ceases to function biologically, she will also cease to have this "ability." Unless, of course, she learns a new language in the future that teaches her how to continue existing without her mortal body. ;) – Steve-O Dec 9 '16 at 15:37
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The book explains things much better. The Heptapods see their own personal timeline as a whole. Humans see only one sliver at a time, of course--the present. In the book that the movie is based on, time is unchangeable. But there is a difference between knowing and experiencing. Even as your memory of the past is not the same as when you experienced it first person, the Heptapod's memory of their entire timeline is basically not as vivid as the present. They exist in the present. They can die. But they just experience time differently. To them, they don't think about cause and effect, because they see the whole. They think about meanings. This had to happen so that could happen.

In Lousie's case, she's kind of in between. She's slowing gaining the ability of the Heptapods. So a new memory from the future will pop into her mind.

The movie does not say whether time is fixed or not. And the ending in the movie differs markedly from the book.

But the takeaway seems to be, if you could see your whole life laid out before you, the good and the bad, would you still choose to live your life? Would you perhaps savor the good a bit more?

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When I saw the movie, I thought it was fairly explicitly saying that the future could be changed, and the future was not fixed.

Thinking back, I got this mostly from the line of dialogue where Louise asks Ian if he could know the future (or see what was to come, some wording like that), if he would change anything - and he said something about maybe making sure to tell people things, let the people he cares about know, for what looked to me like an implied admission that he wouldn't try to change events, just maybe his reactions - though given the content of some of the flashbacks, perhaps he didn't mean it quite as much as he thought he did.

Along the same lines, I thought that was the actual reason for the fight with her husband - that she could change things, but had chosen not to. Perhaps she could not specifically choose whether her daughter was born with that disease (not human-changeable), but she likely could choose whether to have a child, or with whom (and thus which genes might get passed along)... and she chose to have a child knowing what would happen, because she chose to spend what time she could with her daughter - since she knew about her from the visions, and would mourn her either way, and chose to take the bad along with the good of her life.

And similarly, the setup with the General Shang looked like it worked the same way - in the flash-forward, she has to get the information from General Shang pretty specifically, in order to reach him and change his mind in time in the past. The dialogue suggests that if he hadn't given it to her - that is, if he hadn't, in the intervening time, changed his mind and agreed to change his own mind in the past, the information wouldn't have been there in the past for her to change his mind with. I thought it significant that it had to be him explaining and agreeing and giving her and in, rather than some outside account of how she called and what she said where we don't know where the information came from (which might have suggested a more deterministic viewpoint, if the info was simply "there").

I saw the future she was seeing as a choice she had made - one she could walk away from, but chooses not to, one she could work towards, and decides it's worth the pain. What she loses is the ability to not look at what might-have-been, she knows what she'll be walking away from pretty specifically when she makes that choice. Just like the general made the choice to give her the information to change his mind in the past. Just like her husband blamed her for not making a different choice when she knew hers would lead to pain.

So, to go back to your question, no I don't think she's immortal or in a closed time loop. The future is being fixed through her actions and choices, just like everyone else's, as time goes along. She can revisit memories, but that isn't the same as living (memories usually aren't), especially since she can only change what she (will) do the first time around. And she will continue to live, to make choices, and eventually die.

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