In the third act of the movie we find out that...

the main character can "see" into the future, or, with her mind, travel fourth dimensionally, and that's the explanation for a lot of the visions she has which the audience was led to believe were in fact flashbacks.

We know that she can do this because..

learning the alien language makes your mind think the way they do, which gives that pseudo-time-travel ability

But how is it that she has "flashbacks" early on in the movie, before she learns the language? Please provide as in-depth an explanation as you can muster, plugging any logic or plot holes that someone might raise (this is a problem that someone I know has with the movie, and I'd like to counter-argue).

  • 9
    Timey-wimey wibbly-wobbly? Dec 18, 2016 at 19:31
  • @GreenstoneWalker The screenwriter actually used that reasoning in a video, but that was addressing the paradox of her speaking to the Chinese general, which could be considered passable, even from a scientific point of view. Not sure the same could be said about what I'm asking about. Dec 18, 2016 at 19:37
  • 1
    No, we have visions early in the film. To her, the visions are neither now nor then.
    – Möoz
    Feb 12, 2017 at 22:21
  • @Möoz it's pretty apparent that at least some of the visions happen in "time" with the rest of the movie. At the beginning of the movie she does seem to be affected by the death of her daughter and the non-zero sum scene as well as the scene where she learns why she got divorced that the visions are happening in current time.
    – Rob Rose
    Feb 28, 2018 at 10:40

2 Answers 2


First things first: there is no time travel. Learning the alien language alters the way you perceive time, allowing you to experience "memories" of future events. It's as much time travel as remembering your birthday party from last year is "time travelling" into the past.

Secondly, we need to separate Louise-the-Narrator from Louise-on-screen. Louise-the-Narrator is speaking from a specific moment in time, presumably AFTER everything we see on screen has happened. At least, that's how it usually goes for movies that have a character narrating stuff in voice-over.

The first thing Louise says is "I used to think of this as the start of your story" (or words to that effect):

Referring to her daughter's birth. We then see a series of excerpts from her daughter's life, where she progressively gets older and eventually gets sick and dies.

After those scenes are over, she says something about realizing that the story of a person's life need not be restricted to the time that they're alive. That a person's existence can influence things outside their own lifespan.

The implication being that her daughter's story should include the events which are then told over the course of the rest of the film. On first viewing, we naturally assume that Louise means her daughter's life and early death will somehow influence what happens between her and the aliens, because at this point in the movie we're assuming her daughter's life happened before the aliens arrived.


Louise-as-Narrator is actually stepping back to events which occured before her daughter's life. As we realize later in the film, Louise's daughter hasn't been born yet, and that what she actually meant was that her daughter's story began before she was born.

All of this is over and done with by the time Louise-as-Narrator begins speaking. The part about the Chinese ambassador meeting her at the book signing might still be in the future, but by the end of the movie she can remember her whole life, so that's not much of a limitation on her abilities as a narrator.

This might even be something she's telling to her daughter, as she lies dying in the hospital bed. Explaining why she did the things she did - how she met Hannah's father, why they divorced, etc. This part is, of course, pure hypothesis on my part.

TLDR; Louise-the-Narrator is the one telling this story, from a specific moment in time for her character. All the scenes in the movie are shown to us in the order she chooses to recount them. The movie doesn't really specify when Louise-the-Narrator is speaking from, but as long as it's some point after she gained the ability to "remember" the future, it doesn't matter. She can then recount any event that has happened - or will happen - in her life. *

* Subject to her ability to remember them. We know memories of our past are not perfect, and it stands to reason her memories of the future will have similar flaws or gaps. But obviously she remembers everything she tells us in the movie - at least, she never gives us any reason to think she's an unreliable narrator.

  • I didn't say there was time-travel, I actually used the word pseudo-time-travel, deliberately, no need for you to dismiss the pseudo part :) I would definitely class memories of the past as pseudo-time-travel. Dec 18, 2016 at 22:35

ref: Arrival Explained

That first scene we see, if you pay attention to the narration, Louise is recollecting the events from their Arrival. It's not like she's dreaming or seeing those visuals.

The punchline in the movie or the revelation in the climax is that the scenes where Louise Banks (Amy) is shown with her daughter, is not the past. Those are her visions of her own future. Yes, they are. You can hear Louise narrating this as a recollection. She is recollecting the events of the “arrival”.

She's narrating at a point in time clearly after her learning of the language. After the scenes with her daughter, the story begins with the day of the arrival when Lousie was a single teacher.

The Narrative goes as follows: I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It does not work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time. By its order. And now Im not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.

  • 1
    Are you saying it's medias res/How we got here? Dec 20, 2016 at 18:21
  • yeah .. because I had this doubt too. then I read up watched again. It's a narrative .. it's in past tense..
    – John
    Dec 20, 2016 at 19:13
  • edited the answer with the actual narrative.
    – John
    Dec 20, 2016 at 19:18
  • @GhotiandChips, does this answer it for you?
    – John
    Dec 24, 2016 at 7:27

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