In Arrival, we see the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis taken to a whole another level, allowing Louise Banks to experience into the future and solve the communication problem as well as prevent a global war.

She is able to do that through witnessing a fancy party 18 months later, during which General Shang gives her his private number and then for some inexplicable reason repeats every word she told him 18 months earlier. He only notes that

SHANG: I don't know how your mind works, but I believe it was important for you to see that.

before repeating their entire conversation word by word. He is not even remotely surprised by her confusion as well as complete lack of knowledge of what happened 18 months before the party, he remains stoic and gives her everything she needed to change his mind about attacking the alien shell.

Could it be that General Shang understood enough of Heptapod language to be affected by their non-linear view of time, and use it (and Banks) to stop himself, averting the war?

  • No, but he would likely be aware of the effect that it had had on his own linguistics teams.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 18:01
  • 2
    It's possible that he's learned some of the Heptapod language by the time of the party, although the bit about "not understanding how [Lousie's] mind works" suggests to me that he does not know it. I think it's more likely that he remembers the words as she spoke them to him - not to mention as his wife spoke them to him originally - because it was a very memorable event in his past (now doubly so by the time of the party.)
    – Steve-O
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 18:35
  • 2
    @Steve-O but he wasn't at all surprised when Banks had absolutely no recollection of ever talking to him. His conversation with her seems extremely deliberate, and planned (phone in his pocket with number already on screen)
    – Petersaber
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 18:40
  • @Petersaber Related
    – Steve-O
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 18:47

4 Answers 4


The movie Arrival is hardly the first science fiction story where the writer(s) took Sapir-Whorf off in a direction that would be considered magic by some (I prefer "higher order reality"). The most famous would be the Robert Heinlein classic Stranger in a Strange Land.

In Arrival, the writers have imagined a language that so alters a sentient being's thinking that their perception of time becomes non-linear - future, past, and causality, all things that linear time beings depend on, can become fluid or even meaningless.

In this specific instance, cause and effect become a chicken-and-egg problem. Did future-Chang tell future-Louise what she needed to save the past, or did he merely discuss something that happened in his past, knowing that the act of discussing it would give past-Louise information she would need?

This begs the question as to what temporal rules are in play for this story. Some SF has fluid time, where changes made in the past can have far reaching effects in the future (the butterfly effect). Some SF has resistive/reparative/contained time, where the universe has mechanisms for preventing, "repairing", or containing changes to the time line. Depending on the level of resistance/repair/containment that takes place, the high-level details of history (elected presidents, eg.) may appear unchanged to an outside observer. Some SF has rigid time, where there is exactly one time line, and it cannot be changed - the effects of traveling through time are part of the "already" established time line.

Just to confuse the issue, there is also SF that uses parallel universe travel as a mechanism to get around rigid time. You can't time travel in your own universe, but you can travel to an exact copy of your universe as it existed in the past (Time Trax, Source Code). Since the future, in that universe, has not yet happened, "time travelers" are free to rewrite it.

It is not clear whether or not the filmmakers considered this question, but I suspect that they wrote the script with either a deliberate or subconscious choice in mind. It seems most likely that they were using either rigid time or time with a strong ability to resist/repair/contain changes. I base this on two things.

One is an aside/bit of narration that Louise makes near the end:

Despite knowing the journey... and where it leads... I embrace it... and I welcome every moment of it. (IMDB)

She knows that her daughter will die at a young age of an incurable disease, and she accepts that nothing she does will change that.

The other is something that the aliens tell her in response to why they are giving humanity the knowledge of their language - that they will need humanity's help in about three thousand years. It seems unlikely that the aliens would invest their time, resources, and even the life of one of their race without a certain amount of confidence that this investment would produce the result they needed.

So, back to the chicken-and-egg problem. Because I am a linear time being, I want to see a clear causation, and sometimes, I want to say that future-Chang was affected by learning the heptapod language and is responsible.

And sometimes, I don't think that works and have to go with an outside influence. The only agents that are outside of the system and have the resources to plant the key idea would be the heptapods. How they could have done that, I don't know, but that seems like the most reasonable alternative to giving Chang the credit.

Either way, I don't think that Louise from any part of the time line is responsible. That is why she was genuinely surprised when Chang approached her at the party.


I think that what the movie depicts in that scene is not the future, per se. It's depicting Louise's experience of having a future memory.

Our normal memories of the past are malleable and, in some sense, interactive. We can pull in things from other memories, either out of confusion or to make sense of what we're remembering.

So, I think that there will be a unification ceremony and Chang will make a point of meeting Louise. He will presumably reference what Louise did to change his mind. But he won't necessarily show her his phone exactly like that, nor recite his wife's dying words. Rather, Louise is pulling in elements of other future memories (her actual actions a bit later in the movie) to fill in necessary details to make sense of the main future memory.

Louise's own behavior in that scene is not what she will do in the future. It's her present experience of remembering that stuff from the future. And the memory of Chang's behavior is molded around that reaction to fill in blanks. It's basically a merging or blending of present and future.


I absolutely agree with you that General Zhang was also given the power to see the past, present and future. And I think this was deliberately done to tie into the whole movie theme of interconnectedness, not only through time, but also through consciousness Here are quotes and scenes I've picked up that links this into a circle.

Imagine you wanted to write a sentence using two hands, starting from either side. You'd have to know each word you wanted to use, as well as how much space they will occupy.

Dr.Ian, Scene to 1:02:00

Colonel Weber and Louise translated audio of the Chinese figuring out the aliens are offering advanced technology. Scene to 53:20. And then after that scene, Abbot and Costello wrote "offer weapon/technology" to Louise. So, both General Zhang and Louise knew (and was given) the powers to see the past, present and future.

So, with the quote spoken by Dr Ian in the 2nd part of the movie, is why i believe that General Zhang could, no, needed, to have the same powers as Louise, to be able to connect with Louise in the future and guide her to guide him to change his mind in the present, and change the course of history.

Concept of twos as interconnectedness is evident as the theme. Abbot and Costello as technology. Louise and Ian as empathy. Louise and Hannah as love. Louise and General Zhang as two hands that write the time and space into full circle.


Zhang has been observing her be nonlinear for 18 months by that point. The novelty will surely have worn off and she will have told him what to do and that she won't remember it.

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