That Twist Ending of 'Arrival' Makes You Rethink the Whole Movie

Arrival Amy Adams White Board
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie Arrival, and discusses the ending of the movie in detail. Reader discretion is advised.

Know-it-all viewers of science-fiction films, thrillers, and other genre fare often take pleasure in calling the endings of movies before they're even over. You probably have that friend who insists they knew Edward Norton was Tyler Durden all along, or the person who guessed Bruce Willis was a ghost the second he showed up in The Sixth Sense. Luckily, Arrival, the new science-fiction film starring Amy Adams and adapted from a short story by writer Ted Chiang, is the rare movie with a big twist that's also know-it-all-proof: Even "knowing" the twist can't ruin the payoff. 

It's not uncommon for great plot twists (or even bad ones) to make you rethink all the events in a movie -- most of the best ones, like the shattering coffee cup in The Usual Suspects or the big reveal in Planet of the Apes, do exactly that. What makes Arrival unique is how the actual thematic concept driving the finale -- a mind-bending notion about how the past, present, and future of one's life could be both known and experienced all at once -- actually pushes against the "every story is a puzzle to solve" culture we now live in. 

So, wait, what happens?

On the surface, Arrival appears to be yet another "mystery box" film. It begins with a college linguistics professor named Louise Banks (Adams) being whisked away by a scowling military commander (Forest Whitaker) to potentially communicate with aliens who have arrived on Earth in large black ships that look like levitating wireless speakers. At the site, she meets astrophysicist Ian Donnelly (a very subdued, dad-like Jeremy Renner), who helps her make contact and eventually study the complex language of creatures they come to refer to as "heptapods." At various points, we're also shown what most viewers assume are flashbacks to a period when Louise had a child who is no longer with her.

This Close Encounters business is given a doom-soaked, unnerving sheen by Sicario director Denis Villeneuve, who could find white-knuckle tension and palm-sweating anxiety in a trip to Denny's if he wanted to. What makes the film truly unique -- and ultimately more compelling than similarly gooey space adventures like Contact and Interstellar -- is the way the film's occasionally jumbled final third plays out. As Adams begins to understand the coded messages the aliens share -- a language that allows one to see, in Chiang's words, an "entire epoch as a simultaneity" -- she effectively travels through time to save the world from military disaster by hearing a whispered message from a Chinese general in the future, and relaying it back to him in the present.

In addition to brewing geopolitical conflict, there's more personal drama at play. As the film comes to a close, it becomes clear that the flashbacks we saw earlier were in fact images of the future. Louise and Ian will have a baby after the events with the aliens, and Louise will choose to live through her time with her daughter even though she knows that her daughter will die of an incurable disease. It's a devastating moment. And sure, maybe you already knew it was coming -- but if you think that makes it a "bad" twist, you're missing the larger point.

Arrival Amy Adams Jeremy Renner
Paramount Pictures

So how is it different in the book?

The differences between Arrival and Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" are largely the kinds of changes one expects to see when a short story gets adapted into a big-budget sci-fi film -- the military angle gets pumped up, the aliens' names change from Flapper and Raspberry to Abbott and Costello, and there's more conventionally suspenseful sequences -- but most of the important details are there, albeit often explained in more technical terms. (Words like "glotto-graphic," "logogram," "semasiographic," and "ideogram" boggle the mind.) Even some of the movie's odd moments that might feel like Hollywood conventions -- like the awkward "Do you want to make a baby?" -- are straight from the text.

Obviously, a short story and a movie are two totally different art forms with separate narrative (and commercial) demands. The way the story subtly conveys shifts in time comes from verb tenses -- sentences like "I remember once we'll be driving to the mall to buy some new clothes for you" make the brain reel -- but the visual vocabulary of cinema can often be hazier and more impressionistic. Arrival is elliptical, which allows Villeneuve to toy with audience expectations in compelling ways. 

Through decades of watching movies, we've all internalized certain ideas about what a "flashback" or a "flash-forward" (or, in the case of Lost, a "flash-sideways") looks like, but clever filmmakers have long played with our sense of time, destabilizing viewers by using editing, music, and voice-over to tell non-linear stories. Think of Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Christopher Nolan's many po-faced puzzle films.

I currently spend a lot of my time thinking about HBO's Westworld, which appears to be building to a finale that will involve a similarly time-bending reveal, but, sitting in the theater watching Arrival, I admired the specifically cinematic elegance of Arrival 's big twist. It's perfectly scaled to its brisk two-hour run time. It's not a launch pad for a potential series -- it's a movie. A very good one.

Arrival Amy Adams
Paramount Pictures

Whoa -- so what does it all mean? 

On the surface, the ending of Arrival appears to preach a type of determinism you often see in stories about time travel: There's only one set path, and free will is a myth. It can feel bleak, especially if you are inclined to feel that your life (or your country) is heading down the wrong path at the moment. But the film also preaches a type of zen-like acceptance that speaks to larger truths: What's happening now has already happened and will happen again. Chronology is not the most important element of a story -- or, to put it in broader terms, a life.

Of course, in his story, Chiang frames this in an even more poetic way: "Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness," he writes. "We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all."

It's a radical way of thinking about time, but the same idea can be applied to science-fiction stories as well. Arrival will presumably take on a new meaning in its second viewing, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have value on first viewing too. Its value as an artistic experience is not necessarily dependent on experiencing it in a "sequential mode." Knowledge about the "twist" can only enhance your understanding of the film. 

So, when your jackass friend says they already knew the twist was coming, tell them that they've missed the whole point of the movie. It doesn't matter if you have knowledge of the future --  true meaning is found in the experience. So shut up and watch the movie already.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment and he has never called a twist ending in his life. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.