Arrival Analysis: Time is Not Real

The Enigmatic Concept of Time Explored in Villeneuves Arrival

In Denis Villeneuves film Arrival, the exploration of time presents a unique and thought-provoking perspective. In conventional understanding, time is divided into the past, the present, and the future, with the past being considered “fixed” while the present and future are subject to change based on individual actions. However, ‘Arrival’ challenges this linear concept of time, suggesting that past, present, and future coexist harmoniously. This article delves into the film’s portrayal of time, highlighting its significance and the implications it holds for humanity.

Reimagining Time in ‘Arrival’

In Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’, the notion of time transcends its traditional constraints. It introduces the idea that all moments in time, past, present, and future, are equally real, eliminating the notion of a fixed reality rooted only in the present. Initially, this perspective may seem overwhelming, but the film embraces the profundity of our limited understanding of time, emphasizing how this very limitation makes us uniquely human.

‘Arrival’ revolves around Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor who leads a team attempting to communicate with Heptapods, extraterrestrial lifeforms that unexpectedly arrive on Earth. Louise becomes engrossed in deciphering the aliens’ intricate language system, which is fundamentally different from our human communication. Unlike conventional language, the Heptapods’ symbols reflect a non-linear perception of time. As Louise unravels this language, she gains the ability to perceive time non-sequentially, experiencing future events and past memories as if they were happening simultaneously. This newfound consciousness challenges the premise that the present is our sole reality, paving the way for a “simultaneous consciousness.”

Questioning Our Understanding of Time

By elevating Louise’s comprehension to the level of the Heptapods, ‘Arrival’ poses a crucial and unanswerable question: How can we be certain that our understanding of time is accurate? Can we confidently claim to be moving through time as linear objects, or is time itself a concept we can only perceive fleetingly? While our senses seem to provide evidence of sequential passage of time — such as seeing a ball rise and fall — the film suggests that our linear comprehension is merely a consequence of our limited cognitive capacity. Only Louise’s heightened linguistic skills and profound communication with the Heptapods grant her access to the non-linear fabric of time. For others, grasping non-sequential time remains elusive. Thus, if our perception of time lacks clarity and objectivity, how can we assert the primacy of our understanding?

Arrival challenges the prevailing belief by encouraging contemplation of alternative explanations. To determine whether our understanding of time is valid, we must evaluate the evidence supporting sequentialism. Currently, our sensory experience constitutes the principal evidence we hold for the progression of time. We witness events unfold chronologically, and hence we presume this perception to be truth. However, can our senses always be relied upon? Our senses are inherently limited to perceiving the present, enabling us to see and touch only what exists in the immediate moment. Our human faculties grant us access solely to the present, excluding both the past and the future.

Even if time were indeed non-linear, our senses would confine us to perceiving it as a sequence. Nevertheless, our minds possess the ability to transcend such limitations. Our thoughts can traverse time effortlessly, granting us access to both past and present moments. In our minds, we are not restricted to experiencing events in the order they occur. Consequently, if the nature of time itself is contingent upon our perception—linearly through our senses or non-linearly within our minds—how can one view claim greater validity over the other? Time’s nature lacks objectivity, and therefore it cannot be definitively defined.

A Subjective Journey Through Time

Essentially, time remains subjective. For humans, it manifests as a linear succession of moments from birth to death, while for the Heptapods, it exists as an amalgamation of all moments simultaneously. Both perspectives, however, hold equal validity. Although the idea of time’s non-existence may initially unsettle, Villeneuve reveals its potential for existential comfort, defining our humanity in the process. Time becomes a malleable entity, shaped by our perception. Rather than a finite sequence of events governed by cause and effect, life becomes an ever-evolving collection of moments, appreciated and experienced chronologically. The film challenges the prevailing notion that the present alone defines “reality,” reminding us that it is but a fleeting fragment amidst boundless temporal possibilities.

Although ‘Arrival’ explores alien visitation, its core focus is on humanity. The Heptapods serve merely as a conduit for contemplating our place in the universe, highlighting the fallibility of our perceived truths. Villeneuve does not assert that the Heptapods’ simultaneous consciousness represents the “true” understanding of time; instead, he emphasizes the limitations of our linear comprehension. Viewing the world solely through a linear lens restricts and burdens us, as it impels us to believe that every action throughout our lives hinges upon the present moment. Imagining our entire existence laid out before us, even if it is purely a mental construct, relieves the weight of life’s minutiae and allows us to embrace the journey fully.


Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’ challenges conventional notions of time, presenting an alternative perspective that is both bewildering and enlightening. By questioning the validity and objectivity of our understanding of time, the film invites viewers to contemplate the limitations of human perception. It prompts us to reconsider the significance we place on the present and encourages a more holistic and appreciative view of existence. ‘Arrival’ reminds us that time is not merely an external force acting upon us, but a deeply subjective experience that we have the power to shape and appreciate.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. Are the Heptapods’ language and perception of time completely fictional?

No, the concept of a non-linear understanding of time is not entirely fictional. The film draws inspiration from linguistic and philosophical theories that explore alternative perspectives on time.

2. Does the film propose that time travel is possible?

The film doesn’t explicitly explore time travel. Instead, it emphasizes the fluidity of time and challenges our conventional understanding of its linear progression.

3. How does ‘Arrival’ illustrate the significance of language?

‘Arrival’ portrays language as a gateway to complex concepts and alternative ways of perceiving the world. It suggests that language shapes our understanding of reality, including our perception of time.

4. What impact does ‘Arrival’ have on our everyday perception of time?

After watching ‘Arrival’, viewers may feel a heightened awareness of the subjective nature of time. The film encourages a more appreciative approach to life and an understanding that time is not time alone, but an intricate tapestry of moments.

5. What other films explore the concept of time in unique ways?

Several other films explore the concept of time from unconventional angles, such as ‘Interstellar’, ‘Primer’, and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’. These movies challenge our preconceived notions and provoke contemplation.