Arrival (2016) Screenplay Analysis

Arrival (2016), written by Eric Heisserer, uses a number of literary techniques to create a unique screenplay. Let’s analyze the script.

Script Formatting Notes

  • Draft Read: Final Shooting Draft
  • Type: Shooting
  • Page Count: 132
  • Reading Speed: Medium
  • Setting(s): Montana, Alien Spaceship
  • Plot Structure: Nonlinear, Spanning multiple years
  • Genre(s): Sci-fi, Love
  • Theme(s): Aliens, Linguistics, Military, Human nature, Death
  • Protagonist Change: Minimal

Overall Thoughts

Arrival feels like the natural evolution of Inception (2010), and Everything Everywhere All at Once (2016) feels like the natural evolution of Arrival. Interestingly enough, each film came out six years apart.

Arrival is all about changing our natural sense of time so that it can be interpreted in a nonlinear way. Like Inception, the underlying concept is relatively simple. And simple concepts can lead to great scripts. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Arrival a masterful script, but the concept is unique and that alone gives it a lot of ammo.

Script Strengths

Arrival was referenced extensively in John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Genres. It’s been a bit of time since I read the book, but I believe one point Truby stresses is that this is a women-led film. Correction: This is a women-led sci-fi film, of which there are few. That alone makes the script unique and helps set up its unique story elements, explained later.

The first six pages of the script do a great job of setting up exactly what is going on. We learn about Louise, the protagonist, and the alien ships visiting Earth. We also know that the Louise ultimately loses our daughter and while my initial take (that the protagonist will find a cure for her daughter or a way to bring her back) didn’t pan out, we get a general sense of what the story is about.

There are some very tense scenes that are written to perfect. For example, on Page 80 we learn that rogue soldiers had rigged the interview chamber to blow, and not only is the scene suspenseful, but also heartbreaking as the writers are able to get us to empathize with the aliens.

The climax and ending also have one of the most interesting reversals I have seen in a script. Spoiler alert: what we thought of as flashbacks are essentially flashforwards.

Script Neutrals

The script takes a while to get going and we are left in the dark in regard to what’s going on for large portions in the first half. This isn’t a Hitchcock whodunit, but as the audience we should have some understanding of where the story is going and while we know that Louise is trying to translate the alien language, we don’t know how it relates to her numerous flashbacks. As noted above, it does all come together, but there is certainly some fluff in Acts 1 and 2.

At times the overall story concept seems a bit far-fetched if not cliché. For example, the professor who saves the day (or at least tries to) is the foundation of any Indiana Jones movie. And which government would put its entire trust in a college linguistics professor? Additionally, some of the conflicts feel forced. While General Shang comes across as a well developed character, his wish to start a war comes on perhaps too quickly.

Script Weaknesses

The only weakness in this script is some poor dialogue. There are some jokes that fall flat and a few digs that are unsavable. For example, here’s an exchange between Dr. Kettler and Louise on page 81-82. At this point, the bomb has just exploded in the interview chamber:


It was a couple of soldiers. They’d been watching too much TV, afraid the gift was going to kill us all.


We don’t need help from another race to do that.



This is one of the few scrips with a true nonlinear plot. In fact, even though it does incorporate frequent flashbacks, we don’t learn that it’s non-linear until well into Act 3.


Louise has the most screentime, but she isn’t easy to interpret. She ultimately chooses to get married and have a child knowing that her marriage will fall apart and that her daughter will die. Does this make her a bad person? What does it say about Ian that he chooses to leave his wife and daughter over the former’s decision to start a family that would ultimately fall apart? Interestingly, these questions aren’t explored as they only come to light at the very end of the movie.

Dialogue & Pacing

I didn’t take any notes on dialogue.

In regard to pacing, the script builds. One issue I have is that to increase conflict a subplot, the impending attack by General Shang, essentially becomes the main catalyst in Act 3. It works, but at points the urgency feels forced.

Emotional Impact

Did I feel strong emotions when reading the script? Yes, but not in the conventional way one would expect when reading a screenplay. Sure, the killing of one of the aliens was sad, as was the fact that Louise’s daughter dies, which we learn about early on. But the most impactful part was the climax, when we learn that Louise chooses love even knowing that it will only be temporary. And that sudden realization is intense.

Best Part of The Script

As noted, the first six pages do a great job of showing the viewer the necessary background information. World building 101.

Act 3, as well as the climax, are where the script shines.