Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer created a fully functioning, visual, alien language. Heisserer, Vermette and their teams managed to create a "logogram bible," which included over a hundred different completely operative logo-grams, seventy-one of which are actually featured in the movie.
Director Denis Villeneuve and the writing team took extensive efforts to ensure the movie's scientific ideology was accurate. Renowned scientist and tech innovator Stephen Wolfram and his son Christopher Wolfram were consulted to ensure all terminology, graphics and depictions were sound.
Ted Chiang, who wrote the novella the film is based upon, approved the film, saying, "I think it's that rarest of the rare in that it's both a good movie and a good adaptation... And when you consider the track record of adaptations of written science fiction, that's almost literally a miracle."
"Dirty Sci-fi" is what director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young called the look they created together for Arrival (2016). Villeneuve wanted it to feel like "This was happening on a bad Tuesday morning, like when you were a kid on the school bus on a rainy day and you'd dream while looking out the window at the clouds."
Octopuses, whales, elephants, and spiders were all sources of inspiration when it came to creating the aliens, Abbott and Costello. Director Denis Villeneuve wanted their design to evoke a very strong presence, an air of intelligence, and the feeling of being close to a "huge beast underwater." He also wanted the aliens to feel like something you might imagine in a surreal dream or nightmare and, in the later stages of the film, he wanted them to be suggestive of the Grim Reaper.
The film's composer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, stated he started recording the score before the movie had even started filming, and he and the director like to work on the music as the director's films are being made.
The Hungarian word that Halpern refers to is "szalámitaktika". (In English, this translates to "salami tactics".) The word refers to divide the opposition, to only have to face smaller, weaker enemies.
The heptapod's craft owes its design to an asteroid called 15 Eunomia. During research, director Denis Villeneuve became attracted to Eunomia's "insane shape like a strange egg" and thought that kind of pebble or oval shape would bring a perfect sense of menace and mystery to the spacecraft.
While the shape of the ship was decided early on, the director had great difficulty imagining an interior that would allow humans to easily navigate through such a steep and vertical design. The later decision to turn gravity sideways offered an obvious and convenient solution.
Louise tells Colonel Weber that the name kangaroo comes from a misunderstanding and originally meant "I don't know," only to tell Ian that the story is made up. This is an actual myth, not just a made up story that involves Lieutenant James Cook, Sir Joseph Banks, and the Guugo Yimithirr language. The myth was debunked in the 1970s by linguist John B. Haviland. In reality, the word kangaroo comes from the Aboriginal word gangurru, the word for specifically grey kangaroos, with Banks spelling it "kanguru" in his diary.
This is the third collaboration between composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and director Denis Villeneuve. Previously, they worked together on Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015). Their fourth collaboration is Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
In the novella, "Stories of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, nine "looking glasses" arrive in America, a total of 112 worldwide. The film reduces that number and alters the dimensions to more profound effect.
When Ian suggests the names for the heptapods, he is referencing Abbott and Costello's comedy bit "Who's on first". As the bit starts, Abbott states "Who's on first, What's on second, and I don't know is on third." several times. Costello doesn't understand and his questions of which player is on which base are taken as true or false statements needing affirmation or correction. For example "Who's on second base?" - "No, Who's on first." - "I'm not asking what's the guy on first." - "What's on second." - "I don't know the guy's name on second." - "No, he's on third base." - "Who's on third?" - "No, Who's on first." - "Who's on first?" - "Yes" and so forth. Both Abbott and Costello's bit and Arrival show the ease of misunderstanding while communicating.
Three of the locations that the alien spaceships land on Earth include the U.S. state of Montana, the United Kingdom, and Russia. These are some of the locations that the alien Tripods landed in John Christopher's 1988 novel "When the Tripods Came," which is the prequel to his "Tripods" novel trilogy.
Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner have both appeared in comic book films dealing with alien invasions. Adams starred in Man of Steel (2013) (about Earth being invaded by evil Kryptonians). Renner starred in The Avengers (2012) (about Earth being invaded by the aliens known as Chitauri).
In the underlying short story, the physicist is named Gary Donelly, contrary to Ian Donnelly in the movie. The name change (together with Louise Banks' name) could be a nod & laudation to the British science-fiction author Iain Banks.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In the first drafts of the script, the "gifts" to humanity were meant to be different pieces of technology given to each landing site, with the U.S. receiving plans for a spaceship capable of faster than light travel, China receiving a design that revolutionizes life support, Peru getting the key to manipulating gravity, Japan receiving a way of creating water from air, Britain receiving the formula to build a composite hull that is impervious to cosmic radiation, and Saudi Arabia getting celestial coordinates. However, this was all changed when Denis Villeneuve saw Interstellar (2014) and told the screenwriter to change the "gifts" to something else, in order to avoid similarities between the two films.
The original drafts of the script did not have anything specifically written for the final part of exchange between General Shang and Louise. Before filming, director'Denis Villeneuve' asked Eric Heisserer to write "a line that would save the world" for the final part of the exchange, spoken in Mandarin. Heisserer said he spent weeks perfecting the final line between Louise and General Shang only to find that Villeneuve removed the subtitles for the scene in the final cut.
The reason the ships never touch land is explained by production designer Patrice Vermette, stating, "The twelve identical ships would travel across the universe and end the journey by hovering twenty-eight feet above the ground in delicate equilibrium, leaving it to Earth's people to make the final outreach to contact them.
Near the end of the film, Ian calls Hannah "Starstuff," a reference to Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Person Voyage (1980), in which Sagan states, "The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff." Sagan also wrote Contact (1997), which was also a story of extraterrestrial communication.
In the source novella, "The Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, Hannah dies at 25, in an accident on a mountain. That means that Louise knows well in advance of her death from something seemingly avoidable, but has come to accept its inevitability, which lends a far darker tone to the story.
When Louise's daughter questions the reason for her name, "Hannah," Louise explains that her name is a palindrome, that is, it is spelled the same backwards as it is forward. This reflects the theme of the film in that the story starts as it finishes, due to the story's events existing in a non-linear timeline. The opening few scenes of the film are simultaneously the beginning and the end, as is the case with the order of letters that make up Hannah's name.
In a shot of the alien language being transformed, lines of programming language code are shown with the animation. Stephen Wolfram states in his blog that this code is written in Wolfram Language, and that it actually does perform the transformation depicted.
The written language used by the heptapods is most probably inspired by the enso, a calligraphic symbol from Zen Buddhism which expresses "a moment when the mind is free to let the body create" and symbolizes "absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and mu (the void)".
The earring worn by Louise with her gown is very similar to a nautilus shell. It's an ancient living fossil with tentacles that is often associated with the golden ratio, the Fibonacci sequence mentioned in the film, and pi, a mathematical wonder as its an endless number. They're considered keys for understanding the universe.