Linguist Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) daughter dies of an incurable illness at the age of twelve. She and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited when a dozen extraterrestrial spacecraft appear, hovering over various locations on Earth. US Army Colonel G.T. Weber (Forest Whittaker) is in charge of studying the vessel over Montana. Banks and Donnelly make contact with two cephalopod-like, seven limbed aliens called Heptapods. Donnelly names them Abbott and Costello. They study their language, which is palindromic and circular. Banks begins to have visions of her daughter.
When they communicate, the aliens say something that seems to refer to weapons. China breaks off communications and other countries follow. Banks is certain the word weapon is a mistranslation, and they mean to offer tools. Rogue soldiers plant a bomb. Just before the bomb goes off, Donnelly and Banks are ejected from the ship, knocking them unconscious. When they awake, the military has evacuated the area. Donnelly discovers that the word for time seems to appear in every message, and that the words from the Montana arrival are one twelfth of the message. She thinks that the message is divided among all twelve spacecraft and the arrivals want all the nations to share what they learn. China’s General Shang (Tzi Ma) orders the Chinese spacecraft to leave within 24 hours, followed by Russia, Pakistan, and Sudan. Communication among the nations is terminated. Banks boards the Montana craft secretly and discovers that Abbott was injured in the bomb-blast. Costello says they have come to help Earth because they will need Earth’s help in 3000 years. She realizes that the weapon or tool is their language itself, which changes the human perception of Time, allowing them to remember the future. Banks’ visions are not of the past death of a daughter, but the future of a daughter not yet born.
Banks tells Donnelly that those who master the alien language perceive both the future and the past. She has a premonition of a future post-arrival celebration in which General Shang gives her his private phone-number and tells her his wife’s dying words: “War doesn’t make winners, only widows.” She steals a phone from a CIA agent and calls Shang to recite the words. The Chinese stand down and reveal their part of the message. Other nations follow suit, and the alien ships depart. Donnelly expresses his love for Banks. She knows she will have a child with him who will die, and Donnelly will leave her when he discovers that she knew this would happen.
The film was directed by Denis Villeneuve and adapted by Eric Heisserer from a Nebula-winning story by Ted Chiang. It was considered one of the best films of 2016, and it is a tour-de-force of real science-fiction. It received eight nominations at the Oscars and won for sound-editing thanks to its brilliant use of language. It also received two Golden Globe nominations and won the Hugo for best SF film. The soundtrack won a Grammy. It was filmed in Montreal and several Canadian linguists were consulted. It was highly praised by critics.
The language visuals were created by Montreal artist Martine Bernard, and his son created the child drawings. Ted Chiang, who wrote the original story, approved the film, saying that it was both a good movie and a good adaptation, which is almost a miracle. The spacecraft were based on an asteroid named Eunomia. The aliens are called Abbott and Costello because their pronouncements are as confusing as the Who’s on First Routine. After making this film, Denis Villeneuve went immediately to work on Blade Runner 2049.