Amy Adams plays a character, Louise Banks, who is leading an ordinary life as a linguist when she is suddenly contacted by the U.S military to take on an enormously challenging task: dealing with an alien species that has landed at different locations around the globe. Along with a physicist, Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the aliens. The aliens communicate by spraying a black mist into the air that slowly forms into some sort of shape, usually a circle with various embellishments. The aliens are called heptapods, and they resemble gigantic walking octopi or squid. Banks develops a uniquely sympathetic relationship with the aliens as the rest of the world grapples with how to deal with them. Finally, things reach a crisis when Banks asks the aliens what their purpose is. The reply is to “offer weapon.” The world is sent into a panic, and various countries prepare for war.
But, Banks is convinced that the aliens are friendly, and wonders whether the weapon is actually some sort of tool. Eventually, Banks comes to the conclusion that the so-called weapon the aliens are offering is actually their language, which is somehow outside of time. Grasping the language gives one the ability to see one’s entire life in panorama, rather than in the linear fashion which is typical of the human perspective. Banks has a vision of herself in the future talking with a Chinese general about how she uses his private number to talk him out of initiating a war. With the knowledge she derives from the vision, Banks actually makes the call and the war is stopped. The countries of the world unite in an effort to work on the alien problem and what their presence means for humanity.
I thought this movie was beautiful and full of philosophical depth. Especially interesting was its mention of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is the idea, roughly speaking, that our language determines how we think. Of course, a major theme in the movie is how the brain acquires new capacities through the assimilation of the alien language, as Louise Banks shows. I really loved Prisoners, another film directed by Dennis Villanueve, and I love this move as well.