Taking place after alien crafts land around the world, an expert linguist is recruited by the military to determine whether they come in peace or are a threat.
Amy Adams plays Dr Louise Banks, a linguist who’s given the seemingly impossible task of deciphering the aliens’ language. And with the visitors’ colossal ships causing confusion and panic across the globe, the race is on to communicate with the aliens before a fractious military starts pounding their craft with missiles.
Ted Chiang’s original short tale Story Of Your Life used a clever literary device to reflect the aliens’ circular language. Written from Louise’s perspective, the story’s divided between her recollections of the aliens’ visitation and memories of her personal life. Louise recalls the night her daughter was conceived, how the little girl grew into a sparky, wayward teenager. Then the story might cut to Louise attempting to communicate with the aliens, verbally at first, then by trying to replicate their written language. Then we cut again to more memories of life at home: Louise’s separation from her husband, her daughter’s graduation and, tragically, her death in a climbing accident.
Our understanding of conventional story structure creates the assumption that the death of Louise’s daughter came before the aliens’ arrival in its chronology. It’s only towards the end that we come to realise that Chiang has something far more complex in mind. During her dissection of the aliens’ tongue, Louise suggests that language defines the way our minds perceive the world around us. Humans think sequentially, so our language is sequential, drawing a clear distinction between past, present and future.