Linguist Louise Banks’s daughter Hannah dies at the age of twelve from an incurable illness.
Twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft silently hover over disparate locations around the Earth. Affected nations send military and scientific experts to monitor and study them; in the United States, US Army Colonel G.T. Weber recruits Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly to study the craft above Montana. On board, Banks and Donnelly make contact with two seven-limbed aliens, whom they call heptapods; Donnelly nicknames them Abbott and Costello. Banks and Donnelly research the complex written language of the aliens, made of palindrome phrases written with circular symbols, and share results with other nations. As Banks studies the language, she starts to have flashback-like visions of her daughter.
When Banks is able to establish sufficient shared vocabulary to ask why the aliens have come, they answer with a statement which could be translated as “offer weapon”. China interprets this as “use weapon”, prompting it to break off communications, and other nations follow. Banks argues that the symbol interpreted as “weapon” can be more abstractly referred to the concept of “means”, “tool”; China’s translation likely results from interacting with the aliens using mahjong, a highly competitive winner-take-all game.
Rogue soldiers plant a bomb in the Montana craft. Unaware, Banks and Donnelly re-enter the alien vessel, and the aliens give them an extremely complex message. Just before the bomb explodes, one of the aliens ejects Donnelly and Banks from the vessel, knocking them unconscious. When they reawaken, the military is preparing to evacuate in case of retaliation, and the craft has moved out of reach.
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