First contact with alien life would change the world as we know it. But beyond the obvious scientific and theological ramifications, there’s also the simple matter of how we would communicate with extraterrestrial visitors.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind used a haunting five-note melody, China Mieville made it the subject of his brilliant novel Embassytown, and Denis Villenueve’s sci-fi drama Arrival tackles the problem from a human perspective.

Linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by a US military colonel (Forest Whitaker) after 12 gigantic spacecraft appear in seemingly random locations across the globe. The alien visitors’ intentions are unknown and with China and Russia eager to fire the first shot, Banks faces a race against time to discover whether they are friend or foe.

When she comes face to tentacle with the creatures – who aren’t even remotely humanoid and dubbed “heptapods” – she discovers their vocabulary consists of inky smoke rings exhaled from their starfish-like extremities. Working with a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner), Banks realises that the recent loss of her young daughter could hold the key to deciphering the alien language.

Reducing cities and major landmarks to CGI rubble are not on the agenda here; Arrival is a film about big ideas not big effects, although it has those too. The sight of a spacecraft wreathed in cloud as it hovers above a field like a giant Fabergé egg is truly breathtaking, and the alien designs are both elegant and eerie.

The genre is at its best when exploring philosophical ideas and the human condition, and Arrival is as much about love, loss and the paths we choose in life as it is about making contact with an alien species. Moreover, it’s the sort of movie that provokes debate over a coffee afterwards – a conversation that invariably begins with, “Now let me get this straight…”

Villeneuve’s films (Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario) are always very austere and emotionally resonant, and this moody ambience translates well to science fiction. Blade Runner 2049 is in very capable hands.

In cinemas: November 10, 2016star-4
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve