This is one gorgeous film to look at, an eye-popping, ear-caressing adventure in which to ponder big questions.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Written by Eric Heisserer, based on a story by Ted Chiang

116 minutes, rated M

At last, a science fiction movie with a brain. There has been so much bad sci-fi since Star Wars that it’s good to remember that speculative fiction – as it prefers to be known – is one of the richest forms of literature, in terms of ideas. Arrival is based on Story of Your Life, a short story by Ted Chiang, one of the brightest stars in the sci-fi firmament.

The story, and now the movie, is about a difficult problem in linguistics – whether the form of a language affects the way its users think (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, to its friends). In other words, is human language based on universal cognitive processes or is it relative? It’s kind of important to sort this out – especially when you are talking to an alien.

So Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is woken one night by a helicopter landing on the lawn of her million-dollar house by a lake somewhere in north America. Forest Whitaker, in military fatigues, tells her to pack her bags: the world needs your linguistic skills.

Banks is grieving after a loss, but the arrival of 12 lozenge-shaped alien craft in various parts of the world takes precedence. En route to Montana, where one of the BBTs (big black things) hovers on its end just above ground, she meets Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), theoretical physicist and good egg. In short order, they suit up and head out to the base of the visitor, for their first close encounter. Every 18 hours, explains Colonel Weber (Whitaker), a door opens and we go inside.

The movie stands or falls on what happens next. If we do not watch this with a mixture of fear and awe, all is lost. The French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) invokes the gods – Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick – for guidance. From Kubrick we get a sense of space, as in big: the humans are tiny, vulnerable voyagers into the dark square tunnel of the ship’s interior. From Malick, we get a sense of transcendence: the sheer bloody magnificence of such an encounter, the thrill of discovering that yes, we are not alone, and they do not seem to want to hurt us. It’s bold, and Villeneuve makes it work.

We have seen a few films in which a lone woman goes into the unknown to find the secret – Jodie Foster showed the way to the stars in Contact. Here, Banks is so broken that she has little to lose: she peels off her suit so the aliens can see her face, through the huge shimmering screen that separates them like a caul. Communication can now begin, if she can just work out how to begin.

This failure to communicate is often treated as an obstacle to plot in alien movies, so the writers invent something hokey. In Arrival, it is the plot. There are 12 of these things and 12 different countries trying to talk to them, simultaneously. If one country misinterprets the signals, all hell might break loose. Which brings us back to the original point: if language is relative, then so is world peace. If the Chinese think differently because they speak Chinese, they might react differently to a large heptapod from outer space that looks like a giant octopus and seems to communicate in ink blots. The future of the world depends on cracking this calamari code.

As serious as some of the ideas are here, science fiction always carries a risk of silliness. Arrival holds itself upright for a long time before it succumbs, but opinions about that will be relative, so to speak. The more you engage with the ideas, the further it will take you. The more you see the rise of soppy sentimentalism, the less so.

Adams and Renner have the chops to keep us watching, even when the narrative starts to wobble.  And Denis Villeneuve has never been bolder, in terms of visual style. This is one gorgeous film to look at, an eye-popping, ear-caressing adventure in which to ponder big questions. It’s a long way from ‘Take me to your leader’, but it raises the same problem in an original way. Not Since Spielberg’s five note greeting in Close Encounters… have we seen something that recognises the distance we might have to cover if we want to communicate better. And not just with aliens.