LFF 2016: Denis Villeneuve directs and Amy Adams stars in a powerful sci-fi mystery

Fast establishing himself as one of today's most exciting filmmakers, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve follows up last year's frenetic drugs thriller Sicario with this astonishing, intelligent slice of science fiction.

In adapting 'Story of Your Life' by Ted Chiang, genre screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5, Lights Out) filters sweeping themes through the intimate experiences of reserved linguistics expert Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams). Recruited by the military to communicate with extraterrestrials after 12 granite pod-like spaceships land on Earth, Louise discovers some existential truths that will reshape the future for humankind.

Adams is mesmerising in the central role; brave, vulnerable and fallible, she remains resoundingly human rather than bluntly heroic as she faces the most extraordinary of circumstances. She is never anything less than confident in her ability to do what seems impossible – to understand the aliens (termed 'heptapods' for their seven tentacle-like legs) and determine what they want – but carries the weight of that unimaginable responsibility in her every gesture.

Crucially, under Villeneuve's assured direction the film's technical aspects combine to augment Louise's story, rather than overwhelm it with genre bombast. The effects are impressive but restrained – the aliens, their craft and their written language beautifully realised – while Bradford Young's disorienting camerawork and Jóhann Jóhannsson's scant, other-worldly score convey the overwhelming enormity of the situation. Most impressive is the fact that Arrival audaciously plays with our expectations of cinematic narrative; here, language and time are gloriously non-linear and Louise's personal flashbacks take on an increasing significance not fully realised until the final poignant moments.

The real pleasure of Arrival, however, comes not from the fact that it looks at what may lie beyond the stars, but the way in which it turns its gaze inwards. In enabling us to look at ourselves through extraterrestrial eyes, it celebrates the very best traits of humanity – our communication, our thirst for knowledge, our ability to make meaningful connections – while also encouraging us to confront life's biggest questions. This is filmmaking at its most powerful and profound.

Screening on Mon 10, Tue 11 and Thu 13 Oct as part of the London Film Festival 2016. General release from Thu 10 Nov.

Join our newsletter