For a film about space, Arrival is surprisingly parochial

The appearance of extraterrestrial craft, a dead daughter who used to sculpt aliens: Arrival's forced mystique fails to land.

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At first, they look like giant black eggs ­hovering in the sky. Seen up close and in profile, they are more like the dark slashes in a Lucio Fontana canvas. These are the ­extraterrestrial spacecraft in Arrival, which appear suddenly one morning and plonk themselves in assorted locations across the planet with little or no regard for parking restrictions.

Arrival itself is less unexpected. Early November is the official launch period for adult-oriented science-fiction movies angling for awards recognition: Gravity, Inter­stellar and The Martian were all released in that slot and Arrival contains DNA carefully extracted from each. From Interstellar, it lifts a circular plot structure, signalled far in advance by an opening speech disputing the notion of beginnings and endings. From The Martian, it takes its pragmatic approach to a fantastical situation, represented in the new film by the challenge of communicating with alien visitors. Most importantly, Arrival borrows from Gravity a grieving female protagonist, in this case the linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams), who is mourning the loss of her daughter.

The screenwriter Eric Heisserer, working from a short story by Ted Chiang, knows that there can be no faster route to empathy than a dead child, and the director, Denis Villeneuve, finds the appropriate visual register for a montage of the girl’s life in the soft hues and artful blurs redolent of a commercial for private health care.

Louise lives alone in a stylishly chilly waterfront property, far too pricey for an academic to afford but spacious enough to denote emotional desolation. So when the US government requests that she join the physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to instigate a conversation with the aliens, the project provides respite from her grief. Inside the spacecraft docked in Montana, they converse through a gleaming white rectangle that suggests a blank cinema screen. Tentacles figure strongly in the composition of the creatures, who communicate by honking like trombones and spraying inky characters on the screen for Louise to decipher.

It is fitting that these splodges resemble Rorschach blots, since the film is concerned not with the enigmas of an exotic species but with what the extraterrestrials’ existence might reveal about the human race. Where Close Encounters of the Third Kind gazed outward in awe at the universe, Arrival asks only how its mysteries might provide succour and illumination for us. It couldn’t be any more parochial in its outlook if Louise and Ian were shown posing for selfies with the aliens.

As the story loops round on itself and Louise’s memories of her daughter start to provide clues and pointers, the film becomes carried away by its attempts at profundity. The past is the future . . . The future is the present . . . The child had a palindromic name . . . She made clay models that predicted what the aliens would look like . . . In a movie, the air of cosmic spookiness is less impressive than in life, because these are not really coincidences at all but markers placed in advance by the film-makers over the course of many drafts. A genuinely magical picture (Donnie Darko, say) generates a mystique that outlasts its plot surprises. Arrival is the opposite sort of film. Though secular in nature, its promises of continuous life make it as simplistically comforting as any religious parable.

It may have escaped the director’s atten­tion also that Nicolas Roeg has made a long and wonderful career out of exploring, with a good deal less fanfare, the idea that is central to his film. In Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and Bad Timing, the past, present and future exist simultaneously and it takes only a snip of the editor’s scissors to move between those time frames.

For Villeneuve, however, cinema is all about making big statements, and damn the details. He doesn’t notice, in the process of telling Louise’s story, that the aliens are relegated to the status of McGuffins in their own movie or that the entire world is nudged to the very brink of war just so that a well-off university professor can sleep more soundly at night.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse