“Arrival,” the shimmering and portentous new why-are-they-here? alien-invasion drama, is on track to bring in around $24 million this weekend. That isn’t shabby, but it’s not spectacular, either. It’s not the kind of box-office performance that one would have expected, a while back, from an acclaimed, star-driven, visually astonishing sci-fi movie about visitors from another world. It’s no surprise, really, that “Arrival” is lagging far behind the second weekend of “Doctor Strange” and “Trolls.” Next to those movies, it’s practically an art film. (The critics seem rapturous about it, and I was too — for about the first three-fifths — though I have to wonder if audiences are going to like the metaphysical head-scratcher of an ending any more than I did.)
Back in the day, an alien-visitation thriller was as close to a sure thing as Hollywood had going. In 2002, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” was little more than a deluxe gloss on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but it knocked off Spielberg to the tune of $227 million. As I wrote in my review of “Arrival,” almost every alien-visitation movie — including “Arrival” — has fed nostalgically off the fumes of “Close Encounters.” Spielberg really set the template with that movie, and no one in the decades since has come close to matching its splendiferous awe.
Yet there’s another reason why “Arrival,” when the beans are counted and the award nominations handed out, may not register with moviegoers quite as much as its creators had hoped. For years, alien-visitation movies fed off our primal fascination with UFOs. A great many people believed that life was out there, and that it had decided, on various occasions, to visit us. I’m not saying that a lot of people don’t believe that today. (They believe that Donald Trump will build a wall, so it’s safe to say that they’ll believe almost anything.) But the novelty of that belief, and the way it was always rooted in the urgency of conspiracy theory, has begun to fade.
For a long time, true-life testimonials of alien abduction were legion, and if you happened to think that they were taking place in the imagination of the beholder, they were still an awfully strange phenomenon. Why did all these people…believe? The whole scenario of abduction (“I was in what looked like an operating room, being poked and prodded…”) had a disturbing aura of PTSD to it, and the founding myth of UFO culture, which was the apocryphal story of what happened in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 (the crash of a U.S. Air Force balloon, transmogrified into a UFO), became a paranoid article of faith. Along with the JFK assassination, it was one of two formative texts of our conspiracy-theory culture: the whole notion that aliens had landed at the dawn of the postwar world, and that the government had encountered them, and it was all being kept secret.
As it turns out, a different conspiracy may have been at work. Adam Curtis, the dazzlingly insightful BBC journalist and filmmaker whose mind-opening movies include “The Century of the Self” (about the omnipotence of advertising culture in the 20th century) and “The Power of Nightmares” (about the way terrorism really works in the post-9/11 world), has made a new film, called “hypernormalisation,” in which he confronts the mutating — and, in many ways, diminishing — role of government in the age of Trump and Brexit. At one point in the film, Curtis investigates the rise of UFO culture, and he uncovers startling documents that reveal the possible source of it.
For years, the theory of alien invasions was bolstered by all those home movies and videos you could see — on TV specials, and now on-line — of mysterious lights in the sky that obviously weren’t airplanes. Even those of us who were skeptics could get sucked into the maelstrom by that amateur footage, which made you think, “If that’s not an alien spaceship, then what the heck is it?” Curtis provides an answer, one that doesn’t, at first, sound all that original: They were military craft being tested by the government, and every so often one of them would be spotted and filmed. If true, this presented an obvious problem for the military-industrial complex, so the solution that top officials came up with was to encourage, in the culture at large, belief in the mythology of UFOs. Curtis uncovers U.S. government documents that reveal a concerted effort to fan the flames of that belief. His investigation, if accurate, helps to explain why the belief in UFOs — and alien abductions — had a specific moment, rising up in the ’70s and carrying on through the next two decades.
There are other elements, of course, to the explanation. Crop circles, which Shyamalan played off in “Signs,” have always provided a mysteriously beautiful and evocative piece of suggestive “evidence” that there’s an intelligence out there we can’t explain. Like a lot of people, I was seduced by their enigma, but as I discovered a few years ago, you can go onto YouTube and find videos explaining exactly how crop circles are made — and, in fact, how they were invented one night in the early ’70s by a couple of drunken English blokes having a lark. For a long time, they seemed like “signs,” but their mystique as avatars of the beyond has waned.
All of which brings us back to “Arrival.” In 2016, is there an audience of people who want to see a movie about gargantuan otherworldly spaceships that look like obsidian eggs and the haunting creatures inside them? Of course there is. Our fascination with the prospect of alien life took off way before the rise of UFO mania (just think of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” released in 1951), and it will surely outlast it. Yet I would argue that the height of that obsession has passed. The notion of “advanced” extraterrestrial visitors was always, on some level, a dream of ultimate technology, and that’s a dream that has begun to look, more and more, like it’s coming true on our own planet. You may still harbor the suspicion that aliens are out there, or that they’ve actually visited earth, but even if you do, that belief is no longer a revelation. It’s more like a rerun.