Is Arrival the Best ‘First Contact’ Film Ever Made?

Two Atlantic writers on the very high highs, and (perhaps) the very low lows, of the genre

Paramount Pictures

This conversation discusses plot points of Arrival, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Contact.

What if there’s more? What if, somewhere out there, there are others? What if, one day, everything—really, everything—changes?

Contact with extraterrestrial life is an ongoing theme in film, and there’s a good reason for that: As a story alone, it’s mysterious. It’s epic. It’s awe-inspiring. But it’s also, as a story, intimate and personal. Arrival, the most recent entry in the “first contact” genre, is a reminder of that. So, though, are many of its predecessors. Below, two Atlantic staffers, senior editor Ross Andersen and staff writer Megan Garber, discuss a small (and, be warned, not at all comprehensive) sampling of those movies.

Megan Garber: Hi, Ross! So let’s start with the most recent film, Arrival. (Which I loved, unreservedly, until the final, space-squid-ex-machina twist—the clunkiness of which, I have to admit, ended up making me think a little bit less of the movie overall.) One of my favorite things about Arrival, before that final chunk, was the film’s treatment of the Moment of Contact itself—that small, enormous second that changes everything. I loved that the film, via its director, Denis Villeneuve, seemed to appreciate the context that moment was operating in, cinematically and otherwise: Villeneuve is clearly familiar with Contact and Close Encounters and the others, and seemed to want to make his own telling of the most epic event imaginable particularly distinctive.

He did that, I think, by paying tribute to the moment’s counterintuitive smallness: This is the story of two species—two civilizations, and ostensibly also two planets, two galaxies, two systems—colliding, yes, but it is also the much simpler story of two creatures meeting for the first time. It’s one-to-one as much as it is all-to-all … and I loved that Arrival went out of its way to emphasize that intimacy. It was emotionally right for me, as a viewer, and it was thematically right for the movie, since Arrival is in so many ways, as David Sims pointed out, about empathy. Here that all was, laid bare in the gentle touch of a hand to a leg, and in the simple, solved mystery of how to say hello. Arrival found a way to capture all of that—the high and (sorry) the hi—in its treatment, and I really appreciated that.

One more thing along those lines: I also loved how Arrival’s contact scene managed to marshal, on the human side, the two primary emotions you’d expect someone to have upon meeting an extraterrestrial: fear and wonder. Wonder, in particular, is such a hard thing to evoke onscreen in a way that isn’t cheesy (sorry, but Contact) or vaguely pompous (sorry, but 2001: A Space Odyssey), or trite. But Arrival, for my money, nails it. And it does that, I think, by understanding that wonder, as it’s experienced by real people, will often come with a side dose of anxiety—in the same way that “awesome” suggests both amazement and terror. So many movie renderings of that first moment of interplanetary meeting scan, in some way, as glib, in large part because they don’t appreciate how tangled the wonder and the fear can be within the person who is making the meeting. Arrival, though, uses its own aesthetic minimalism—the bare geometry of its space pod, the spare chords of its score—to suggest, actually, complexity. I loved that. Its treatment of the contact moment struck me, overall, not just as sensitive, but also, in its way, as wise—fitting, I guess, since one of the movie's other themes is how closely connected compassion and wisdom can be, on Earth and beyond its limits.

Ross Andersen: You are so right about that tension between fear and wonder. More on that in a minute, but first I want to say that I’m with you on Arrival’s ending, which is too bad, because its basic premise was clever. There is always this paradox at the heart of these “first contact” stories, where the filmmakers have to imagine what an intelligence capable of traveling to Earth from a distant star might be like, from the limited perspective of a species that has barely leapt to its lunar satellite. The clumsiest way to do that is to think about the kind of technologies that humans have, and just ramp them up to some absurd degree. Like, “Oh, they’ll have super-duper warp drive!” The more interesting thing to do is to think about how an extraterrestrial intelligence might see the world differently, like a cosmic version of, “What is it like to be a bat?

It’s particularly fascinating to imagine alternative perceptions of time, because the nature of time is still an unsettled matter in the physical sciences. Which is to say: It’s entirely possible that our perception of time is limited in some profound way. And so, yeah, it was an inspired choice to have this advanced intelligence give humans the gift of omnitemporal perception, and to have it be received by a linguist. But just like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, the filmmakers couldn’t resist making the heroine into a Pietà figure, a Mary grieving her lost child. It’s like they knew they had a cerebral story on their hands, and decided they needed to artificially graft on emotion by introducing the most tragic stakes possible. As an audience, we never really come to know Louise’s daughter. She comes across like this blurry, indistinct presence, like the faceless preppy kids in Inception. And yet, she’s supposed to be the emotional core of Louise’s story.

But that’s probably the worst thing I can say about this film. I can’t wait to watch it again. I really loved how they used non-humanoid aliens, and that they resembled the octopus, the great shapeshifter and chameleon of the oceans. You know, an octopus can recognize individual human faces? The octopus traveled a radically different evolutionary path than human beings. Its brain is distributed all through its body. It might be Earth’s closest thing to an alien intelligence.

Arrival’s sleek spaceships were nice, too, although, for me, they fell short of Kubrick’s monoliths, which remain, in their Platonic simplicity, cinema’s most striking alien artifacts. The first entry into the spaceship was one of the most wondrous scenes in the film, especially that moment when Ian, the physicist, feels the alternate gravity kick in. Everyone else shakes it off and starts walking toward the light. For them, gravity is just another quality of personal experience. It’s a perception, mere phenomena. But for Ian, it’s a fundamental law of the universe. Arrival is, in many ways, a film about revelation, and in that moment, Ian is like Paul thrown from the horse.

I’m going on too long! I’m like the alien in Arrival who blasts hundreds of thousands of circle-y symbols onto the glowing surface between us. I should pass the conch shell back to you. But before I do, I want to ask you a question. In the past, you and I have talked about Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another plausible candidate for “best ‘first contact’ film ever,” and I know you’re not a fan. What don’t you like about it?

Megan: It’s true! I’m not a fan. And, actually, my non-love of Close Encounters has to do with what we’ve been talking about already: the wonder stuff. And also the family stuff! Close Encounters works, primarily, as an action movie, and in that respect it’s totally compelling. As a quest story, and as a yarn, it’s great. But when it comes to the meeting that makes the movie—the pathos of that moment, and, yes, the wonder of it—Close Encounters, ultimately, left me cold. In part, that was because the plot of the movie—the idea that Roy’s mind was both his own and, somehow, also the aliens’—made it hard for me to fully empathize with him. But it was also because the real emotional core of the film, Roy’s relationship with his family, got completely disregarded in the film’s self-styledly “epic” conclusion. I love Terri Garr, and I love her character in Close Encounters, and it struck me as both frustrating and supremely sad how her story, and her family’s, were essentially victims, in the end, of the movie’s almost childish enthusiasm for its alien creatures.

And then! Those creatures. My caveat here is that I only recently—like, in the past couple of years—watched Close Encounters for the first time, and it can be hard, with movies like that, to respect them as they would have been experienced in their own times. Close Encounters may well have been innovative in the ’70s, and it’s not its fault that it has been widely imitated and referenced in the years that have intervened. However: So much of Close Encounters, from its little green men to its Lite-Brite-tastic flying saucers on down, struck me as trite, on both sides: It both built on existing cliches and was itself widely replicated.

Close Encounters made, to its credit, a lot of wry little comments about the moment of contact—poking fun, for example, at the interplay between the discovery of extraterrestrial life and decidedly earthly brands (I loved the line in which Ronnie asks Roy whether the aliens he’s seen look like Sarah Lee cookies). But the aliens here, in their way, also seemed branded—Little Green Men™, etc.—and that struck me less as an ironic commentary on commercial culture than as a fairly disappointing failure of imagination. The cumulative effect of all that, for me, was to take the most wondrous event imaginable, the one Arrival portrayed so sensitively, and to reduce it down to two-dimensionality. Roy couldn’t be fearful about the moment of alien contact, on account of the extraterrestrials’ mashed potato-ed mind control; he couldn’t be fully wondrous, either. And, so, neither could his movie.

But! Speaking of that moment of contact! I’m curious to know what you think about, yep, Contact—and, in particular, the way it handled that moment. Spirituality, science, stars, heaven, a beach, The Truman Show … the moment, hooboy, had a lot going on. What did you make of it?

Ross: You know, I cannot defend the family dynamics in Close Encounters. Not at all. My memories of Close Encounters are almost all from adolescence, before I would have known to pick up on the way the film gives Roy a total pass for abandoning his wife and kids to make mashed potato sculptures. (And amazingly risky decisions.) As a kid, I was completely, unthinkingly, on Team Roy. I was like, “Lady, the man has seen aliens, this shit is world-historical, get off his back!”

Which is so typical, right? I think this is one thing we won’t miss about the auteur era: That constant trope that everything must yield to a man’s sacred ambition. One part of adulting, I’ve realized, is gaining a new perspective on movies that participate in that myth. Like when you are married, or in any serious relationship, to build a giant mud mesa in the middle of the living room? That would be, at a minimum, a massive outlay of marital capital. I was blind to that aspect of it when I was younger, in a way that embarrasses me now.

But, I will defend the wonder of Close Encounters! Its opening scenes, especially. The first signs of contact set all around the world—the pristine WWII planes, the chanting of the alien signal in India, the tension among the air-traffic controllers during the fly-by—all of that felt like Spielberg at his most limber. But I should add that I came across Close Encounters at a special time, right when I first began thinking about what it might mean to make contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence. When writers and filmmakers try to depict the wonder of first contact, they’re usually focused on the particulars of this meeting between two civilizations, but rarely do they explore what it would mean for our view of the cosmos at large.

Right now, the night sky is a cold, lifeless expanse. But if we’re lucky enough to make contact with another intelligence, that intelligence will likely be relatively local, which is to say it will be evidence that two sets of conscious beings evolved in the same general neighborhood. And if that’s true, it would almost certainly be the case that the universe is teeming with life. There are two trillion galaxies in the part of the cosmos that we can see, and each one is packed with billions of stars. If those vast reaches are brimming with life, that would say something profound about the raw creative power of nature. That’s an awesome thought to contemplate, and it was one I was starting to mull over when I first saw Close Encounters, which is probably why I remain fond of it.

As it happens, I saw the film (on VHS!) shortly after reading, and becoming obsessed with, Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. When Robert Zemeckis adapted it on film, in the late nineties, I could barely stomach it. The source material was such an essential text for me that any departure from it felt like ugly compromise. Ten years later, I saw Contact again and I came around. I especially loved how the film was so comfortable leaving the viewer in an uncertain state, a state of longing to know. That’s true in the film’s conclusion, of course, but also in the earliest scenes, with McConaughey and Foster at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Like a lot of stuff by Sagan, Contact does an amazing job of dramatizing this scientific moment we’re in, where we’ve sketched out a decent portion of the cosmos, and figured out a lot of the big questions, except for this really big one about whether or not we’re alone. And that’s a moment we might be living in for a very long time.

Megan: I love that way of thinking about it, Ross: Contact gets at the wonder stuff by making its viewers, literally, wonder. That was one of my favorite things about Contact, too, its cheesiness notwithstanding: its ambivalence, not in a way that suggested creative cowardice or moral hedging, but rather in a way that suggested that there are some things that we simply can’t know—at least not yet. And while the contact moment in this case was animated by the tensions that had run throughout the movie—faith versus science, heaven versus something more earthbound—it refused to take sides or even, finally, to frame them as sides to begin with. All things can be true, Contact insists. It’s not faith versus science; it’s faith and science.

We tend to think of contact stories as futuristic, the stuff of spacesuits and worm holes and intergalactic travel. What I love about Contact, though—and what I love about Arrival, and what I will, under duress, mildly appreciate about Close Encounters—is that they understand the narrative intimacy of the contact moment. Whatever we find out there, whenever we find it, that will change not just humanity’s future, but also humans’ sense of our own past. There’s a reason so many of these stories deal, in some way, with notions of circular time: Contact is a matter of our history as much as it is a matter of our destiny.

It seems appropriate, in that sense, to close this out not just with Sagan’s wonderfully accommodating ambivalence about that encounter, but also with the insight of Jill Tarter, the astronomer many consider to be the inspiration for Contact’s fictional heroine, Ellie Arroway: “We, all of us,” Tarter says, “are what happens when a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium evolves for so long that it begins to ask where it came from.”