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

Dec 22, 2016

By Megan Garber and Ross Andersen

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.

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16 comments on “Is Arrival the Best ‘First Contact’ Film Ever Made?

  • No. The best ‘First Contact’ film ever made was District 9. Firstly, it was entirely original – it’s hard to think of a more genre-bending film. Second it succeeded on so many levels; as sci-fi flick, drama, thriller, comedy even, but ultimately as biting social commentary.

    I enjoyed Arrival even if the ending was a bit of a letdown. But it was just a good science fiction movie whereas District 9 was amazing.

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  • From Rotten Tomatoes [negative] film review: We’re asked to accept that the aliens great gift to humanity is foresight, or more specifically, foreknowledge of their lives. Learn their language and you can see into the future, as language, so the movie validating theory goes, determines the way you think… This beneficence allows Amy Adams to learn she’ll have a daughter with Jeremy Renner’s scientist who’ll die of cancer aged 12. Yet, rather than tell him, the disturbing conclusion has her embrace a future that only she’s aware of, apparently resigned to its inevitability…

    When I read these time-travel-woo plot points derived from the ghosts of sci-fi past, I knew I don’t wanna see it. Hollywood bullshit overseasoned with bitter-sweet sentimentality.
    What a boon for a narcissist woman: knowing ahead of time that she’ll give birth to a daughter who will die of cancer at age 12 letting her indulge her imagination in the bliss of being the center of attention as the mourning mother, then actually experiencing it. Having your cake and eating it too.

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  • john.wb

    District 9, awesome movie. Its just what you said. I found it cathartic and satisfying.


    I knew I don’t wanna see it.

    This is prescient.

    Like Groundhog Day, maybe the over-specific image of the day relived but with clear recollection and the opportunity to be re-used until right, is best seen as a metaphor for the succession of all our nearly identical days only brought into better focus.

    Our great human attribute is truly to see into the future with increasing clarity. Maybe here is a metaphor for not being pole-axed by trend fatalism but learn to work with such seeming inevitabilities?

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  • I think the most realistic “first contact” movie would have either a space ship that has been “dead” for eons “bump” into earth or a sudden and utter annihilation of our civilization.

    First case. The nearest star is 4 light years away (about 23 – 24 trillion miles). Traveling at 50,000 mph the trip would take a whopping 55,000 years. The probability that there are zero catastrophic failures in (what for humans would be 5 times our recorded history) is exceedingly small. Life as we know it could not and would not be able to make the trip. It is prohibitively far.

    BUT, you optimists are gonna assail me with possibilities and technologies and wormholes and and and and and.

    Which brings me to the second scenario. Living aliens do get here. They would, logically, have technology that would appear like magic to us. We have not visited the nearest PLANET. Compared to a culture that could get here, we’d be ants. They’d simply massacre us and take all our shit. We would not have a say in the matter. Short movie!!! Blip–done.

    The only reason they’d come here, calculating the expense and time investment, would be their own profit or gain. And, if they can travel way way faster, way way further than us, then we’d not be capable of offering any resistance at all. Sorry, Will Smith, you are NOT gonna save this day.

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  • conflict and annihilation is usually about competition for resources . what would the aliens want to take from us ants ? We usually only destroy ants when they get in our way or nibble our resources . Or are you thinking we could be removed as an obstruction to some galactic super highway as in Douglas Adams “Hitch hikers guide to the galaxy”

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  • The best First Contact videos are from several Star Trek TV episodes or Star Trek movies. Many involve humans having first contact with other civilizations, and because of the insertion of the Prime Directive into the plots, those are quite enlightening. Those stories that involve other civilizations contacting humans, e.g., the Borg, are quite well done.

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  • Any suggestion that first contact would be about conflict over resources is nonsense.
    What resources does earth have that are not available in abundance in the vastness of space?
    Water? Oxygen? Gold? Iron? All available in vastly greater quantities than what we have here.

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  • What resources does earth have that are not available in abundance in the vastness of space?


    Human horn?

    The trick of bamboozling folk with religion?

    Jennifer Lawrence?

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  • Callum #10: Any suggestion that first contact would be about conflict over resources is nonsense.

    Any suggestion that first contact could happen is nonsense. Reflect on the logistics: “Nanoo- Nanoo sends you greetings. Message should arrive in -n- million years from today. Please reply ASAP.”

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  • Callum,
    I cannot think of another reason for aliens to come here. Perhaps is would not be for resources in the traditional sense, but rather our space.

    while I agree with you about first contact being nonsense, the spirit of the OP had me thinking. And, I arrive at the same conclusions. BTW, first contact would likely be a code of some sort arriving via radio waves or some electromagnetic pulses. Then, we’d have to endure the litany of idiots interpreting it.

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