Contact on Arrival: how aliens connect us
Warning/reassurance: Spoilers are minimal…
Watching Arrival in a spectacular fashion and later Contact (1997) in the comfort of my own home it made me think about how science fiction, while seeming so distant with ideas of space and aliens is actually so very tuned in to exploring how close humanity is, or at least can be. Granted many science fiction stories focus on conflict, battles and creating a ‘them and us’ polemic, but both these films beautifully unite Earth in a genuinely life-affirming ways. There are an especially high number of similarities between the two. If you haven’t already seen Contact it is a fantastic companion piece and stands the test of time despite the two decades between them.
Close-Up were invited to a special screening of Arrival at The Royal Observatory in Greenwich. As the park was closed, we intrepid adventurers were shuttled, yes like the actual astronauts we are, to the Peter Harrison Planetarium. There, we were treated to a whirl around the galaxy before being brought back down to earth for a laid-back, 45 degree projection of the film on the dome where we were seeing galaxies moments before. For an added touch of the extraterrestrial, while the lights were down, as per the cinema experience, they left constellations of stars to surround the projected rectangle – the irony being that the film never goes out of Earth’s atmosphere.
Astronomer Edward Bloom of the observatory began our short demonstration of the Planetarium with an explanation of how pulsars used to be considered proof that ‘little green men’ were trying to communicate with Earth (they were even labelled LGM-1,2,3 etc). Incidentally, this is exactly the premise of Contact as Jodie Foster searches for life in space. She catalogues pulsars in a way said to be ‘old-school’ even in 1997. In Arrival, the alien contact very much comes to Earth and more specifically to Amy Adams without any of the agonised radio-scanning of the former. The difference is one of the ways the films are inversions of each other, telling a very similar story, but from opposite ideas on how the ‘contact’ takes place, and why.
While Contact has a more overtly human-centred story with Jodie Foster’s relationship with her father and romantic interest in Matthew McConaughey forming the groundwork, Arrival’s approach is unusually narrow and dispassionate in its premise. This has surprising benefits as the practical process of becoming the lead candidate to be the human-alien communicator is accepted as a fait accompli. Arrival focuses on the terms of conversation between two species that do not even share a language and the literal mechanics of such an encounter. Amy Adams’ character builds a relationship step-by-step and uses her linguistic skills to develop a personal bond in order to discover the wider reasons the aliens have arrived. It is purely her endeavour to crack the code of their mysterious cyclical language structure that drives the plot and where this might seem dry, when compared to all the baggage surrounding Jodie Foster in Contact, it’s arguably more intriguing. It is slower and lets the big questions posed by the film breathe. Both approaches work, Contact creating an interpersonal structure for the film and Arrival being more about the inter-species bond between Amy Adams and the two ‘heptapods’ playfully nicknamed ‘Abbott and Costello’. Over many months she builds up from the word ‘Human’ to indicate herself, up to carrying out conversations with them and embarking on a more deeply personal journey.
This difference in the film’s reasons for the moments of contact with their alien species is in opposition too. Foster has been searching the sky for intelligence all of her life, whereas Adams ostensibly has no interest. Adams is drafted in by the military as an expert in interpreting the presence of 12 alien pods on Earth, purely as an eminent linguist. However, they both go on to make sacrifices, or take choices that result from their positive experience. It’s curious as to why, as these stories are so familiar, they are both female. Perhaps women are supposed to show a more empathetic, curious side of humanity which makes them the best candidates to be its ambassadors.
Arrival is based on the short text ‘Story of Your Life’ by award-winning sci-fi author Ted Chiang, published in 1998, remarkably close to the cinematic release of Contact in 1997. Perhaps Chiang was heavily influenced by the original Carl Sagan novel ‘Contact’ in 1985 and the subsequent film. If so, it is anything but a lazy rehash, but a thoughtful homage.
Lastly, in comparing the films, the gift or message received is philanthropic, as aliens attempt to aid mankind in different ways. Both concern the transmission of knowledge of some sort, knowledge designed to bring harmony. In Contact, it is actually the practicalities of fully realising their gift that unites different nations in the pursuit of greater understanding. The willingness for people to come together when the prize is so universal and bipartisan is a lesson for questioning the disharmony of deciding upon smaller decisions. It’s a little utopian, but why can’t we all work together? Arrival works in reverse, the world struggles to collaborate and bicker over the politics of an alien ‘threat’ as perceive it. Sharing of information becomes a bête noire. It is only after Adams puts in the spadework on a personal level that the universal knowledge is realised and everyone benefits, becoming closer as a result of her going out on a limb to understand them. In latter scenes both women are shown to be teaching. This is key as they pass on the knowledge they have gained and a sense of hope to the next generation. In a condescendingly schoolteacher-like tone Foster explains to a group of children:
I’ll tell you one thing about the universe, though. The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space. Right?
Feature by George Meixner