What’s the Most Realistic “First Contact” Movie?

Last night I watched the excellent movie “Arrival” for the second time, and it made me wonder the titular question: What’s the most realistic movie for what our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life would look like.

I see two major contenders (I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting–please assist in the comments). Spoilers follow about both Arrival and Contact.

Arrival: In this film, 12 egg-like alien ships appear around the world, each containing 2 sentients. The movie is about bridging the gap in communication between the aliens and humans, which I think this is pretty darn close to what first contact would focus on, though I think it would be unlikely for a vastly advanced civilization to send anything other than a computer for such a mission. Arrival also touches on how the people of the world respond to aliens hovering over our planet (i.e., not well). I hope that won’t actually be the case, but I can see that happening.

Contact: In this movie, humans receive a broadcast from a distant planet that they decipher into blueprints for a massive machine that allows for a short conversation between a human and an alien. Aside from how easily the aliens understand human language (which maybe makes sense if they’ve been listening to us for a while), I think the concept of setting up an interstellar Zoom call is pretty realistic.

If I had to choose between the two, I’m going to give the slight edge to Contact. It just seems a lot easier to send a message with instructions to us than to actually visit us.

Also, I think it’s remotely possible that our first contact with intelligent alien life could be our own deep-space technology.

For the record, while I love both Arrival and Contact as stand-alone films, I would gladly watch a sequel to Arrival set 3,000 years in the future (when the aliens need the humans) and a sequel to Contact that follows the results of all the other conversations between humans and aliens.

What do you think is the most realistic first contact movie: Arrival, Contact, or something else?

10 thoughts on “What’s the Most Realistic “First Contact” Movie?”

  1. Though it may not count, I would say The Andromeda Strain. The old movie is more faithful to the source book, but lacks the futuristic tech to complete the setting. The new A&E movie/miniseries has the tech, but strays from the source material story wise… I do like the alternate ending though!

      • It depends on your definition. It tries to adapt to its environment, do you consider that intelligence? Do you consider bacteria intelligent? Are viruses even alive, and thus capable of intelligence? That’s why I didn’t know if it would count.

        • Good points/questions. I was thinking to exclude bacteria, though I also think it’s highly likely that our first contact with extraterrestrial life will be with very simple organisms like that.

          • I agree. I believe it’s even likely to have already happened. With viruses not fitting most definitions of life, and the lack of records beyond thousands of years, viruses may be alien. The first wasn’t discovered until the late 19th century, and until recently, the oldest known was only 450 years old. The oldest now is about 30k years old, but is so different from modern ones that it may be classified as a bacteria eventually.

  2. Archaeological reconstruction by far future alien species. Whatever they create will contain biological and psychological elements that we can recognize as human, some elements that are primate and not human, and the rest extrapolations that reflect the aliens (but consistent with our ecology). The reconstruction will be confused by its environment, and the aliens will be confused by the reconstruction.

  3. Probably Avatar, or some other movie where humans are the ones doing the discovery of a less technologically advanced species. Despite the vast number of planets in the universe, and the probability that life should exist outside Earth, we have never seen a single piece of evidence of advanced alien life. There has been plenty of time for a species to develop to the point of a galaxy-spanning civilization by now, and our technology is advanced enough that we would have seen some sort of evidence of that by now. They probably should have visited us by now, and not in some sneaky way. Radio signals or physical structures should be detected, or anything, and there are people actively watching for it. We would probably detect them before they would visit us. As Enrico Fermi famously said after calculating a high probability that intelligent life should exist outside Earth: “Where is everybody?”
    Every answer to that question is a little scary. Either we are being intentionally kept in the dark by aliens far more intelligent than we are, or there aren’t any advanced aliens, because they either never existed or existed and died before achieving highly advanced technology. It’s very likely that we are the most technologically advanced life in the galaxy (possibly the universe). So if we are going to encounter aliens, it’s very likely that we will be the ones doing the visiting.

  4. I think you’ve made two solid selections here, and I agree that receiving information which would allow us to build a way to reach another civilization is probably the most likely scenario, since it would not tax their resources, and they would effectively be in control of the situation since they had invented the tech and the manner in which our version connected to them.

    There was an episode of TnG where Barclay went ‘Flowers for Algernon’ and ended up taking over the Enterprise and launching it to a distant location so that the lifeforms there could meet us. Something about exploring without having to leave the comforts of home. I just remember them looking like old men and chittering over our ‘bipedal locomotion’ which made me laugh.

    While Arrival did a fantastic job demonstrating the difficulties of learning a language cold, with no common references (particularly with a lifeform that perceived reality in a different manner) the vast distances of interstellar space make visitation unlikely in my opinion. There is probably loads of life in the universe, but it’s unlikely that we would ever know, given the time it takes even light to cross those distances.


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