Denis Villeneuve’s alien encounter film is hardly the first kind.
There are two kinds of movies involving alien contact. There’s the invasion variety, most famously including War of the Worlds and Independence Day, and there’s the peaceful visitation sort, mostly associated with Steven Spielberg classics like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival doesn’t immediately indicate which one it is, playing like it could be a mix of ID4 and CE3K. But it’s not as fun as the former, nor is it as human or as spectacular as the latter. They’re all related, just not as closely as they seem on the surface.
Arrival is plenty derivative, as most of its kind are. But not all of its precursors and ancestors are alien-contact movies, or even works of science fiction. Below are 12, an appropriate number , to seek out if you like Villeneuve’s latest or not. Fittingly, cinema can be watched and appreciated in any order, and your experience of Arrival can be both informed by or a benefit to the enjoyment of these titles. Regardless, any of these movies of the past that you haven’t seen should now be among your future viewings. Some of these recommendations obviously related to Arrival SPOILERS.
The Naughty Nineties (1945)
Why are the aliens given the names Abbott and Costello? This isn’t an idea taken from the movie’s source material, Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” and we’ll assume it’s not inspired by the 2012 Sherlock episode based on “The Hounds of Baskerville,” in which there’s a joke about aliens named Abbott and Costello being held captive by the Ministry of Defense. No, it’s likely just a direct reference to the comedy duo, whose most famous routine plays with language and miscommunication. “Who’s On First” originated in an early form in the 1930s and evolved in radio and film appearances. The Naughty Nineties is where we find the greatest performance of the sketch.
La Jetee (1962)
The reveal in Arrival of the flashbacks being really flash forwards (which is pretty obvious from the start, right?) is particularly reminiscent of the Season 3 finale of Lost. But this isn’t a place to recommend TV episodes, so we’ll just have to highlight Chris Marker’s experimental sci-fi short La Jetee, which was the inspiration for the Terry Gilliam movie 12 Monkeys. Something remembered from the past turns out to be also something foreseen of the future, as a man living in post-apocalyptic times is sent back in time to rescue his own present. Read more about it in our Criterion Files.
Le Gai Savoir (1969)
Also known by the English title Joy of Learning, Jean-Luc Godard’s final film of the 1960s is also sort of the first film of a new era of his career, though actually it’s more a zero-film deconstruction to move forward afterward. There’s clearly too much to explain of it here, but the basic description is that it’s a freewheeling film where a man and a woman (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto – this isn’t a documentary) meet to discuss language, in various forms, visual and verbal, and the process of learning. If you find Arrival too heady or too Communist-friendly, this isn’t for you.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novels aren’t easily adapted to the screen, which is why so few of them have been and why most of those that exist are bad. George Roy Hill’s film of the author’s most famous book is pretty good, however, surprisingly capturing the concept of being “unstuck in time” quite well. The meaning of that phrase is kind of what becomes of Amy Adams’s character in Arrival, though her evolved sense of time isn’t as physically felt as it is here by Billy Pilgrim, World War II soldier turned alien abductee (the four-dimensional perspective of the Tralfamadorians is very similar the heptapods’). The text is recommended more or in addition to the movie, as are his relevant novels “The Sirens of Titan” and “Timequake.”
There’s a moment in Arrival where the Americans discover the Chinese are using Mahjong tiles to communicate with the aliens, and Adams’s character explains that they could play chess with the heptapods, but then they’ll only know how to communicate with us, and vice versa, in competitive terms. Games are bad for starting a dialogue with strangers who don’t speak our language, and that’s an idea partly explored with human-computer interaction in WarGames. The artificial intelligence in the movie is based in games like chess and Tic-tac-toe as well as military strategy simulations.
Villeneuve’s very first film also plays with time, at least in its structure. As the title indicates, the half-hour experimental “psychodrama” documentary goes back and forth with its narrative, using a “black box” video recorder as a conceit for the rewinding and fast-forwarding. The filmmaker is also the protagonist, a journalist for a fictional magazine sent to do a story on the people of Trench Town in Kingston, Jamaica. The locals might as well be aliens, or maybe it’s the other way around, as he encounters their culture firsthand from them, then that is presented side by side with explanation of their culture by academic voices. Read more on REW-FFWD here and watch it in full for free below thanks to the National Film Board of Canada.
There are a few great movies where visiting aliens come in peace and bear gifts for Earthlings, such as the original 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still (the gift there is a warning), but Contact most closely resembles Arrival in terms of there being a focus on language. In this movie, based on a novel by iconic scientist Carl Sagan, it’s based on mathematics and what’s communicated is instructions on how to build some kind of vehicle that may transport a person to the aliens’ world. Instead of the male and female leads differing by believing either language or science is the root of civilization, those of Contact represent science versus religion.
It’s seeming to be difficult to do one of these lists without recommending a Christopher Nolan movie, because he appears to be influencing a lot of today’s sci-fi. This time it’s his debut feature, Following, a black and white neo-noir indie with multiple timelines that are intercut with one another until the whole story comes together at the end with a twist. The nonlinear structure here works better for this genre than sci-fi, even something involving time travel and particularly if time travel is what the twist is. Also worth mentioning is Interstellar, where the twist is a communication through time travel. And the work of another twist-meister, M. Night Shyamalan, is relevant. The twist of Arrival feels like if Signs had a twist more like that of The Sixth Sense.
Another movie that cross-cuts between two timelines, Frequency ties them together with a ham radio that allows for inter-temporal communication. Before Nolan did it with Intersteller, this movie gave a father and his child the opportunity to speak from different decades and save the world. Well, this is a little smaller, as the son first saves just his father by telling him about his death in a fire, and then together they try to keep others from dying at the hands of a serial killer. There’s less of an issue with the paradoxes here than the big one in Arrival, but again you’ve got a family drama playing a significant role in a time-travel story, and it’s hokier but does also have a lot more heart.
The New World (2005)
Adams’s character makes an analogy between their contact with aliens and Captain Cook’s first encounter with Aborigines in Australia, but since the story she tells is false, here’s a movie about Captain Smith’s first encounter with Native Americans. Directed by Terrence Malick, The New World depicts the arrival of the English ships from the point of view of the indigenous Tsenacommacah people, as if they’re UFOs landing from the sky. And of course, at first the white people can’t easily communicate with the tribe, though it’s not as difficult since they’re all humans. One of the reasons this movie is so great is that Malick got a linguistics professor to consult on an extinct form of Powhatan language that was spoken in the 17th century.
The Visit: An Alien Encounter (2015)
Not to be confused with Shyamalan’s 2015 horror movie, also called The Visit, this recommendation is for the stylish documentary by Michael Madsen (not to be confused with the actor of the same name). As has been pointed out elsewhere, The Visit and Arrival are similar in both having people in red-orange jumpsuits investigating an alien spacecraft. But that’s not the only connection. Madsen offers a work of speculative nonfiction featuring real experts combined with simulation to detail what is in fact already planned for if and when an actual spaceship (or a dozen) arrive on Earth. Madsen is interested in the language barrier concern, and even better than The Visit is his 2011 documentary Into Eternity: A Film for the Future, which is about nuclear waste storage and partly involves an address of the issue that people or aliens in the future might not understand warnings not to dig it up. Together, they make an incredibly fascinating pair of docs.
Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)
Before you sneer at this addition to the list, know that I nearly instead included Battlefield Earth, which features Arrival star Forest Whitaker and involves a language barrier between humans and invading aliens. Independence Day: Resurgence is not a great movie, not even as good as the so-so original, but it goes really well with Arrival as the ID4 to its CE3K. Both movies feature the world’s nations coming together to attempt a unified force against invading aliens. Both feature benevolent aliens offering Earthlings a gift of some sort, even after the humans almost obliterated them. Mashed together they would either form a smarter dumb movie or a dumber smart movie, but either way they’d each, together, make the other more enjoyable.