Trailer Tuesday: the best first contact movies of all time

Trailer Tuesday: the best first contact movies of all time

Luca Fontana
Zurich, on 14.07.2020
Translation: Patrik Stainbrook
First contact between humans and aliens. Since time immemorial, the very idea of it has awoken people's fantasies and fears. This includes Hollywood.

Intelligent extra-terrestrial life. Would they be nice towards us? Hostile? Or would us humans be the aggressors? No one knows the answer. Not yet. But Arthur C. Clarke, legendary physicist and science fiction author who filmed «2001: A Space Odyssey» with Stanley Kubrick, once said this:

Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.

It really is. On the other hand, it could be exciting. Today's trailer Tuesday isn't about alien movies per se, but on the five best films about the first contact between humans and alien life forms of all time.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen one of these movies, skip that paragraph and watch the movie instead.

Number 5: Mars Attacks!

«Ack ack, ack. Aaack Ack!»

Translation: «We come in peace.»

Then a dove of peace has to go ahead and ruin the first meeting between humans and Martians.

Tim Burton's «Mars Attacks!» puts such a weird spin our first encounter of the third kind that it really stands out. It already starts at all those Hollywood stars willing to appear in the film – even if it's only for a few seconds before the Martians remove the flesh off their bones with their laser guns. In short: an ideal cult film.

The lasers gave me nightmares as a kid, by the way.

Cinema release: 13 December 1996 Earnings: 101.4 million dollars

Number 4: Super 8

J.J. Abram's «Super 8» is both a homage to the Steven Spielberg films of the 1980s and a sample of his favourite dramaturgical trick – the Mystery Box.

On the one hand, there's this gang of children who are smarter than all the adults around them. But despite having children as the main protagonists, the film is creepy and brutal. So far, so Spielberg.

On the other hand, it's all about a huge secret, which is first hinted at in trailers and is only revealed in the movie shortly before the end. That's just like J.J. Abrams. Think «Lost» or «Fringe». Or «Alias» and «Cloverfield». Or even «Star Wars: Episode VII». Abrams likes to use secrets to raise the audience's expectations to an almost unbearable level and thus create suspense. J.J. Abrams once held a TedTalk on the subject.

I can't resist the 1980s charm. «Super 8» is like a cinematic Stranger Things to me. Instead of creatures from a parallel dimension, it's about an alien captured by the US military.

Cinema release: 9 June 2011 Earnings: 260.1 million dollars

Number 3: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

Who doesn't recognise him, the small, scatter-brained alien with a deep, croaky voice, who only wants to phone home? Exactly. Granted, I hadn't yet been born when the film came to cinemas. Nevertheless, it accompanied me throughout my entire childhood.

Mainly because of the deep friendship that develops between E.T., the alien, and Elliott, the human child. I could identify with that. And it eased my fear of the unknown. Only much later I realized that «E.T.» isn't just a science fiction adventure about the first encounter between humans and aliens. It's also a touching family drama about a divorced mother who tries to raise three children on her own. The healing effect that the extra-terrestrial being has on everyone is a balm for the soul.

And then there's John Williams' score, which will go down in the annals of film history with the iconic image of children flying into the sunset on hovering bicycles.

Cinema release: 11 June 1982
Earnings: 793.5 million dollars

Number 2: Contact

It took over a decade to make a movie based on Carl Sagan's book «Contact», published in 1985. This despite the fact that the American astronomer, astrophysicist, exobiologist and presenter of the popular documentary series «Cosmos» had originally started «Contact» as a script. But faced with the slow grinding mills of Hollywood, he rewrote the text and published it as a novel.

The film itself is one of the most intelligent Hollywood blockbusters of the late 1990s. Among other things, it's clever enough not to take a clear position in the science versus religion debate. On the contrary: the film concerns travel to the solar system Vega, nearly 26 light years away. The goal of this mission is to meet an extra-terrestrial life form there as a representative for planet Earth. In the end, anti-religious scientist Ellie (Jodie Foster) of all people is chosen and returns without any material proof of her interstellar journey, appealing to people to blindly trust her reports – just like religions do.

And that shot. I'm speechless.

There's so much I want to say about «Contact». The ending is small, almost intimate and therefore even more courageous. Sentences like «No words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should have sent a poet» or «The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space». And then there's one of Alan Silvestris' best compositions.

In any case, the Robert Zemeckis film didn't come to the cinemas until 1997. Sadly, Sagan never saw «his» film; he had died of myelodysplasia eight months earlier.

Release date in cinemas: 11. July 1997 Earnings: 171.1 million dollars

Number 1: Arrival

Denis Villeneuve's «Arrival» is odd. Oddly amazing. When I first saw the film, I thought it was about overcoming language barriers. I mean come on, we're already struggling with the translation of our earthly languages. Languages that are shaped by culture and history and which in turn are deeply rooted in culture and history. Now imagine that humans and aliens have to find a basis for a common language.

That alone would be worth a whole movie. But then, in the last moments of the film, it reveals one of the most grandiose cinema twists of all time. No, this isn't about language. Not really. It's about a much more complex concept than language: time. «Arrival» questions our idea of linear time, in which everything starts at the beginning and ends at the end. But what if time could be bent, curved and shaped – into a circle?

Or to put it another way: what if we could «remember» future events and at the same time make decisions for our present from the future? Oof. The future would benefit from the present – and vice versa. On the other hand, we would have to constantly confront ourselves with our own decisions. Would we do certain things the same way even if we knew the consequences? Like having a child. A child affected by a rare disease who will die at the age of 12. Are those twelve years of love worth all the pain afterwards?

Oh man. This is frying my brain. I told you, oddly amazing.

Cinema release: 10 November 2016
Earnings: 203.4 million dollars


Choosing First Contact films that on the one hand don't only consist of the usual suspects but nevertheless reflect my personal taste wasn't all that easy. I'm sure you know some other notable examples. Feel free to add them in the comment section. I’m looking forward to it.

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Luca Fontana
Luca Fontana

Editor, Zurich

I'm an outdoorsy guy and enjoy sports that push me to the limit – now that’s what I call comfort zone! But I'm also about curling up in an armchair with books about ugly intrigue and sinister kingkillers. Being an avid cinema-goer, I’ve been known to rave about film scores for hours on end. I’ve always wanted to say: «I am Groot.»

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