The films Arrival (2016) and Life (2017) offer two versions of the ‘first contact’ story — humanity’s initial encounter with alien life. Both these stories feature plots based around the mystery of figuring out what motivates the alien life. Are they hostile? Should we trust them (and discover amazing things)? In Arrival, the aliens appear in an advanced space craft using technology beyond our comprehension. In Life the alien being is a micro-organism discovered in a Martian soil sample. In many respects, these two stories are diametrical opposites. The alien in Arrival uses advanced technology, which could be a threat to humanity, but in Life, because the alien grows from such an apparently simple organism it’s assumed to be less of a threat.
The ‘first contact’ story has a history stretching beyond cinema, going back into early literature with stories of people voyaging to the moon and meeting human-like extra-terrestrials. In earlier cinema, space explorers like Flash Gordon (from the 1930s-film series Flash Gordon) encounter fantastic novelty and exoticism in space, including alien ‘people’ with unusual cultures and customs (often influenced by non-Western cultures, in the Middle and Far East). This is a fantastic world where the ‘Earth rulebook’ has been torn up and anything seems possible. Flash Gordon, for example, had the novelty of human-animal hybrids (much like beings found in Ancient Greek mythology). In Flash Gordon these are the Hawkmen, and Mole Men amongst others. While Ming the Merciless, the totalitarian ruler of Mongo’s police state, is basically a Chinese Emperor in space. The point here is that the fantastic, including science fiction is as much about us and our reaction to new worlds, and new experiences, as it is about the space environment itself and space monsters — much like the mountaineering story, the mainstream audience appeal is really about human persistence and endurance rather than mountain climbing.
Alien monsters were first popularised in comics, and horror films in often salacious and titillating fantasy adventure. Arrival and Life are more sophisticated stories, nonetheless they both refer back to the same challenge that Flash Gordon and others face — comprehending an unknown world where we should not always rely on easy assumptions.
Invariably, in the ‘first contact’ story some aliens are friendly while others turn out to be deadly enemies. Well known examples of friendly aliens include: ET (1982), a cute alien that befriends a group of children; and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), where super evolved aliens visit Earth. The space monsters include Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon, and the monsters in: The Blob (1958), Predator (1987), The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 / 1978), The Thing (1982), Independence Day (1996), and — perhaps the ultimate space monster — Alien (1979). So, Arrival and Life follow in a storytelling tradition of human encounters with friendly (wise, innocent) aliens, and malevolently monstrous aliens that lack empathy. Consequentially they work within predefined expectations of the friend or foe dichotomy.
Arrival is the hopeful story of an encounter with a friendly alien and Life is a warning about monsters in space. They reflect different attitudes to life, space, and humanity. The feminist viewpoint in Arrival stresses collaboration and trust, to learn from the aliens, but Life emphasises the violent struggle in ‘the survival of fittest’ (to use Darwinian language). These very different stories, and very different aliens personify selflessness versus selfishness — the story as a hopeful celebration versus the story as a stark warning.