The first contact drama “Arrival” continues to shake up sci-fi with its rejection of the action-packed alien antics the genre is so often known for. Denis Villeneuve’s brainy feature has been building awards season buzz since its debut at the Venice Film Festival in September, and was recently listed as one of the best films of the year by the National Board of Review (with Adams’ performance landing Best Actress to boot). But did the movie get the science right? Andy Howell of Science vs. Cinema investigates.
Interspersed between scenes from the film’s trailer are interviews Howell conducts with the cast and crew, as well as conversations he had with linguists and scientists about the film’s accuracy. Howell covers several different facets of the film, from the aliens’ physiology and structure of their language, to the design and feasibility of their spaceships.
“I wanted the opposite of a ‘Star Trek’ alien where we have somebody with makeup and stuff on their head and that was it,” said screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who cites the work of Ted Chiang, the author of the original short story, as fundamental to the design of “Arrival’s” aliens. “It wasn’t until Denis came on board that we began looking at deep-sea aquatic life that had just been discovered, and found some inspiration in that brand new lifeform.”
Seth Shostak, a Senior Astronomer at SETI, commended the aliens’ design as one of the film’s strengths, calling them “squids on steroids.”
One of the key plot points in the film is the translation of the aliens’ language so the characters in the film can glean their intentions. The aliens’ language, reminiscent of stains left by coffee cups (as noted by Villeneuve), is unlike any human language in both its design and creation, and seems almost impossible to understand. Nevertheless, linguist Jessica Coon praised the film’s process of deciphering it, however repetitive it might appear.
As for the slip-ups? “Hey, that’s what happens in moviemaking,” says Howell. “Sometimes you have the bend the rules a little, just for the sake of telling a better story.”
Watch the full video below. “Arrival” is now playing in theaters.