Quick, How Might the Alien Spacecraft Work?

Opinion

[This post is about the movie “Arrival“; there are no movie spoilers here.]

“It’s an interesting script,” said someone on our PR team. It’s pretty common for us to get requests from movie-makers about showing our graphics or posters or books in movies. But the request this time was different: could we urgently help make realistic screen displays for a big Hollywood science fiction movie that was just about to start shooting?

Well, in our company unusual issues eventually land in my inbox, and so it was with this one. Now it so happens that through some combination of relaxation and professional interest I’ve probably seen basically every mainstream science fiction movie that’s appeared over the past few decades. But just based on the working title (“Story of Your Life”) I wasn’t even clear that this movie was science fiction, or what it was at all.

But then I heard that it was about first contact with aliens, and so I said “sure, I’ll read the script”. And, yes, it was an interesting script. Complicated, but interesting. I couldn’t tell if the actual movie would be mostly science fiction or mostly a love story. But there were definitely interesting science-related themes in it—albeit mixed with things that didn’t seem to make sense, and a liberal sprinkling of minor science gaffes.

When I watch science fiction movies I have to say I quite often cringe, thinking, “someone’s spent $100 million on this movie—and yet they’ve made some gratuitous science mistake that could have been fixed in an instant if they’d just asked the right person”. So I decided that even though it was a very busy time for me, I should get involved in what’s now called “Arrival” and personally try to give it the best science I could.

There are, I think, several reasons Hollywood movies often don’t get as much science input as they should. The first is that movie-makers usually just aren’t sensitive to the “science texture” of their movies. They can tell if things are out of whack at a human level, but they typically can’t tell if something is scientifically off. Sometimes they’ll get as far as calling a local university for help, but too often they’re sent to a hyper-specialized academic who’ll not-very-usefully tell them their whole story is wrong. Of course, to be fair, science content usually doesn’t make or break movies. But I think having good science content—like, say, good set design—can help elevate a good movie to greatness.

As a company we’ve had a certain amount of experience working with Hollywood, for example writing all the math for six seasons of the television show “Numb3rs”. I hadn’t personally been involved—though I have quite a few science friends who’ve helped with movies. There’s Jack Horner, who worked on “Jurassic Park”, and ended up (as he tells it) pretty much having all his paleontology theories in the movie, including ones that turned out to be wrong. And then there’s Kip Thorne (famous for the recent triumph of detecting gravitational waves), who as a second career in his 80s was the original driving force behind “Interstellar”—and who made the original black-hole visual effects with Mathematica. From an earlier era there was Marvin Minsky who consulted on AI for “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and Ed Fredkin who ended up as the model for the rather eccentric Dr. Falken in “WarGames”. And recently there was Manjul Bhargava, who for a decade shepherded what became “The Man Who Knew Infinity”, eventually carefully “watching the math” in weeks of editing sessions.

All of these people had gotten involved with movies much earlier in their production. But I figured that getting involved when the movie was about to start shooting at least had the advantage that one knew the movie was actually going to get made (and yes, there’s often a remarkably high noise-to-signal ratio about such things in Hollywood). It also meant that my role was clear: all I could do was try to uptick and smooth out the science; it wasn’t even worth thinking about changing anything significant in the plot.

The inspiration for the movie had come from an interesting 1998 short story by Ted Chiang. But it was a conceptually complicated story, riffing off a fairly technical idea in mathematical physics—and I wasn’t alone in wondering how anyone could possibly make a movie out of it. Still, there it was, a 120-page script that basically did it, with some science from the original story, and quite a lot added, mostly still in a rather “lorem ipsum” state. And so I went to work, making comments, suggesting fixes, and so on.

A Few Weeks Later…

My son Christopher and I arrive on the set of “Arrival” in Montreal. The latest X-Men movie is filming at a huge facility next door. “Arrival” is at a more modest facility. We get there when they’re in the middle of filming a scene inside a helicopter. We can’t see the actors, but we’re watching on the “video village” monitor, along with a couple of producers and other people.

The first line I hear is “I’ve prepared a list of questions [for the aliens], starting with some binary sequences…”. And I’m like “Wow, I suggested saying that! This is great!” But then there’s another take. And a word changes. And then there are more takes. And, yes, the dialogue sounds smoother. But the meaning isn’t right. And I’m realizing: this is more difficult than I thought. Lots of tradeoffs. Lots of complexity. (Happily, in the final movie, it ends up being a blend, with the right meaning, and sounding good.)

After a while there’s a break in filming. We talk to Amy Adams, who plays a linguist assigned to communicate with the aliens. She’s spent some time shadowing a local linguistics professor, and is keen to talk about the question of how much the language one uses determines how one thinks—which is a topic that as a computer-language designer I’ve long been interested in. But what the producers really want is for me to talk to Jeremy Renner, who plays a physicist in the movie. He’s feeling out of sorts right then—so off we go to look at the “science tent” set they’ve built and think about what visuals will work with it.

On the set of "Arrival"

Writing Code

The script made it clear that there were going to be lots of opportunities for interesting visuals. But much as I might have found it fun, I just didn’t personally have the time to work on creating them. Fortunately, though, my son Christopher—who is a very fast and creative programmer—was interested in doing it. We’d hoped to just be able to ship him off to the set for a week or two, but it was decided he was still too young, so he started off working remotely.

His basic strategy was simple: just ask “if we were doing this for real, what analysis and computations would we be doing?”. We’ve got a list of alien landing sites; what’s the pattern? We’ve got geometric data on the shape of the spacecraft; what’s its significance? We’ve got alien “handwriting”; what does it mean?

"Arrival" code

In the final movie, the screen visuals are a mixture of ones Christopher created, ones derived from what he created, and ones that were put in separately. Occasionally one can see code. Like there’s a nice shot of rearranging alien “handwriting”, in which one sees a Wolfram Language notebook with rather elegant Wolfram Language code in it. And, yes, those lines of code actually do the transformation that’s in the notebook. It’s real stuff, with real computations being done.

What Are Physicists Like?

When we’re visiting the set, we eventually meet up with Jeremy Renner. We find him sitting on the steps of his trailer smoking a cigarette, looking every bit the gritty action-adventurer that I realize I’ve seen him as in a bunch of movies. I wonder about the most efficient way to communicate what physicists are like. I figure I should just start talking about physics. So I start explaining the physics theories that are relevant to the movie. We’re talking about space and time and quantum mechanics and faster-than-light travel and so on. I’m sprinkling in a few stories I heard from Richard Feynman about “doing physics in the field” on the Manhattan Project. It’s an energetic discussion, and I’m wondering what mannerisms I’m displaying—that might or might not be typical of physicists. (I can’t help remembering Oliver Sacks telling me how uncanny it was for him to see how many of his mannerisms Robin Williams had picked up for “Awakenings” after only a little exposure, so I’m wondering what Jeremy is going to pick up from me in these few hours.)

Jeremy is keen to understand how the science relates … Next Page »

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Stephen Wolfram is the creator of Mathematica, the author of A New Kind of Science, the creator of Wolfram|Alpha, and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. Follow @stephen_wolfram

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