[Note: This post does not contain spoilers for the movie Arrival (2016), but does contain spoilers for the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)]
What would a spacecraft carrying aliens to first contact with Earth look like?
In Arrival (2016), director Denis Villeneuve’s creative imagination of alien ships arriving at Earth, 12 large, dark, smooth, elongated ships hover effortlessly, without any visible means of propulsion, over far-flung sites on Earth. In response, in the United States, the military and the State Department engage linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to help communicate with the inhabitants. The spaceships themselves present an appearance as inscrutable as the aliens themselves initially are. When the team led by Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) enters one of them, the roughly textured surfaces of the exterior and walls suggest wear or aging but offer no specific clues about the interior, the ship’s inhabitants, or, most important, their intentions. The resulting narrative of first contact, adapted as a screenplay by Eric Heisserer from a short story by Ted Chiang, proves satisfying, offering a thoughtful consideration of language, communication, and meaning.
Chiang’s original piece, “Story of Your Life,” first published in 1998, did not actually describe the alien ships at all. Instead, the narrator, Louise Banks, simply recalls the time, “just a few years ago, when ships appeared in orbit and artifacts appeared in meadows.” In the short story, the alien ships remain unseen in orbit while their inhabitants communicate with Earth through 112 portals, nicknamed “looking glasses,” that allow visual and audio communications. The short story counts as science fiction not only because of its alien encounter premise, but also for its reliance on complex physics in the communication with the aliens, a detail that the film omits. For the film, the 112 looking glasses became 12 alien ships, each equipped to allow humans to enter a special internal communications room. The visual realization of the spacecraft emerged from the creative minds and computer drives of 10 different digital effects houses. Harnessing the power of computer generated imaging (CGI), the black monolithic alien ships evoke Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) even as they elevate the blocky monoliths into smooth, rounded shapes. The digital clouds and mist that swirl around the vehicles add to their mystery.
When director and screenwriter Steven Spielberg sought to create the mothership for his vision of alien first contact, however, he did not yet have the same computerized tools on which to rely. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) told the tale of various human beings, including Roy Neary (Richard Dryfuss) and Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) being contacted by mysterious forces and visions. These sporadic bits of foreshadowing lead eventually (spoiler alert!) to a climatic encounter when an alien mothership arrives at Devils Tower in Wyoming, where humans and aliens meet and communicate using bright lights and musical notes. Spielberg envisioned the mothership as a floating city that would, at a glance, look so big, complex, and well-lit that it would be self-evident that hundreds of aliens were on board. Although a CGI test was done, that technology could not match what could be done using miniatures. Ralph McQuarrie designed the studio model of the mothership, which Gregory Jein’s team constructed of model train parts and other kits. When filmed with special photographic and lighting effects, including adding a roiling-cloud effect created separately using a cloud tank (layering water of different densities to create swirling cloud effects using paint), the model appears to be a huge, hovering craft. Rotating, colored lights underneath the ship added to its impact.
The model makers knew that the mothership model would require a lot of detail in order to achieve the desired effects. But they did not think that anyone would ever see the results up close. As a result, they engaged in a long-standing model builders’ tradition of hiding little jokes in plain sight on the piece. Little did they know that this model would be acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, where it is now on public display in the McDonnell Space Hangar of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center by Dulles Airport in Chantilly, Virginia. If you go visit it, you’ll want to examine it closely to try to find the VW Microbus, U.S. mailbox, cemetery plot, and the other treats that remain well-hidden on the complex, black-on-black model. But you’ll also want to step back to consider the overall effect – and imagine what a ship carrying aliens to visit Earth might look like.
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