How 'Arrival' Combined Scientific Accuracy with Alien Languages
While the Oscar nominated Arrival was filming, one major concern was staying as scientifically accurate as one could be describing first contact with aliens. Computer scientist and physicist Stephen Wolfram (whose company developed the Wolfram Alpha answer engine) was rushed to the set during production and tasked with a nearly impossible mission. Could he come up with a coherent unifying scientific explanation for the film? In his blog, Wolfram details what the experience was like.
Wolfram, like many scientists, often finds it hard to sit through sci-fi. According to Wolfram, what bugs scientists most of all is how there tends to be single, glaring science flaws which could be corrected if the production had only taken steps to consult with the right people. Comparing filmmaking to creating and updating software, Wolfram notes that the big difference is that with software, updates can be added to fix flaws while in films, there's only one shot (unless you're George Lucas and you enjoy tweaking endlessly).
Wolfram wanted this film to be a better mix of science and Hollywood, and the use of his programming language ("Wolfram language") ended up being the basis for how the aliens communicate. Much of his blog and indeed much of his time working on Arrival hinged on trying to communicate to a non-human species, while still keeping a human element. It's hard to explain simple concepts such as day, night, being hungry, scared, or even identifying distinct singular objects, to something with no reference point to the human way of life.
Much more of his work appears in the film: he wrote up a lot of the heavy physics permutations shown on screen, specifically in a scene involving a whiteboard which showed Wolfram's own designs as he wrestled with interstellar travel. He freely points out that a lot of it is pure speculation, but that it comes from existing science and math first before taking several leaps that, for the purposes of the film, must be accepted.
Ultimately, he found that much like writing software, the key became how to take the very complex and simplify it. On more than one occasion, he was consulted on changing a bit of dialogue or plot point to include the heavy science he was trying to explain, but for a mainstream audience. The dialogue would then get turned over again and again until, like in alchemy, only the most essential bits remain and in his mind, the purest essences remained, which really made the film a bigger success both for himself and for everyone involved.
Anyone who enjoyed Arrival and is curious about some of the background needed to tell a coherent science fiction story should definitely give his blog a read.
Image: Paramount Pictures
Image: Paramount Pictures