Aliens – the strange sometimes-scary-always-fascinating creatures that lurk throughout the pages and screens of science fiction, conjuring ideas of worlds beyond our own, whether they be horrible or mesmerizing. Since human beings first set their eyes on the stars, fantasies of life beyond Earth have followed us through our stories, our literature, and, eventually, our film, growing and changing alongside us as we learn more about what life could possibly exist in the far reaches of space. Just as the stories we create are varied and plentiful, so too are the aliens we imagine; from little green (or gray) men to horrifying monsters with a penchant for destruction, alien design runs the gamut of human imagination. With the upcoming Alien TV series set to start filming in 2022, we thought it apt to look at how one goes about designing an alien for film and TV, focusing on the 2016 film, Arrival, which features aliens unlike almost any other seen in modern media.
Before diving into how Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, steps away from “conventional alien design”, it is important to address the difficulty of designing a believable alien in the first place. How does someone come up with something so completely different, so ‘alien’, to anything that can be found on Earth? The answer, for many, is not to; when looking at the majority of aliens in fiction, it isn’t difficult to pick out similarities to various Earth creatures. Aliens with humanoid bodies, who walk upright and use hands to wield weapons or procure samples, such as the xenomorphs from the Alien franchise. Aliens with four legs and sharp fangs, like that of a feline or canine, or with bulbous, bug-like eyes, or scaly, reptilian skin – aliens like these are found throughout series like Star Wars and Star Trek. Creators look to the world around them, to the world that they know, to design their aliens. They draw inspiration from the things that they understand, because, by doing so, they can create a creature that the audience will understand as well. Straying too far from what people understand as ‘life’ can result in a creation that confuses and distracts audiences, lessening the impact of whatever story is being told.
Yet, there remains a dilemma with such methods of designing aliens; drawing inspiration from Earth to create something that does not come from Earth is somewhat contradictory. The history of life on Earth is complicated and cratered with various and, sometimes, catastrophic events, from mass extinctions to ice ages. These, along with the incredibly specific circumstances that occurred for life to form on Earth the way it did, mean that life on other planets could never be what it is on Earth; there are just too many unique factors. If one wants to design a ‘realistic’ alien, something that does not come from Earth, they need to consider how life may form on a different planet with different characteristics and a different history. Obviously, this is quite hard, seeing as all we know is Earth and anything we try to imagine will be influenced by what we already know. So, it’s no surprise why most creators design aliens inspired by Earth; aliens that, while strange, is familiar enough to seem like something real.
Arrival attempts to step outside these boundaries while still keeping their aliens believable; concept art by artist Peter Konig shows the difficult process of creating an alien ‘from scratch’. Some of the sketches feature strange, amorphous creatures that almost resemble a bundle of organs, though no definable shapes are present. Notes such as ‘no definite front’ and ‘soft and rigid forms that flex and change’ litter a few of the pieces, like annotations in a book. Other pieces show aliens with more identifiable features; a clear head and face, tentacle-like appendages, and even something that could be considered a mouth. Konig’s concept art and other work can be found on his website.
In the end, the aliens of Arrival end up a strange mix: They are large, with multiple limbs and proportions that seem somewhat impossible considering their ability to stand upright. Their upper bodies almost resemble a human torso and head, with parts that could clearly be labeled as ‘shoulders’ and ‘neck’, yet they have no arms and what little can be seen of their fronts is mottled and ribbed with strange musculature. They bring to mind images of some kind of ancient cephalopod, with their many limbs and ability to create an ink-like substance, while still remaining otherworldly and mysterious.
In reality, Arrival doesn’t quite manage to design something without any influence from life on Earth, yet their aliens still seem so removed from anything found here. How? Part of it is the filmmaking. The characters of the film, as well as the audience, never see the aliens in full; they are continuously shrouded in mist, obscuring their features and keeping the finer details of their design a mystery. The atmosphere that the aliens create with their presence and the environment that they exist in during the movie are just as important in creating an other-worldly feeling as their physical designs. They act to hide features that could invoke images of animals or people for the audience, instead, leaving much to the imagination and taking some pressure off the film and its designers to create something entirely unique.
Even more important is the language that the aliens use, a major component not only of their identity but of the film as well. The aliens communicate in strange symbols that they create with their ink-like emissions, with different symbols representing everything from singular words to unique phrases to even names and identifiers. These symbols are physical, hanging in the air before disappearing or morphing into something new.
The aliens also communicate using time and memory, which is difficult to explain and, thus, makes these aliens even harder to understand in the best way possible; they speak in a way that is incomprehensible to someone only familiar with human language. Their language transcends the boundary of time, turning it into something physical and moldable, rather than just a concept.
By creating a language and a communication system so entirely different from anything found in humans and other animals on Earth, Arrival fills in the gaps left by physical design; it plays with time and space as an integral part of the aliens’ language, something that humans find difficult, if not impossible, to understand. In the film, even when the characters can get close and are able to understand the basics of what is being said and the concept of the language, they are still never privy to true understanding. Because of this, Arrival’s aliens not only look the part, they act and feel like true aliens as well.
The future of alien design in media depends on a lot of factors: The progression and advancement of science, new discoveries regarding space and extraterrestrial life, and the continued attempt by humans to push the boundaries of the imagination. It cannot be definitely said that it is ‘impossible’ to create what would be considered a realistic alien; no one can be sure what a realistic alien is, whether it’s something intelligent or something as simple as a single cell organism. Either way, films like Arrival, which look to expand on the perception of life beyond Earth and what it could actually look like, do wonders in not only satisfying a need for new and strange ideas but also in fueling a desire for discovery and knowledge of what may be out there among the stars.