What is it about the hit science-fiction thriller Arrival that makes it seem more plausible than most Hollywood alien movies? The answer may be, simply, science. For a new episode of his web series Science vs. Cinema, astrophysics professor and self-described film geek Andy Howell takes an in-depth look at how realistic the science of Arrival actually is. What he discovers is that the filmmakers put a massive amount of thought and energy into every detail of the movie, and that even its craziest plot points were backed up with real-life hypotheses and equations. Watch the full video above. (Warning: It contains some major spoilers toward the end, but Howell gives a heads-up that allows you to skip ahead.)
Arrival tells the story of a linguist (Amy Adams) and theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner) who are hired by the U.S. government to communicate with aliens whose ships hover mysteriously above Earth. The aliens look nothing like humans, nor do they speak anything recognizable as a language. It’s therefore up to the two experts to decipher whether the creatures mean harm or good to humankind.
In the video, Howell talks with the actors and creatives behind the film, as well as scientific experts who served as consultants (including a linguist, a theoretical physicist, and a computer programmer). Director Denis Villeneuve explains that the spaceship design was inspired by an actual asteroid in orbit in the solar system, while famed physicist Stephen Wolfram pulls out a whiteboard to demonstrate how the ship could hypothetically move through space. The real-life computer code used in the film to help decipher the aliens’ written language is explained, along with the actual procedure linguists use to speak to people who don’t share a common language. Finally, Howell dives headfirst into the actual scientific hypotheses behind the film’s big twist (explained in more detail in the short story that inspired the movie, ‘Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang, who is also interviewed in the episode).
The film does contain some scientifically questionable moments that are mentioned in the episode (like a scene in which Amy Adams’ character should logically be wearing a mask to breathe) and others that are glossed over (like the paradox inherent in the film’s climax). Still, Howell sees Arrival as a triumphant fusion of Hollywood and science — and his video is recommended viewing for anyone who wants to dwell a little longer on one of the most thought-provoking films of 2016.
‘Arrival’ exclusive clip: Watch Amy Adams make contact with E.T.: