We’re experiencing a major sci-fi resurgence at the moment, with each fall movie season bringing a uniquely-pitched genre film that receives widespread praise; 2013 had Gravity, 2014 Interstellar and 2015 The Martian. The latest, however, is quite possibly the best; this year’s Arrival. It may not have the Top 10-menacing box office haul of the previous films, but there’s no denying of the artistic skill and overwhelmingly positive critical reception to “Close Encounters of the Linguistic Kind.”
So much has been written about the deceptively intricate narrative director Denis Villeneuve created and the mind-changing powers of language Amy Adams’ Lousie experienced in the film. It’s also worth remembering the simple beauty of the movie’s images: the giant segment spaceships hovering over the Earth and the aliens, septapods with knuckle-y joints and squid-like, ink-shooting communication tips, revealed at the end to be the lower body of more built beasts. It’s so strikingly different from what we’ve seen before that it’s destined to be remembered alongside 2001‘s Star Child, the Xenomorph and E.T. as one of cinema’s great extra-terrestrials. But as striking as that design is, it wasn’t always the favoured one.
Peter Konig, a concept artist on the film has shared a myriad of early design considerations for the aliens and their craft, and to say they’re a bit different is a massive understatement. Biggest of all, they reveal that the original design favored by the director was a planet away from what was decided on (Konig even stated it’s not even a spoiler for the finished design), with an engourged, skull-like head, arc-reactor-esque chest light and lots of floating flaps, tentacles and tendrils. Commenting on the process and his designs not being used, the artist had this to say:
“I worked on it pretty early in the film’s development and little of my work ended up being used, but here it is. The first creature is the one director Villenueve favored at the time, but he did end up going a different direction. Them’s the breaks. Also the ship took a different direction, obviously. At first, they wanted a nearly perfect sphere, but yeah…that changed as well. Some of the ship interior sketches seemed to make it through, though.”
That’s the nature of concept art, of course, but while his work wasn’t approved, Knoig still deserves praise for his visions; there’s some creepy stuff in there. One design, numbered 018, has several drawings detailing the alien physiology where the creature defaults to a cocoon, then opens up into “soft and rigid forms that flex and change,” made creepier by having “no definite front eye, eye-like organs on every side.” Another, numbered 007, gives an alternate head design with more recognizable Earth features – eyes, mouth – but with massive plumage sprouting out of the head (the body looks similar, but a bit more svelte than what we got). A third is perhaps the weirdest; a two headed eel-like creature that almost looks like a physical version of the creature’s language.
Konig’s vision for the ship is also featured, shown to be an almost peach-like shape with various potential textures – varying from carved metal to seemingly natural rock – although its interior ( a cavernous, rectangular room with a screen at the far end where the aliens communicate) is very similar to the finished film.
Obviously it’s hard to imagine any of these designs in place of the one we got, but they do all ultimately fit the key mould the film needed: the aliens need to at first be unfathomably weird, but through the sharing of language and culture become more approachable – and, in the end, understandable.