The aliens in “Arrival” are spectacular, and that’s no small feat. In most “first contact” movies, the otherworldly creatures almost always let us down. Either they’re predictable — you know, little green men speaking an echoey, indecipherable language or stereotypical “Greys” with the big eyes and the egghead — or they look fake.
Carlos Huante tested many iterations with director Denis Villeneuve before they settled on the final design for “Arrival,” which came out this week and follows a linguist (Amy Adams) who’s trying to understand what these visitors want. The creature artist first considered a very conventional look but also tried out beings that were more like stone creatures; ones composed of stacks of paper; and egg-shaped critters ambling around on spider legs.
“I mean, I went out there,” he said over the phone recently.
He settled on characters that tap into conflicting emotions: They’re serene yet daunting and huge yet indistinct. They’re heptapods, meaning they have seven legs, and they look like a cross between a giant hand and a squid; their “fingers” resemble starfish that emit an inky, smoky substance, which is how they express their entirely visual language.
But how do these captivating beasts stack up to other interstellar invaders? Here’s a look at movies over the past 40 years that imaginatively portrayed aliens.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)
Oscar-winner Carlo Rambaldi designed the alien in Steven Spielberg’s movie to have a humanistic quality. The face, for example, was partially inspired by Cary Guffey, the young actor playing the adorable missing kid Barry.
The alien’s design isn’t a total shock. It’s grayish with large eyes, a nose and a tiny mouth. It even smiles. But the great unveiling still feels special thanks to the buildup, the music and the lighting. While the main alien, which Spielberg nicknamed Puck, was a puppet, the visitors standing in front of the lit-up spaceship were played by 6- and 7-year-old ballet students because Spielberg wanted them to look slight and graceful.
Director Ridley Scott hired Swiss painter H.R. Giger to design the disturbing Xenomorph (with Rambaldi helping to design some of the mechanical effects), and it was a game-changer, something completely unexpected.
Xenomorphs didn’t have huge eyes — they didn’t even have eyes. Their most distinguishing traits were conspicuously sharp teeth, barbed tales and oblong heads that looked like something out of the Paleolithic Era. Even the newborns were terrifying.
Rambaldi, prolific guy that he was, also worked with Spielberg to design the title character in “E.T.” At one point, Spielberg said, “I wanted a creature that only a mother could love.” But generations of fans beg to differ. Who wouldn’t fall for those huge, wide-set eyes and that mouth in a near-permanent Mona Lisa smile? His wrinkled visage also inevitably reminded people of their beloved grandparents.
Special effects artist Stan Winston was inspired by two things when coming up with the famous villain from John McTiernan’s action movie. The first was a painting of a Rastafarian warrior in producer Joel Silver’s office — hence the dreadlock-like quills. The second was James Cameron, who made an offhand comment about wanting to see a monster with mandibles.
The result was pretty icky, even if it was just an actor (Kevin Peter Hall) in a suit, plus mechanical facial effects. Once the beast removes its mask to reveal a slimy, jowly face, while menacingly clicking its mandibles together, even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tough-guy protagonist can’t deny that’s “one ugly, mother . . .” well, you know.
“Mars Attacks!” (1996)
Aliens aren’t all serious. For his absurd comedy, Tim Burton wanted to pay homage to old B-movies, so his aliens looked sort of shoddy — purposely. The Martians were basically skeletons with big, unblinking eyes that wore their (admittedly large) brains outside of their skulls. The creatures, designed by Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders, were partially inspired by the skeleton fight scene in the 1963 movie “Jason and the Argonauts.”
“Independence Day” (1996)
Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos reminisced over the phone recently about his problem designing the aliens for Roland Emmerich’s action movie. He presented the director with two possibilities — one that was consistent with popular imagination and another that was totally fresh — but Emmerich liked them both. So what to do? Tatopoulos decided to create alien nesting dolls. That’s how the more outlandish alien, with its ostentatious head and clamshell face, became the protective exoskeleton for the more conventional slime-covered creature within.
Here’s a high-concept approach to alien creation and, be warned, a spoiler if you’ve waited two decades to see the movie: When coming up with a new creature is too much pressure, just have the extraterrestrial masquerade as the main character’s father. Done and done.
“District 9” (2009)
The “prawns” in Neill Blomkamp’s drama were supposed to be ugly. He told special-effects shop Weta Workshop to imagine a species that looked unsavory, which is how the characters ended up looking like a giant version of the insects you hope to never find in your house. The film, about aliens trapped in maximum-security ghettos, was a thinly veiled commentary on South African apartheid. The point is that they were sympathetic despite their appearance, a reminder that it’s what’s on the inside that matters.
“Europa Report” (2013)
Few saw this sci-fi film, but it’s worth including if only because of how stunning the alien is when we finally see it (which is at the very end, so consider this a spoiler warning). The found-footage movie tells the story of a failed mission to one of Jupiter’s moons, and the last thing one space traveler sees is a deadly beast: basically an octopus lit up like a Christmas tree. That’s a new one.
“Edge of Tomorrow” (2014)
It takes teams of people to bring a creature to the screen. That was certainly the case for production designer Oliver Scholl, who enlisted artists from around the globe to get the aliens in the Tom Cruise-Emily Blunt actioner just right. The movie was based on a novel, but the book’s starfish-like vision of aliens didn’t translate to the screen.
So his team went with a creature composed of interwoven tentacles that look like muscle strands. At first, their faces didn’t have mouths or eyes, but those features were added in postproduction so audiences could better connect with them. What’s most fascinating is the aggressive way the villains move, as if they’re stuck on fast-forward.
“It’s not just about the look — you can draw a really cool-looking creature, a lot of people can, but it needs to be a real concept,” one that considers how it will look and move on-screen, Scholl said recently. “It takes many people to get it right.”