Lingua Extraterrestria: What Would First Contact Entail?

When We DO make Alien Contact, What Will We Have To Say? And How…? 

And By What Means Can We Begin To Comprehend What THEY Want?

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“What the hell are we supposed to use, man, harsh language?” – Private Frost. 

“Thousands have taken to the streets amid growing unrest at the perceived “alien invasion,” reads the Breaking News banner.

“Governments across the globe have declared a state of emergency urging residents to remain in their homes until meaningful contact can be made.”

What do they mean by “meaningful contact”?

The exciting, yet cautious, notion of first contact with (intelligent) extraterrestrial life has often popped up in movies, books and essays, but they all – frustratingly – fall short of supposing how such a landmark event could be achieved.

The most prominent SF extravaganza to tackle this premise (refraining from military antagonism) and emphasize attempts at establishing connections with alien visitors happened to be Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), in which initial connection transpired through exchanges of musical motes. 

Groovy – fortunately, variable tones possess the same harmonics elsewhere in our galaxy!

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“I really misunderstood that linguistics was closer to being a translator… When you’re approaching language, you look at structure, anthropological, sociological… how it exists inside of that. It’s got very complicated” – Amy Adams.  

Just opened in cinemas this week is Arrival, a most-welcome package that dares to offer something more cerebral rather than just aiming to be visually spectacular. 

After twelve ovular smooth and shell-like spacecraft appear in skies at various locations around the world, answers – rather that action – is called for. The military (led by Forest Whitakerenlist the services of leading academic linguist Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) to try and work out why they are here, and what do they want. 

Curiously, every eighteen hours, a section of the craft suspended above the plains of Montana opens up, allowing Banks and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to try and facilitate a basic exchange of communication.

The new Arrivals are revealed as seven-pronged starfish-like creatures dubbed “heptapods.” Intriguingly, these visitors do participate in contact, but only by emitting a highly sophisticated form of non-linear orthography – rings of swirling black “ink.”

How can Dr. Banks hope to suss out something like this?:

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“Some supporters of linguistic relativity think that the cognitive benefits of language helped spur its evolution. This is relevant to the movie, as the fate of humanity depends on us understanding their language” – newscientist.com

Among the earliest systems of writing, wedge-shaped cuneiform tablets were produced by the Sumerians in the Ancient Near East five thousand years ago. 

Having had the privilege of studying this bewildering civilization at university, one could not help but observe that they seemed so incongruous to World History – the notion of extraterrestrial origins should not sound so fantastical.

Incidentally, their religious texts quite categorically describe “the Ancient Gods who descended from the Heavens…”

Since the Phoenicians developed the first alphabet, scripts for Indo-European languages – of which English is just one member of that family – generally run horizontally from left to right, but with the observation that Arabic runs from right to left, should the heptapod circular “language” be read clockwise or anti-clockwise? 

Moreover, at what point on each billowing ring should Dr. Banks begin to decipher these messages? So many syntactic and semantic aspects to consider in such a fascinating and – considering what is at stake – frightening voyage of discovery!

As Dr. Banks wonders:

“They use non-linear orthography. Do they think like that too?” 

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“Are you dreaming in their language?” – Ian Donnelly.

Having already notched up five-star reviews and an encouraging string of superlatives from a wide range of film magazines and websites, Arrival looks set to be the phenomenal, thought-provoking classic that gives SF a good name.

Ultimately, this movie sets out to be more about human understanding, memory, love and fortitude than just delivering yet another tiresome alien invasion CGIfest far beyond the sensationalist reach of such dumb, inconsequential fare as Independence Day: Resurgence (which we were so kindly subjected to earlier in the year).

To find out how “distinctly original” and “truly exceptional” Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival really is, Brad will be checking it out this weekend. Therefore, a Review is sure to follow!

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Keep watching the skies… 

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The Gung-Ho Iguana And Other “Strange Friends”

Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada. 

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“Terrific. I’m about to get killed a million miles from nowhere with a gung-ho iguana who tells me to relax” – Alex Rogan.

Aeons ago, when my very first science fiction stories were written, aliens played vitally important roles – some were integral supporting characters; a select few even played the lead. For me, what extraterrestrials said or did usually held vastly greater significance than anything humans got up to.

In that far-flung past, before the www. and even DVDs (and Blu-ray – whatever that is), thrill-seeking goonies like me had to get their SF fix from renting VHS tapes. Some of my all-time favourite movies were originally viewed via this invaluable medium; all the walking, talking, hilarious, fearsome and painful aliens one could wish for whirred and clicked their weird and wonderful way through my weary, long-suffering VCR. These otherworldly characters had more immediate impact than anything uttered by any tedious Terran. 

So, these are the strange “companions” who not only thrilled and entertained me, but compelled me to create my own marvelous menagerie of cosmic characters.

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“Science fiction aliens are both metaphors and real possibilities… Aliens may represent hopeful, compensatory images of the strange friends we have been unable to find” – Gary Westfahl.

One of the most important videos ever rented had to be The Last Starfighter (1984), the magical tale of young Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) recruited to fight in a galactic war because he showed all the right skills necessary… by playing a video game in “some flea-speck trailer park in the middle of tumbleweeds and tarantulas.” 

It was supposed to herald a new age in special effects, but its computerized graphics look hopelessly outdated by today’s relentlessly sophisticated standards. Nonetheless, it holds more timeless charm and traditional storytelling methods than most of the CGI-drenched pap we have to contend with nowadays.

This was due, to a certain extent, to the amazing, dependable Grig (Dan O’Herlihy) Alex’s charismatic pilot who helped explain and drive the plot as well as providing a few comic moments. Unlike most reptilians, here was a swell dude who didn’t deserve to get suspended in any xenon mist – one of the best (benevolent) aliens in SF movies:

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“…Virginia fights for us! He will fight the Torquas in the south. The Warhoons in the north! And he will be called Dotar Sojat! “My right arms”!” – Tars Tarkas.  

In my earliest days of printed sci-fi (over)consumption, there was no way to resist the bizarre imagery and sheer escapism conjured by Edgar Rice Burroughs, when he chronicled the adventures of John Carter: a Civil War veteran from Virginia, mysteriously transported to the planet of Barsoom (Mars).

In the very first novel: A Princess of Mars (first published in 1917), he would meet what became – quite literally – my favourite Martian: Tars Tarkas, Jeddak (chief) of the Tharks – those doughty, green-skinned, 7-foot tall, 6-limbed warriors of the red planet.

Incidentally, as far as subsequent research has shown, it would appear that Tars Tarkas – imbued with an ironic sense of humour and painful memories of a past romance – could well be the very first individual, talking, thinking extraterrestrial being in (science) fiction!

For ages, a major movie production of John Carter of Mars had been mooted for some time, but it took ages until a sufficient level of sfx to successfully render the Tharks could be attained. Typically, the movie went to all that trouble of getting the movements and mannerisms of the Tharks just right, but failed to animate the human characters…

Who did this fanboy envisage providing the voice for Tars Tarkas?

Why, Willem Defoe, of course! And guess what? The makers shared the same vision – great! 

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“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him” – Project Leader.  

The most obvious candidate for best friend from beyond the stars has to be everybody’s favourite mentor: Yoda, but so many blogs have been written about him already.

Instead, on a personal note, honorary mention must go to the spindly-limbed Alien Ambassador from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Although he appeared for the briefest of moments – with his endearing smile and accompanied by John Williams’ cute incidental music – that pint-sized traveller captivated many hearts (of my generation at least). It’s a shame he never spoke – we were all left to speculate what he would/could have said. Even The Special Edition – released three years laterfailed to add any precious further insights.

When Spielberg’s E.T. came out in 1982 – (then) becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time – this lil piggy stayed at home – i.e. didn’t want to sit through such an overlong treacly spectacle which featured a “much more ugly muppet.” It was decided then: return my attention to the more malevolent, antagonistic bug-eyed beasties so rampant and commonplace in mainstream sci-fi!

Yet all the time, my mind kept drifting back to that Ambassadorwhat a cool friend he would have made; at that time, we would have shared the same height… as well as plenty of outlandish stories and all sorts of other cool stuff; explored distant worlds together; and exchanged candy no doubt!

Brad would have gone where no infant-sci-fi-eater had gone before. But alas…

He would never learn that alien’s name. 

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“Take up a cause, fall in love, write a book!” – John Carter.

Cheers!

Jaws: A Celebration Of The Very First Blockbuster

Steven Spielberg’s classic thriller was released 40 years ago today.

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“Wow, this is like a movie I just made about a truck and a driver. Jaws and Duel both have four letters; they’re both about a leviathan going after man” – Steven Spielberg. 

On this day forty years ago, the stupendous box office success of a movie about the terrifying threat of a great white shark in the sea off Amity Island introduced the template for the phenomenon largely accepted now for granted: the Summer Blockbuster. Director Steven Spielberg – previously responsible only for Sugarland Express and Duel – would hit the big time after this movie.  

The casting was relatively easy: Roy Scheider was chosen by to play Police Chief Martin Brody because Spielberg liked him in The French Connection; Robert Shaw was chosen to play Quint because Spielberg liked him in The Sting; but the role of young oceanographer: Hooper was not so assured. Then-current stars such as Jon Voight, Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges were considered, but none were available. In the end, Spielberg’s pal George Lucas suggested Richard Dreyfuss, because he had starred in American Graffiti. 

To put this first blockbuster into perspective, the (estimated) budget of Jaws was only $8 million. It opened on 1 June 1975 on just 409 screens. After 78 days, it became the Highest Grossing Movie of All Time – in that it was the first ever movie to cross over the $100 million mark – a fact largely forgotten, considering that this tremendous honour would last for only two years. In the Summer of ’77, a little film by the name of “Star Wars” was let loose on an unsuspecting cinema-going public…

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“Slow ahead… I can go slow ahead! Come on down here and chum some of this shit…!

…You’re gonna need a bigger boat…” – Police Chief Martin Brody.  

Cinema’s first blockbuster offers a myriad of intriguing aspects. Essentially, Jaws is a movie of two halves: as soon as the three intrepid hunters set out on the Orca, a more intense viewing pleasure kicks in.

Having mentioned the three main characters, what about the real star himself? A huge mechanical shark was constructed, but the first time it was put into the water, it sank. Named “Bruce” by its despairing “assistants” and the “Great White Turd” by Spielberg himself, it spent most of filming broken-down, and – not unlike some of Hollywood’s more notorious legends – “was unavailable for certain shots.” Those Pre-CGI days were arguably more fun…  

The innovative shots of the camera in the water trained upwards, to give a “shark’s-eye view” was never intended – they came about purely due to Bruce’s inoperability. Apparently the shark prop was named after Spielberg’s lawyer, but please tell me that’s not true!

No feature on this movie would be complete without mentioning the ominous score composed by John Williams. At first, the composer previewed it on the piano; the director thought it sounded… completely ridiculous. Only much later, through full orchestration, could its true powerful and spine-chilling tones truly resonate.

Could Jaws have prospered without this classic theme? It seems most unlikely. Cinemas around the world may not have had queues going out the door and down the road if the movie did not have the expressive power of Williams’ score. Deservedly, Williams won the Academy Award for Best Original Dramatic Score and has taken sixth place on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Greatest Film Scores. 

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“I think that I am familiar with the fact that you are going to ignore this particular problem until it swims up and BITES YOU IN THE ASS!” – Hooper. 

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, was selected as the location for Amity Island, used on strict condition that its “natural harmony was not affected.” The locals were incredibly co-operative during filming. They made ideal extras when the script required 4th of July holiday-makers to go bat-shit crazy on the beach. Payments of $64 each seemed to have done the trick as well…

Speaking of the script, that took an awfully long time to develop; at one point, Spielberg worked on his own draft, hoping that would speed things up. Some of his own scenes ended up in the final edit. Originally, Peter Benchley – the author of the bestseller who had a cameo in the movie as the TV news correspondent filming a report on Amity beach – struggled to settle on the final title even with only 20 minutes until the presses started rolling.

Some of the provisional titles he considered included: “The Stillness in the Water” and “Leviathan Rising.” He seriously contemplated: “Jaws of Death” until his Editor merely pointed out that it would be easier to go with just the first word as it was short enough to fit on the cover jacket.

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“Y’all know me. Know how I earn a livin’. I’ll catch this bird for you, but it ain’t gonna be easy. Bad fish. Not like going down the pond chasing bluegills and tommy cods” – Quint.   

After four decades, the movie still holds up remarkably well. Mainly it is driven by three superlative central performances, and they had fantastic material to work from, but for meevery time – Robert Shaw just rules the screen. From the moment he makes his dramatic chalkboard-scratching introduction, you just know that you are going to see one of cinema’s most superlative performances.

At first, Spielberg had considered Lee Marvin (who turned it down, stating that he preferred to fish for real, not in a movie) and Sterling hayden, so it was fortuitous movie-making fate that Shaw stepped in – although perhaps not for Dreyfuss…

While tension brewed on the Orca between Quint and Hooper (“I don’t need this working-class hero crap!”), off-screen what came to be known as the Dreyfuss-Shaw feud raged, with the fiercely-competitive Shaw picking on the younger, less experienced actor. “It got ugly!” the Director recalled.

If there is any moment that sets Shaw’s contribution apart, then it is undoubtedly the much-heralded Indianapolis monologue. Rightly regarded as one of the most outstanding movie scenes ever shot, the dialogue was initially conceived and written by two other scriptwriters; however, Shaw rewrote great chunks of it himself. All Scheider and Dreyfuss could do was listen to one of the greats at work…

You can savour this one-take classic scene right here:

Let us be thankful that Spielberg made Jaws at all; when he originally saw the vague title, he simply ignored it, under the impression that the book was just a boring biog of a dentist… 

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Quint: “You wanna drink? Drink to your leg.”

Hooper: “I’ll drink to your leg.”

Quint: “Okay, so we drink to our legs!” 

Cheers!