The Arrival is a 1996 science fiction film about an astronomer who makes an astonishing discovery, only to have that knowledge nearly cost him his life.
Last year’s Arrival was a remarkable movie experience in that it took the alien invasion genre to a new direction of sorts, stripping away the usual expectations of monsters and armageddon and delivering a story about, well, language of all things. It stands as one of only a few films that choose to use visitation of extra terrestrial life as something other than fodder for space battles and expensive visual effects. Another is one with almost the same name, and while it doesn’t reach the same levels of possible interpretations, it does have a clever premise and a nice twist.
Starring Charlie Sheen, in what is arguably his best film performance, it follows him as Zane Zaminsky, a radio astronomer working for SETI, who thinks he’s discovered proof of life in the stars when a tremendously promising signal has him and his colleague Calvin (Richard Schiff) believing they’ve got the biggest news in human history. However, when Zane brings it to his boss Phil Gordian (Ron Silver) at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he’s not met with congratulations but rather a pink slip. So much for a job well done.
Kicked out of the program, disgraced by his boss, his girlfriend Char (Teri Polo) moving on, Zane is convinced something is up. Seriously up. Believing aliens are trying to make contact, he sets about using his new job as a television satellite installer to create a phased array of his own, using his neighbor’s backyard dishes and search the night sky. Along with a curious kid named Kiki (Tony T. Johnson), they reacquire the signal, but this time … it’s not coming from space.
Directed by David Twohy, The Arrival is a surprisingly smart story that uses global warming as the catalyst to explain what’s happening, beginning with an impressive visual that sees a poppy field growing in the Arctic. Paralleling Zane’s adventure is in fact that of climatologist Ilana Green (Lindsay Crouse), who herself is tracking a pattern on Earth that is linked to Zane. Eventually, they end up in Mexico and their paths cross at a new power plant near a small town, one that is similar to others built in developing countries. Their presence naturally gets them into further trouble for their snooping around, and later, now on his own again, Zane, realizes there is a massive conspiracy at work. Disguises himself as a plant worker, he’s is able to infiltrate the compound, and we come to a great moment, one that both verifies Zane’s growing paranoid suspicions and a startling truth that will change everything.
In bright red overalls, Zane discovers that the plant is actually a false front, a coverup for a massive underground facility, one that is decidedly unearthly, with large orange piping and peculiar mechanisms. Keeping to the shadows and elevated positions, he spies on workers within the plant, some of whom look exceedingly familiar.
Taking elevators deeper, he catches views of a staggering operation, featuring a huge apparatus of cylinders and gears, lights and glowing spheres of gaseous clouds lifting to the surface. He also catches a glimpse of something not quite well, human?
He soon reaches the basement level, a labyrinth of lighted tunnels that lead him to a strange control panel with two orbs floating in a shallow pool of clear liquid. Touching one, it begins to vibrate, and off to one side a shaft of light appears, illuminating a figure in the dark, its back to Zane. A very troubling figure. Yeah. An alien.
Shocked by what he sees, Zane retreats to hiding, able to keep an eye on what is now clearly a visitor from space. It is slender and nude, its limbs somewhat humanoid and its head layered in a two flaps of undulating flesh that reveal a brain just beneath.
From his vantage point, he watches as the creature ascends an elevated semi-circle path to a platform above the panel, stepping on a wave of energy that keeps its hovering a few inches above the surface as discs of scattered light slowly drop from above, each one slowly transforming the alien into the form of a human female. The aliens are real and they are living among us.
Certainly, the idea of aliens infiltrating our society undetected is not new, with the 1956 classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers one of the most pronounced and influential. The Arrival plays on the theme, and tweaks a fair share of it, but like that film, and many that have followed, pits a hero against all odds in trying to expose the truth. It’s a formula that works when done right, and there’s a lot about this film that does do just that, including this spectacular sequence that is all about the reveal.
Completely dialogue-free, it is five-minutes of discovery with Zane working his way to the very bowels of the power plant/alien underground station, metaphorically and literally burrowing down to the truth. He not only learns that ‘they’ are here, but are releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, slowing poisoning Earth’s air. This is a longterm operation, and one that is terrifying in scope.
What’s so great about this moment is the payoff, which not only gives us a look at the aliens we know are here, but answers the questions of how they look like us and what they are up to. Twohy stages most it as if we are with Zane, looking over his shoulder before giving us his reaction to what he sees, echoing our own sense of wonder and fear.
I really like how the whole place seems to be breathing, hissing and steaming as he goes farther into the operation, and Arthur Kempel‘s subtle score layers it in a bit of menace and awe. Keeping Zane mute through it all is the smartest touch, free of inane one-liners or worse, expositional dialogue that some lesser filmmakers might feel necessary in handholding the audience through what is happening. Instead, as is, becomes a glorious run inside the facility that raises questions but lets answers be visually discovered or otherwise left ambiguous. That’s treating the viewer with respect.
Sheen is great here, face ashen and drenched with sweat, capturing the horror and confusion of what’s actually happening, guiding us through the exploration with terrific intensity, and notice how he’s not a hero in the traditional sense, the movie flat-out refusing to turn him into an action star, picking up a weapon and single-handedly defeating the invaders in a chaotic battle below ground. Instead, he runs, and becomes trapped in the maze of psychological horror where his solution to escape is, well, unbelievably brilliant, a callback to something earlier that is perfectly executed. It’s smart. It’s effective. It makes the movie.
The Arrival has its flaws, more so in the first act with developing characters, but the film really picks up and delivers a well-earned finish. Clever, well-acted and directed, it might not have the staying power of Arrival, but it makes for an excellent title in a double feature and is worth it for one great moment in a chasm full of secrets.