The Arrival (1996)

The idea of an alien invasion led to one of the biggest blockbusters in history in 1996.  Despite its flaws the movie performed above all expectations and managed make its leading actor one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.  Plot points have been debated ever since it came out, but its brilliant mixture of practical and digital effects, done on a budget, helped hide many of the plot holes.

That movie, of course, was Independence Day, directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman and many others.  It had a wonderful ad campaign behind it, tied in with a major American holiday and was pretty much guaranteed success when released.  However, another alien invasion film, one with an arguably more realistic plot and on an even smaller budget, beat Independence Day to the theaters by little over a month.  That movie was David Twohy's The Arrival

Zane Zaminsky (Charlie Sheen) is part of NASA's program to search for extraterrestrial life.  Frustrated by cutbacks and being told he cannot search certain frequencies, he decides to take a look at the upper levels of the FM band.  Surprisingly, he finds a signal coming from a star about 14 light years from Earth.  His reward for finding this signal, however, is being fired from his job by his boss Phil Gordion (Ron Silver).  Convinced that there was something more to his firing, Zane uses his new job as a satellite dish salesman to set up his own array to see if he can get the signal again - a project that gets the attention of a precocious neighbor boy named Kiki (Tony T. Johnson).  

While he searches his life falls into a shambles.  His girlfriend Char (Teri Polo) leaves him, his colleague Calvin (Richard Schiff) is left in a coma after asking sensitive questions and any attempt to find another job in his field is blocked by Gordion.  When Zaminski does find the signal again, he discovers that this time it's coming from Earth, and it's mixed with interference from a radio station.  Tracing the station to a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, he travels there and encounters Ilana Green (Lindsay Crouse), a climatologist who is curious why temperatures are rising significantly in certain parts of the world.  Soon the two discover the truth, which is that humanity's days are numbered.

This was the movie that Twohy made prior to Pitch Black, which kicked off the whole Chronicles of Riddick universe.  Some of the alien technology seen in The Arrival is similar in design to what would be seen in The Chronicles of Riddick itself, although the movies are in no way connected.  What does connect them is that Twohy is able to weave together a good story even if everything doesn't exactly mesh.  This is nowhere as audacious as the later Riddick stuff, but until Pitch Black made a good amount of money he was known for doing pulp science fiction plots like this one.

Other than an alien doing a double-take there is also nothing to connect this and Independence Day.  Twohy's script focuses heavily on Zane's paranoia being a catalyst for him discovering that there really is a conspiracy, not by any government or corporation, but by beings that have a hidden agenda for the Earth that does not include humanity.  To that end Charlie Sheen does a great job in the role as, despite his personal problems that later derailed his career, he was always a solid actor.  The problem was he often got cast in movies like this, which teetered on the brink of going video only.  It is obvious that someone thought they had something with this, and it is most likely that its theatrical release was due to Independence Day's marketing campaign.  Unfortunately, though it has a small cult following and it did well outside the United States, the movie failed in the U.S. upon first release.

The digital effects, which are kept to a minimum, still work.  The aliens in their true form look great, as does some of their technology.  These were still in their beginning, so Twohy still used matte paintings, location filming and practical effects in many other cases, or just relied on the plot to drive the movie rather than spectacle.  The plot itself also tends not to go in the direction one would expect, including avoiding a number of clichés.  My major criticism, though, is with the character of Kiki.  Twohy at least needed to call a black friend and run the way the character, an inner city tween, was written, as the dialogue borders on racist stereotyping. 

When I first saw The Arrival upon its release I was disappointed, and I think it is because I had expectations of the story going in a different direction.  Being hyped up for Independence Day I was probably expecting something similar, just on a lower budget.  I am sure Kiki bugged me back then as well.  I wouldn't call it a gem, but it is definitely an underrated and underappreciated film from the 1990s.  

The Arrival (1996)
Time: 115 minutes
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Teri Polo, Lindsay Crouse, Tony T. Johnson, Ron Silver
Director: David Twohy



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