Film Reviews

Out there

Zane (Charlie Sheen), the hero of the new sci-fi film The Arrival, is a geeky, quasi-paranoid radio astronomer. Zane works at the Jet Propulsion Lab for the SETI project (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), and spends most of his time aiming a large parabolic satellite dish to the heavens and listening for proof of alien life--strong, repetitive broadcasts within the microwave band. Zane's been a believer his entire life, so when years of monitoring the microwave band turn up nothing, he adjusts his receiver's frequency for 107 mHz--the high-end part of an FM channel on a transistor radio--and suddenly he has proof: 42 seconds of a space-based transmission aimed at the earth.

Zane naturally expects the bottom-line bureaucrats he works for to froth at the mouth at the prospect of actual alien contact, so when they quickly hush him up--even going so far as destroying the evidence, firing Zane, and pretending the entire thing never happened--the philosophic mantra of conspiracy theorists everywhere suddenly gains currency: Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean people aren't out to get me.

The Arrival may not be groundbreaking, but it is a better-than-expected little thriller, tidy and efficient and surprisingly free of hokum. With its lone fanatic and delayed gratification, The Arrival positions itself as the natural successor to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but differs from a hopeful movie like that by giving the aliens a decidedly imperialist bent, and then letting the creative, corkscrew plot do most of the work. It is to the big screen what The X Files has been to television for the past three years: devilishly fun, creepy, and just far-out enough to be scary.

The slick effectiveness of The Arrival comes as an unexpectedly pleasant discovery, considering that its writer-director is David Twohy. Twohy co-wrote 1993's The Fugitive, a murkily plotted but professionally executed update of Les Miserables, but he'll probably best be remembered for co-authoring Waterworld, then placing a full-page ad in a Hollywood trade paper defending the movie before its release. (Another writing credit, Terminal Velocity, is best forgotten.) Based on his previous films, you certainly couldn't expect him to keep his eye on the ball as single-mindedly as he does here. With this, his directorial debut, he proves himself capable not only of concentrating on the story line, but realizing his vision with few lapses.

Based upon some elements common to his scripts, you've got to figure that Twohy is preoccupied with planetary cataclysm. Both here and in Waterworld, the melting of the polar ice caps by an increase of fluorocarbons in the ozone is a central thesis. But whereas Waterworld treated the issue as a vague, offhanded plot necessity--it was a fait accompli as the movie opened, and any message he intended to make became diluted and unfocused amid the excess of pyrotechnics--here Twohy deftly inserts the environmental issues into the structure of the story.

Twohy also shows himself more than capable of building tension during several key sequences--enough to elicit a welcome jump or two from the audience. One scene in particular--in which a host of menacing scorpions move in deadly silence through the room of their unsuspecting intended victim--is reminiscent of good Hitchcock or De Palma movies, where the infuriating quiet lends an understated wickedness to an otherwise ordinary scene.

The performances are also uncommonly strong for a film of this type, despite the general use of the characters as means to an end. Sheen manages to be effective in a methodical way. Although he's usually something of a pretty-boy as Zane with his Coke-bottle glasses, pent-up nervous energy, and anti-heroic antics, you come to believe in him as a sheltered computer dweeb who is in over his head. After the promise of Platoon and Wall Street, Sheen pissed away most of the '90s in dismissible drivel and the occasional Hot Shots! comedy, so it's refreshing to see this, his best dramatic work in a decade. Twohy gives enough reign to Lindsay Crouse as the geologist who stumbles onto the same plot that Zane does, and Ron Silver as the predictably shady extraterrestrial insinuated into the upper echelons of the American scientific community for them to make the most of the sketchy roles they have. This is an excellent illustration of how the casting of gifted actors in small parts can sometimes make the difference between cheesy schlock and a nifty sleeper.

Agent Mulder on The X Files is fond of saying that the complete lack of evidence is the surest sign the conspiracy is working. That's not only true of the plot to The Arrival but of the film itself: It carefully covers up traces of absurdity under the guise of authentic, fun sci-fi. Twohy does such a polished job at fooling us into thinking he's actually directed a good movie that we're astounded to realize he actually did just that.

The Arrival. Live Entertainment. Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Crouse, Ron Silver. Written and directed by David Twohy. Now showing.

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Arnold Wayne Jones