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ICYMI: The Arrival (1996)

December 2, 2019

Climate change is real. Naysayers who ground their disbelief in a devotion to oil, coal, and just general ignorance may not see the day this planet comes to an apocalyptic ending of our own creation, but it’s coming. Denying climate change is like denying gravity, the earth being round and the staying power of all things Kardashian. But it would be nice to blame someone else for the fragile future ahead. What if it were a higher/otherworldly intelligence? Yeah, I’m guessing immigrants from outer space would be a galvanizing catalyst to stop the eco-insanity.

 

1996’s The Arrival proposes such a hypothesis. From writer-director David Twohy, who would go on to notoriety with the Riddick trilogy starting with 2000’s Pitch Black, comes this very intelligent and surprisingly eerie sci-fi thriller. The film stars Charlie Sheen as a radio astronomer looking for signs of intelligent life on the FM band of all places. One night, he finds such a signal but instead of being praised for his discovery he is outright fired by his superior, played by Ron Silver as one of his prototypically oily bureaucrat villains that he so excelled at.

 

Equal parts undeterred and obsessed, Sheen decides to keep investigating. In an ingenious move, he takes advantage of his new position as a lowly cable technician to tap into the feeds of his customers’ dishes and creates a homegrown personal radio antenna. Sheen attracts the curiosity of a teen next door (played charmingly by Tony T. Johnson) who becomes his assistant as well as the sounding board he uses to explain all the “technobabble” to the audience.

Sheen rediscovers the signal that got him fired and follows it to Mexico. There, he meets up with a scientist played by Lindsay Crouse who is investigating this matter from a biological standpoint. She is featured in the film’s clever opening shot where we see her among flowers in a meadow, but the camera pans back to reveal a surrounding terrain of arctic ice. Together, they realize something, or someone, is slowly warming the planet.

 

Sheen’s further sleuthing uncovers a vast conspiracy, with an alien race among us who are simply making the planet more hospitable for their eventual takeover. As one explains, “We’re just finishing what you started. What would have taken you 100 years, will only take us 10.” This film was definitely ahead of its’ time in preaching the need to take action and police carbon emissions.

 

The film comes to an exciting conclusion with Sheen, along with his neighbor and his girlfriend played by Teri Polo, trying to broadcast their evidence to the world via remote satellite station. Director Twohy brings a Hitchcockian feel with the characters racing against time as well as heights on the massive dish. And, thankfully the film does offer some hope even it relies on the public opening their eyes and shedding their long-held ignorance.

Being this is a science fiction film, much depends on the special effects. And despite what looks like a shoestring budget, Writer-Director Twohy finds a way to make this film look polished. The design of the aliens is efficiently unnerving, especially when you see how their legs bend. And I especially liked the alien “spheres.” These clean-up gadgets create a centrifugal vortex, handy when you need to clean up and vanish any pesky evidence.

 

But good sci-fi also relies on acting and the performances are solid with Sheen finding the right balance of being right but also seeming unhinged enough to be wrong. Teri Polo does play the “long suffering girlfriend,” but believably transitions into the one person who trusts Sheen and will help him no matter

what the cost. Ron Silver reminds us just how effectively smarmy he can be, especially once we discover his true motives. And we even get a pre-West Wing Richard Schiff in a small role as a co-worker of Sheen who tries to do the right thing.

 

Many believe we are past the point of no return to save planet Earth. Of course, most of us will be gone by then with only our children and the next generation to pay the price. As best conveyed in the film by the “evil” aliens, “If you can’t tend to own planet, none of you deserve to live here.” He/they is probably right.

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