When it came to sci-fi movies, 1996 was a crowded year: at the high end of the budget spectrum we had the invasion movies Independence Day and Mars Attacks; towards the middle we had John Carpenter’s disappointing Snake Plissken sequel Escape From LA, while Rutger Hauer starred in the cheap and cheerful Crossworlds and the brilliantly titled Omega Doom.
Throw in the startlingly botched Island Of Doctor Moreau, Star Trek: First Contact, and Stuart Gordon’s fun sci-fi oddity Space Truckers, and you have a busy 12 months in genre movies. Somewhat lost in the static was The Arrival, a nifty genre thriller which had the misfortune of coming out just a few weeks before the bigger, splashier Independence Day. A more modest and quirkier movie than Roland Emmerich’s invasion flick, The Arrival struggled in US cinemas – a pity, given its mix of smart ideas and outright goofiness.
The Arrival was made by David Twohy, who by the mid-90s had made a name for himself as a genre screenwriter. Critters 2 and Warlock weren’t exactly acclaimed, but with his screenplay for the 1993 thriller The Fugitive, which wound up being nominated for seven Oscars, Twohy’s reputation shot up a few notches. Twohy made his debut the year earlier with Timescape, a nifty, low-budget time travel thriller which is now so obscure that it’s incredibly difficult to find on DVD.
Twohy’s second film as director, The Arrival, begins as a “first contact” story – anticipating Robert Zemeckis’ far pricier Contact, which came out a year later in 1997 – before tipping over into conspiracy thriller territory with distinct shades of The X-Files and Quatermass II. It also contains what has to be one of the most convoluted assassination attempts in cinema history.
Charlie Sheen is cast somewhat against type as Zane Kaminsky, an astronomer who searches the airwaves for extraterrestrial signals at SETI. While on a late shift with his colleague Calvin (Richard Schiff), Zane stumbles on what appears to be the very thing he’s been searching for: a signal from another world. Zane’s superior at NASA, Phil (Ron Silver) is unimpressed by the findings, and Zane finds himself out of a job.
Determined to find proof that the signal is genuine, Zane continues his research at home, and finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that involves climate change and a secret military base in Mexico. As Zane becomes the archetypal man who knows too much, he’s subjected to a very strange effort to shut him up: while lying in a hotel bath, he looks up and notices a bead of water dripping down from the peeling roof above. Now, Twohy’s direction implies that Zane might be in danger of electrocution here – you know, like the bit in Goldfinger with Bond, the henchman, and the electric fan – but this proves to be a masterful piece of misdirection. What happens next is far more leftfield and slapstick than a mere electric shock, and far too good to spoil here.
In general, “first contact” sci-fi movies have something more on their minds than humans coming face to face with aliens. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) delved into such subjects as love, memory, and loss. Zemeckis’s Contact was about the gulf – and possible meeting place – between science and faith. This year’s Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, takes in motherhood, language, and the nature of grief. David Twohy’s Arrival deals in glancing terms with the environment, and suggests that an extraterrestrial species is secretly planning to speed up the process of global warming in order to kill off the human race and make our planet more comfortable for their own kind.
The idea of aliens terraforming the Earth dates right back to HG Wells’ seminal War of the Worlds, and Twohy – who clearly loves his classic science fiction – melds an oft-used genre concept to the alien infiltration ideas written by Nigel Kneale in the 50s TV series, Quatermass II. The secret military building Zane finds and infiltrates in The Arrival immediately recalls the one Professor Quatermass uncovers in Kneale’s story.
Twohy takes all this and melds it with his own eccentric tastes, and the off-kilter, sheer 90s-ness of The Arrival is one of its more endearing strengths. For reasons too complicated to explain here, both Charlie Sheen and Ron Silver are heavily made up and play Mexican security guards in a handful of scenes. There are killer scorpions. There are creatures with their kneecaps on backwards. The plot’s upended twice by a high-tech gadget pitched somewhere between a hand grenade and a black hole. Zane’s joined in his quest for the truth about aliens by an inquisitive kid on a pushbike (Tony T. Robinson) who feels as though he’s rolled in from a different movie.
It’s all delightfully weird, and enlivened considerably by Ron Silver’s ripe performance as the villain: by this point in the 90s, he’d already played the bad guys in such films as Blue Steel and Timecop, so it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Silver’s character is instrumental in getting Zane fired from SETI. His precise involvement in the conspiracy is only revealed much later, though, leading to a final confrontation that, hilariously, involves Silver standing stock still while wearing what looks like wood glue all over his face. Again, the precise reason for all of this is too good to reveal here.
You may have gathered by now that The Arrival isn’t exactly a powerhouse of emotion or deep scientific thought, but it is an amusing B-movie romp – and Twohy seems absolutely clear that a B-movie romp is what he wanted to make. Like Independence Day, Armageddon, and Scream, The Arrival fits into a ’90s landscape of self-aware genre movies: an era that writer Tom Shone disappointedly called blockbuster cinema’s “late, decadent, self-parodic camp phase.” The Arrival may not have been a blockbuster, but it wore its hokum status openly on its sleeve.
The Arrival‘s also worth comparing and contrasting to The Box, Richard Kelly’s loose adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story, Button, Button. Like The Arrival, The Box starts as one story – that of a couple offered a huge sum of money in exchange for pressing a button and, in theory, ruining a stranger’s life – before veering off piste into a much bigger and weirder conspiracy involving NASA and other government agencies. The Arrival isn’t made with quite the same level of detail or conviction as The Box, but both films share a similar pulpy, B-movie charm.
After The Arrival, Twohy went on to make Pitch Black (2000), the sci-fi monster flick which, along with The Fast And The Furious, turned Vin Diesel into an action star. Remarkably, Twohy managed to make Pitch Black, with its copious special effects, futuristic costumes and giant, bat-like monsters, for just $23 million – that’s $2 million less than The Arrival cost to make, which is an achievement all by itself.
Although far from a big hit, The Arrival was successful enough to spawn a direct-to-video sequel in 1998. As was common with DTV movies, neither David Twohy nor the rest of the original film’s cast returned for it, and Arrival II is mostly memorable for the way it hurriedly explains Sheen’s absence. (Like Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody in Jaws: The Revenge, Zane dies of a heart attack during two-year gap between movies.)
If you’re looking for an entry in the first contact sub-genre that imagines how our meeting with aliens might change our perceptions forever, then movies like Solaris, Contact, and this year’s sublime Arrival are required viewing. But if you’re looking for a goofy night’s entertainment with backwards kneecaps, weird assassination attempts, and a very sweaty, beleaguered-looking Charlie Sheen, then The Arrival is well worth tracking down.