The Other ARRIVAL: Charlie Sheen vs. Illegal Aliens

Building a wall won’t stop the menace from Mexico in this under-celebrated sci-fi thriller.

Arrival finally hits theaters this week (you can buy your tickets here). In celebration, we have a collection of great articles inspired by the film.

As the highly anticipated Amy Adams-starrer prepares to arrive in theaters, let us take a moment to look back at a past thriller about extraterrestrial incursion with an (almost) identical title. There have, in fact, been two past sci-fi thrillers called The Arrival; the first, a 1991 direct-to-video flick directed by Tourist Trap’s David Schmoeller, was about an alien that takes over a dying man and turns him into blood-drinker. But the one that deserves our attention today is a theatrical release from five years later that was overshadowed at the time by big-budget competition.

When writer/director David Twohy’s The Arrival opened in late May 1996, it got lost in a marketplace dominated by Mission: Impossible and Twister and the hype over the impending Independence Day. That was and is a shame, since The Arrival is a prime example of the kind of modestly budgeted but imaginative science fiction that occasionally breaks out (as with last year’s Ex Machina) but more often falls beneath the onslaught of megamovies. And it’s a reminder of the days when Charlie Sheen was taken more seriously as an actor.

Twohy had previously scripted or co-scripted Warlock, Waterworld and The Fugitive, the latter most pertinent as The Arrival is another man-on-the-run story. Sheen plays radio astronomer Zane Ziminski, who picks up a brief but powerful signal that suggests a communiqué from intelligent life beyond our solar system. Unfortunately, his NASA boss, Phil Gordian (Ron Silver), reacts to the discovery by firing Zane and orchestrating a cover-up. Zane is undeterred, however, and sets up a satellite command center in his garage to pick up the signals again. He follows their trail to Mexico, where he hooks up with climatologist Ilana Green (Lindsay Crouse), who has been investigating odd pockets of global warming, and what they find south of the border makes them targets of a conspiracy involving both humans and aliens. 

The incorporation of climate change into the plot made The Arrival topical for its time, and throughout the film, Twohy accessorizes his who-can-be-trusted? scenario with plenty of eccentric touches and setpieces: a multiple bathtub collapse in the flop hotel where Zane stays in Mexico; the aliens’ human-disguise process that Zane also uses at one point, and that leaves him resembling a Mexican version of himself; and most notably the “imploder,” a spherical device that creates a miniature black hole and sucks entire rooms and buildings clean. The early-CGI aliens themselves—bipedal creatures with backward-bent knees—are unmistakably digital but still pretty cool, and there’s some fun dialogue as well. (In some quarters, The Arrival may be best known for Sheen’s immortal line “I look like a can of smashed assholes.”)

Though Sheen tends to bug out his eyes too much while making a point, he does emerge as an engaging Everyman hero to guide the audience through this wild tale, and he’s supported by a solid cast including Crouse, Silver (bringing to Gordian the same snaky menace he did to his villainous turn in Timecop two years earlier), Richard Schiff as Zane’s fellow scientist and Teri Polo as Zane’s long-suffering girlfriend. While it builds to a reasonably spectacular climax, with one “Whoa!”-inducing moment atop a giant satellite dish, The Arrival is more concerned with smaller-scale yet still potent thrills, most notably in a scene involving a bunch of scorpions.

The Arrival was one of a string of box-office disappointments that led to the demise of distributor Orion Pictures a couple of years later—which fortunately did not impede its writer/director’s progress. Twohy’s next film—2000’s Pitch Black, with the same producers—was a sleeper hit and Vin Diesel’s breakout movie, and the duo went on to make a pair of Riddick sequels; Twohy also scripted and helmed the underappreciated 2009 psychothriller A Perfect Getaway, starring Steve Zahn, Milla Jovovich and Timothy Olyphant. The Arrival did do well enough on video that a straight-to-tape sequel, Kevin S. Tenney’s Arrival II: The Second Arrival, followed in 1998, though its disc history has been disappointing. Pioneer issued a two-platter laserdisc set in 1997 containing Twohy’s commentary, a making-of documentary and more, but none of the significant extras were ported over to the subsequent DVD and Blu-ray releases. With the bigger Arrival set to dominate the theatrical landscape this month, it’s a shame the rights holders haven’t taken advantage of the opportunity to give Twohy’s film the new special-edition Blu-ray showcase it deserves.