The Empty Balcony: The Arrival

Once upon a time, there was a decade called the ’90s. In that decade, Hollywood fell in love with CGI. Not because it looked good, or that it served to immerse a viewer further into a film. It certainly did not matter that CGI was still in its infancy — that there were better methods for applying visual effects to film. Nor was there a sense of charity on the part of the studios — a nurturing instinct meant to develop a process that was clearly important to the future of film. Goodness, no. CGI was cheaper than traditional F/X, that’s all. And boy, did it look cheap.

Another thing about the ’90s is Charlie Sheen had yet to become a punch line. His career had already been on a downward trajectory by the time he starred in The Arrival, from 1996. Ten years doesn’t seem like a long time, but that is how many years separate Sheen’s star turn in Platoon with his appearance in The Arrival. There were blockbusters in between, but by the time The Arrival hit theaters, I remember thinking it felt like a long time since Sheen had been big. Such is show business.

Directed by David Twohy, The Arrival is the story of Zane Zaminsky (Sheen), a radio astronomer who, along with his colleague Calvin (Richard Schiff), stumble upon a signal from a nearby star. The discovery is quickly hushed up by Zane’s boss, Gordian (Ron Silver), and Zane is fired for his efforts. That doesn’t stop him, however, and Zane sets off to confirm the signal on his own.

After Zane’s investigations take him to Mexico and he briefly teams up with a climatologist (Lindsay Crouse) who is on the trail of her own fishy data, Zane discovers an alien conspiracy is afoot on the planet earth. Its goal is to raise the surface temperature of the planet to make it a suitable location for colonization by the aliens, who are into very hot, very humid summers.

Bad for us, but worse for Zane. He appears to be the only human being who knows what is happening. How can he stop it? How can he let humanity know of the danger?

Those are the two questions at the heart of the film, but nothing is ever answered all that cleanly. Partly this is the result of an appropriately ambiguous ending, and partly it’s the result of the film falling just a bit short of getting its hooks into a viewer.

Also written by Twohy, The Arrival is one film before he figured out how to do suspense with the sci-fi cult hit Pitch Black. Things are just a little too clean, the pace is a little too easy, and the CGI...part of me wants to blame the awful effects on the era, but another part of me just wants to blame the studio. They clearly had their hands all over this project, and I could see them as being unwilling to fund the film properly. Sure, not every movie from the time could get Jurassic Park money, but if it couldn’t, then dumbed-down CGI was probably not the way to go. The CGI is so fundamentally bad in this film that even matte shots look awful. The most basic of effects shots in movies, and The Arrival couldn’t get it right. When in doubt, cut it out.

That was probably not an option for The Arrival, seeing as how a film about aliens needs to have an alien in it at some point. But I would like to think Twohy and crew were face-palming while reviewing the CGI, wishing they had gone with more models and puppets.

As for Sheen, did he carry the film? Well, he didn’t fuck it up, but the Oscar shelf in his rumpus room is still bare for a reason. Two segments of the film livened things up, though, and Sheen was a big part. About halfway through, there is a lengthy sequence where Zane infiltrates an alien base, and there isn’t a word of dialogue until Zane is about to walk out the door. All a viewer gets is crappy CGI and startled looks from Sheen. It’s uneven, but the demands upon Sheen and Twohy smack of real filmmaking, making this segment a welcome diversion.

The second segment comes after, when Twohy lets Sheen off the leash for a bit. Sheen never had the opportunity to go all out with his inner crazy in any of his films, but there have been hints at the man he was off camera. In The Arrival, Zane makes a sudden appearance back at his old job with a week’s growth of beard, a black trench coat, and sporting a pair of yellow sunglasses that need to be seen to be believed. This is the Charlie Sheen audiences want to see. Wild-eyed, more than a little paranoid, more than a little soiled, and spouting lines like this:

“I look like a can of smashed assholes.”

Things are looking up!

It’s only momentary, however. The Arrival is a middling flick from a pretty inoffensive time. There’s nothing groundbreaking or memorable about it, and nothing close to edgy. Buy the DVD, put it on the shelf next to your copies of Air Bud and Forrest Gump. Take it down and watch it on the couch nestled up to a big bowl of unsalted popcorn.

This one’s for sci-fi fans only.