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Well-Wrought Suspense in Sci-Fi 'Arrival'


There's a woman standing in a lush, sun-buttered field, where poppies are in riotous bloom and the air has the languorous, slo-mo quality of an endless summer's day. Still--we know this is coming--all is not quite right. "It's not supposed to be here," the woman mutters, as the camera backs off at warp speed, showing that she's not in the Amazon, she's in Antarctica, and her garden is a deep green scar across a vast white desert.

This is the terrific opening shot of "The Arrival," the directorial feature debut of veteran screenwriter David Twohy ("The Fugitive") and a movie that raises and answers two very basic questions:

Are we fascinated by the prospect of life in outer space because: 1) we want to find it, or 2) we're so afraid we'll find it that we can't stop looking? (Answer: 2)

And what really scares us as film fans? Advanced computer graphics? Or the Hitchcockian quality of making the everyday ominous, of using the most basic film technique for the purposes of artistic terror?

While Twohy has some fabulous technology at his disposal and uses it to great effect, the answer to that second question is obvious: He keeps us on the edge of our seats not by dazzling us with lights and sound (even if the sound is spectacular) but by tantalizing his audience with basic, well-wrought suspense. Yes, much of his film's paranoia is borrowed from Don Siegel's pods-and-possession classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," but he achieves, in several scenes, his own particular brand of white-knuckled fear.

Charlie Sheen--who as the increasingly manic radio astronomer Zane Ziminski is playing a role he was born to--does have to recite some truly awful stuff to the aliens at the end of the film, and some of the special effects and the paranoia are overdone. But this is a sci-fi movie, after all--if you can't deliver yourself over to it, you have no business going to see it.

While "Body Snatchers" was a prime example of the B-movie as Red Scare metaphor, "The Arrival's" main bugaboo--other than the aliens themselves, who are accelerating the greenhouse effect to make our world more suitable for their colonization--is bureaucrats, petty politicians and anal-retentive down-sizers.

Zane and Calvin (Richard Schiff) operate a tracking station set up to monitor radio signals that might have been transmitted by alien life forms. They're understaffed, underfunded and victims of science-for-profit policies. Worse, when they do find something--an enormous burst of other-than-Earth-based sound--they run into supervisor problems.

Gordian, their supervisor (Ron Silver, creepier than he's been since "Blue Steel"), thwarts Zane's attempts to disclose what he's found, and fires him, too. Working from his home, Zane engages in freelance tracking and odd jobs; working for a satellite TV company, he's able to link together his customers' dishes into a giant receiver and keeps listening to the sky. He's joined a neighbor kid named Kiki (Tony T. Johnson) and together they trace the mysterious sounds to a Mexican radio station--which, by the time Zane can get there, has burned to the ground.

Meanwhile--there are lots of meanwhiles--global-warming researcher Ilana Green (Lindsay Crouse) has been led by her own data from Antarctica to Mexico, where she's arrested and her equipment is broken up by thuggish local cops. She and Zane meet up, pool their information and things get even weirder.

There's a terrific set piece involving bathtubs and a collapsing hotel, a trip inside a power plant that features some wild effects and alien morphing, but what's far more fascinating is how Twohy strings us along. What initially seems like imprecise writing and misleading details--or even ethnic stereotyping--becomes in retrospect completely sensical and even more chilling. The tension he creates is palpable; the results are as good as this type of film, in a cynical, FX-saturated world, can probably get.

One thing doesn't quite sit right, though, and it feels like a trend: Teri Polo, as Zane's girlfriend Char, works in the world of high finance, and it still feels like the kitchen. Sure, there are some genre traps that can't be avoided. But do they have to assume new identities?

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sci-fi violence and terror, and for brief language. Times guidelines: may be too intense for younger children (or some older ones).

'The Arrival'

Charlie Sheen: Zane Ziminski

Ron Silver: Gordian

Lindsay Crouse: Ilana Green

Teri Polo: Char

Richard Schiff: Calvin

Tony T. Johnson: Kiki

A Steelwork Films/Thomas G. Smith Production of a Film by David Twohy, distributed by LIVE Entertainment. Producers Thomas G. Smith, Jim Steele. Director David Twohy. Screenplay by Twohy. Cinematographer Hiro Narita. Production designer Michael Novotny. Editor Martin Hunter. Music Arthur Kempel. Costumes Mayes C. Rubeo. Visual effects Producer Charles L. Finance. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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