With all the big-budget special-effects muscle on the screen this summer, it is refreshing to see a science-fiction movie that has as much brains as brawn.
"The Arrival" is a quirky, fun thriller that will please fans of TV's "The X Files." It's more in the tradition of creepy, paranoid alien-invasion movies like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" than the effects extravaganza that next month's "Independence Day" promises to be.
Charlie Sheen stars as radio astronomer Zane Zaminski, who is paid by NASA to point a satellite dish at stars and listen for sounds of life. The day after he thinks he has made the discovery of the century, he is suddenly fired by his boss, Paul Gordian (Ron Silver).
Things get even more knotty for Zane when he learns that government agents are erasing all traces of his work. He gets a job for a satellite dish company, and ingeniously wires them together so that he can continue his research on his own.
Zane is able to duplicate his experiment, all right, but this time, he is even more startled to learn that this time, the signal came from Earth! He traces the signal to Mexico and takes off in hot pursuit. It would be a cheat to reveal more of the plot, which takes several clever twists and turns. Screenwriter and first-time director David Twohy, who wrote the scripts for "The Fugitive" and "Waterworld," gets more out of his modest budget than the makers of "Waterworld" squandered with millions.
Several set pieces - including a vast underground alien power plant, and a ratty Mexican hotel with dangerously leaky ceilings - are outstanding. One particularly fine shot of Sheen's girlfriend (Teri Polo) rolling toward the edge of a massive satellite dish is pure cinema worthy of Hitchcock. It will make you grab your arm rest to keep your balance.
Twohy also allows the suspense to build gradually to a fever pitch in several scenes in a way that the Master would have approved of. By the end of "The Arrival," the paranoia is such that everyone is suspect.
Sheen gives a credible performance as a super-intelligent scientist (an admirable stretch), even though he spends even more time looking bug-eyed than Tom Cruise does in "Mission: Impossible." Familiar faces - Silver, Polo, Richard Schiff as Zane's partner and Lindsay Crouse as a scientist attracted to the strange goings-on in the Mexican jungle - all give able support.
Ten years ago, "The Arrival" would have been considered a special-effects flick. But, although the effects really are special, they do not overwhelm the story. And, unlike some of the other big pictures of the season, they exist to enhance the story, not the other way around. Twohy makes a sensational directorial debut.
It is hoped that the quieter pleasures of "The Arrival" will not be drowned out by the big noise of the big budgets.