Twohy: The Arrival (1996)

Between Waterworld and The Arrival, David Twohy had a hand in two of the few Hollywood films of the 90s to really tackle the taboo subject of global warming. In Waterworld, which he co-wrote, Twohy turned his eye on the spectre of rising oceans, whereas in The Arrival he focused on rising gas levels, and the hole in the ozone layer. To envisage the global catastrophe that might ensue from this accumulation of greenhouse gases, Twohy, who wrote and directed this time around, turns to another perennial 90s concern: extraterrestrial life. As a result, The Arrival alternates between two very different scientists – Zane Zaminsky, a radio astronomer played by Charlie Sheen, and Ilana Green, a climatologist played by Lindsay Crouse, who gradually realise their disciplines are converging in a disastrous manner.

Most of the first act focuses on Zane, Sheen’s character, and on satellite dishes as the next frontier of connectivity. Dishes here take on the otherworldliness of UFOs, and are present in virtually every mise-en-scene, either literally or in the curavature of surrogate objects. It’s while operating one of these dishes that Zane comes across a “non-random, non-Earth based signal,” only for his NASA boss Phil Gordian, played by Ron Silver, to inexplicably shut down any further research. In response, Zane rigs up all the rooftop dishes in his neighbourhood to trace the signal from home, seguing the film’s fascination with satellites into a more specific fixation with the possibilities of cabled connections and entertainment. Poised between dishes and cables, Zane traces the noise to a cabal of American investors who are buying up land in third world countries, especially Mexico, for the purpose of constructing more dishes.

To understand this cabal, we have to turn to Ilana, Crouse’s character, a climatologist who is tracking the impacts of the hole in the ozone layer. Even with the most pessimistic predictions for global warming, Ilana realises that temperatures are rising faster than they should, to the point where tropical plants have started sprouting in small pockets of the Arctic, “a window on the future.” With “hurricanes in March” and “drought in the Sudan,” she intuits “some major climate ordeal” over the coming years, although the film’s prediction for what this entails is wonderfully quaint – “an increase of 12 degrees centigrade over the next decade.”

Radio astronomer and climatologist end up meeting in Mexico, on the cusp of yet another massive dish, where they bond by observing how consistently and unseasonably hot it is. Mexico is already globally warmed, and when the heat intensifies around bureaucratic spaces, the two grow more suspicious, and agree to share resources. Things escalate further when Zane sees a Mexican double of his boss, also played by Ron Silver, and then a double of himself, like a spectral refraction of his own disavowed Estevez heritage. In a quintessentially American move, imagining total porosity between the United States and Mexico is almost more difficult than imagining the threshold between terrestrial and extraterrestrial life, as the looming shadow of the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 shifts the film seamlessly into a science fiction register, collapsing all distinction between aliens and illegals. 

Between the Mexican border, and the omniscient satellite dishes, then, Twohy is attempting nothing less than to visualise the nefarious agency behind global warming at its very inception. So diffuse and evil is this agency that he is forced to imagine it as a society of aliens that are covertly terraforming the earth into a warm enough environment for them to inhabit in the future. It’s an eccentric take on the lizard people conspiracy, as the aliens insinuate themselves into the corridors of technocratic power, but also gravitate towards the Global South due to its warmer climates. Sometimes you can see things clearer from a distance, and so it is here, as Twohy envisages the end-point of global warming as the earth terraformed into an alien planet, helmed by humans who might as well be aliens. In a final twist, the satellites that dot the film are terraforming factories, pumping out greenhouse gases to help the process along. Again, this is embedded in anxieties about Mexicans, whose stereotypical roles as gardeners and landscapers take on a more sinsister hue now, encapsulated in a collection of aliens who ransack Zane’s dish disguised as a landscape maintenance company.

By presenting greenhouse gases as the mere prelude to an alien invasion, Twohy intuits that global warming, as it was understood in the 90s, must foreshadow an even greater global catastrophe. From the present, the paradox of The Arrival is that it can’t comprehend that this catastrophe will also be climate-driven – and that climate will quickly come to eclipse even the most apocalyptic of science fiction tropes. Or maybe it’s just that Twohy isn’t permitted to express this fear within the strictures of Hollywood, forcing him to conceal his prophecy in more nebulous terms, and couch it in the mouths of aliens as they belch and bleed greenhouse gas: “We’re just finishing what you started – what you would have done in 100 years, we’ll do in ten.” Many present human leaders have followed this extraterrestrial trajectory, treating our own planet as a commodity to be terraformed for an alien minority.

That all makes for an evocatively splintered third act, in which Twohy both reaches back to cinematic precedents for this climate catastrophe, and gestures towards a new science fiction register that will eventually be used to express it more fully. On the one hand, the closing set pieces of the film often recall the underground lairs of James Bond, much as the aliens, like classic Bond villains, stand in for an indiscriminate global annihilation that can’t be fully conceptualised. On the other hand, Twohy simultaneously moves towards the lushness of contemporary science fiction, both in the verdant Mexican landscape and in the surreal opening sequence, which pulls back from Ilana, robed like a medieval monk, as she fondles a flower in the midst of the Arctic expanse. We see here an early iteration of the more recent sci fi shift towards the glistening fecundity of the Earth itself as an otherworldly spectacle that must be estranged to be preserved – the richness of the Earth-as-planet, as strangely sublime as the remotest depths of space now that we start to feel it succumbing to the Anthropocene.  

About Billy Stevenson (823 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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