In Rome, Gaia (Francesca Cuttica), an interpreter fluent in Mandarin Chinese, agrees to take on a well-paying but extremely mysterious job. Blindfolded and transported to a secret location, she is introduced to the terse and edgy Inspector Curti (Ennio Fantastichini). He brings Gaia into a darkened room where she is called on to translate his questions to a hidden, Chinese-speaking prisoner known only as Mr. Wang (voiced by Li Yong). Gaia grows increasingly uncomfortable in the face of Curti’s aggressive interrogation of the politely bewildered Wang. She realises she is caught up in something dangerous, only to discover that Wang is in fact a squid-like alien visitor from outer space.
Science fiction fan turned film director Luigi Cozzi once claimed the Italian public had no interest in his favourite genre, going so far as to maintain it was the one country where Star Wars (1977) proved a box office flop. Regardless of the veracity of that statement, the fact is the Italian film industry flirted repeatedly with science fiction over brief periods of cracked creativity, from the pop art space operas spawned by Antonio Margheriti and Mario Bava in the mid-Sixties, to Alfonso Brescia’s run of shoddy Star Wars rip-offs in the late Seventies and the post-apocalyptic action films of the Eighties. What is remarkable about L’Arrivo di Wang (The Arrival of Wang) is that not only have sibling filmmakers Antonio and Marco Manetti revived a genre seemingly in hibernation throughout the past thirty years, but have done so with arguably Italy’s most provocative, idea-driven science fiction movie. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the film leaves such a sour after-taste, but we will get into that later.
Aside from a climactic swerve into epic spectacle, the film largely shuns Hollywood gloss in favour of minimalistic, claustrophobic tension. Smartly scripted and often genuinely suspenseful with taut direction from the Manetti brothers, the film feels in some ways like a throwback to the paranoid American science fiction thrillers of the Fifties, centred largely around two forceful and compelling characterisations from Francesca Cuttica and co-star Ennio Fantastichini. After her initial alarm at being faced with an extraterrestrial, Gaia’s sympathies increasingly shift towards Wang. While the alien insists he is an emissary of peace, Curti steadfastly refuses to believe him. His escalating brutality confuses and enrages the liberal-minded Gaia.
As events unfold it becomes clear the Manetti brothers are shaping their story into a post-9/11 allegory, commenting on the use of torture in interrogating suspected terrorists. With Gaia and Curti embodying both sides of the argument, the film takes a bold step in asking whether torture can ever be justified. Gaia clings to her belief that any living being, even an alien, is entitled to basic “human” rights while Curti maintains such principles just don’t apply to a hideous green invader from outer space. On the one hand, Curti appears to embody every paranoid liberal’s idea of a fascistic employee of the state: implacably dim, belligerent, and irrationally violent. Yet the sheer force of his conviction injects a note of unsettling ambiguity.
The special effects, while perhaps a notch below Hollywood standards, are still eye-catching and imaginative. In fact the post-production process took so long the Manettis were able to complete their horror film Paura 3D (2012) during the wait. Wang himself is a vivid and expressive CGI creation, treading a fine line between inscrutable and sympathetic. Alas, the film is far from perfect. Its chief flaw rests with the hackneyed climax that, aside from the fact it leaves the film looking like a Twilight Zone episode expanded uncomfortably to feature length, undermines all the preceding messages about tolerance and understanding for the sake of a cheap punchline. Ultimately, the film reinforces reactionary ideals and takes great relish in chastising liberal sympathy as at best misguided or to use its own closing word: “stupid.”