Directed by: Ryan Eslinger | 85 minutes | action, science fiction | Actors: Alex Sharp, Gillian Anderson, Ella Purnell, Benjamin Beatty, Cece Abbey, David Strathairn, Ken Early, Brian Bowman, AJ Ransom, Katie Eichler, David Heckel, Chauncey Ragland
You don’t expect a very inspired, in-depth or compelling film with a title like ‘UFO’. But although it has not been a huge hit (at any level), appearances are somewhat deceptive in this case. In any case, ‘UFO’ is not the sensational, mindless B-movie you might expect. On the contrary, almost.
‘UFO’ is a perfectly viewable, intriguing film that goes with a tight focus on its goal, without being distracted by things like romantic subplots, over-the-top action scenes, or cartoon character-like bad guys. But unfortunately not by anything like credible motivation or character development either. Your appreciation of the film will largely be related to the value you place on these elements.
There is certainly a kind of tension in ‘UFO’ but it is more about the implications of discovering extraterrestrial life and the emotions that come with it, than about the danger posed by the aliens. Our hero also faces obstacles in his search for answers, but he is not so much held back by stereotypical bad guys as his persistence, dedication and intelligence are tested.
Derek (Alex Sharp) is a young math genius, a bit like Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting,” but without the attitude . He knows how to perform calculations very quickly, to call prime numbers, and to recognize the fine structure constant in a sound signal that probably comes from aliens that have recently hovered close to the earth.
Derek’s calculations and quick mind are mesmerizing to watch, even if the average viewer doesn’t understand 90% of what is being told (or maybe because of that). As he seems to get closer to the truth and the intent of the alien signal, the viewer’s arousal level rises. Even though you know that it is fiction, you are still very curious about what all this means for our life on earth, the future, the universe, our soul … And yes, secretly you also want to know what those aliens look like.
Yet it soon seems clear that you will never see the aliens. As in “Contact” (Robert Zemeckis, 1997), we are believed to be incapable of imagining the appearance of extraterrestrial life. Perhaps very easy: then the filmmakers don’t have to come up with creatures, but in any case you don’t get something banal like once again those green men (or tall, elongated human-like creatures).
Ultimately, ‘UFO’ is an interesting exercise and fascinating enough while you are watching, but afterwards mainly a kind of teaser for the next step that must be taken: the real two-way communication.
Furthermore, it is unfortunate that the main character and three or four main characters around him – his best friend (Benjamin Beatty) and girlfriend (Ella Purnell), FBI agent Franklin Ahls (David Strathairn) and math teacher Professor Hendricks (Gillian Anderson) – not more elaborated, so that we would care more about them and their relationships and we can put ourselves in their place.
As for the main character, the filmmakers try to give him some emotional motivation late in the film for his obsession with this (possible) contact and the solving of the code. But they could have saved themselves the trouble, because the background story is so small that it does more harm than good. The viewer should have kept the illusion that Derek is doing it all because of his need to solve every math problem. In short, that unraveling this problem is an irresistible and ultimate challenge for him.
Ultimately, ‘UFO’ is an interesting, well-acted film that, despite the lack of deep mathematical knowledge, effectively puts the viewer in the shoes of the main character. Alex Sharp is a good, sympathetic ‘stand-in’ for the viewer and Strathairn and Anderson add the necessary class in their (too) small roles. The film also manages to create the needs of Derek in the viewer; to solve a monstrously complicated puzzle on the one hand, and on the other hand to find the answer to one of man’s greatest questions: “Are we alone in the universe?”