UFO is decently-made and features a committed leading performance, but it’s let down by a lacklustre script.
The rather obviously-titled UFO was clearly a student at the Dan Brown school of so-called “clever” fiction. It speaks entirely in mouthfuls of semi-interesting facts and tortuous, long-winded exposition, like a neurotic tour guide. And while it clearly aspires to the kind of clever-clogs science-fiction that Denis Villeneuve brought to the big screen in Arrival, this film lacks that one’s visual majesty; I do wish that UFO had employed the services of a linguist, but only to take a look at the script.
That script, by director Ryan Eslinger, concerns Derek (Alex Sharp), a dorky maths whiz who believes that numerous strange sightings across the U.S. are UFOs. He’s dead-set on the idea because when he was a kid he saw one and his mum didn’t believe him, which isn’t exactly compelling, as far as motivations go. I once told my mum I could make a living writing mean-spirited film criticism, and she still doesn’t believe me. You don’t see me moaning about that.
But it’s obvious that something’s up. Employing the help of his girlfriend, Natalie (Ella Purnell), his stoner buddies, and his flinty advanced mathematics professor, Dr. Hendricks (Gillian Anderson), Derek sets about trying to prove that we’re not alone in the universe by working out the mathematical underpinnings of extraterrestrial communication. All the while, FBI special agent Franklin Ahls (David Strathairn) conducts his own investigation, both into the aliens and into Derek himself, who might be the key to figuring out if they’re going to come back.
You can tell as soon as you see the lengthy explanatory text that opens UFO that you’re in for a particularly unsubtle time. The enigmatic figure at the heart of the film’s mystery is the fine-structure constant, a complex number embedded in the atomic makeup of the entire universe, and that might be able to denote intelligence and reference a precise location in space. It’s not a simple concept, no matter how many times it gets explained, which is a lot – but in UFO it’s symptomatic of a larger problem. The characters are constantly required to discuss elaborate mathematical concepts among themselves, but in a way that can be easily understood by the audience. It leads to remarkably dopey conversations in which someone will say, “I’m sure you’re all familiar with so-and-so,” then explain so-and-so to the room full of experts in layman’s terms anyway.
The effect is one of distracting awkwardness, and it’s difficult to engage with UFO as a result. The flimsy characters and devoted humourlessness don’t help either, which is a shame – you get the sense some levity here and there would have endeared the film to an audience who’ll be inevitably glassy-eyed from all the babble. Gillian Anderson, the biggest name on the film’s billing, only gets a small, thankless part, and she’s not enough to save the film from a mire of dullness and predictability. Whether or not we’re alone in the universe is one of life’s big questions, but UFO suggests that knowing the answer might be a lot less fun than we thought.