I’ve always been a big science fiction fan, but lately I’ve been really into a subset of that genre, the so-called “hard” science fiction. This designation is more than just an attempt by nerds to feel superior – it’s a way to separate stories like “Star Wars” – basically fantasies in space, from stuff like “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Or, as my wife would say, boring science fiction. That’s not to say that I don’t like both kinds. In fact, this week my plan was to review “The Predator,” a silly-looking sequel that definitely falls into the “soft” sci-fi category. This weekend turned out to be busier than expected, however, so I chose a new film that I could watch at home. “UFO” was a movie I’d seen a print ad for, but knew virtually nothing about, other than that it classifies as “hard” sci-fi. Let’s just say my wife might have just been right this time.
“UFO” is a triple-threat: ponderous, dull, and cheaply made. It makes me sad to say it, as the root of the story is interesting, but even an intriguing premise can’t save this snooze-fest. The story, based on a small kernel of truth, goes like this. One day at an international airport in Cleveland, a couple dozen people report seeing a mysterious saucer-like craft hovering approximately 2,000 feet over the runway. It flashed a couple of lights, sent out a couple of high-frequency chirps, and disappeared. This incident is based on a similar incident that happened in Chicago a few years ago — one that has never been sufficiently explained, and is similar to other events at different airports around the world. “UFO” uses that event as a springboard to tell the tale of a thoroughly unlikeable math student at the nearby university who takes it upon himself, using his amazing math skills, to disprove the official explanation and crack a hidden code hidden in the craft’s transmission. That’s pretty much the entire movie. The student, Derek, bums rides off his roommate and stands up his girlfriend in a revolving pattern over the course of the film’s 90 mintues. The biggest mystery, however, is that Derek has any friends at all, considering how completely alienating his character his. This character is sullen and moody throughout, making any time spent with him time wasted. “UFO” also stars David Strathairn and Gillian Anderson, who I can only imagine must have owed someone a favor. Strathairn plays a concerned authority figure well, but I’m not sure what Anderson was doing. Her character seems on the verge of falling asleep in every scene. It was very strange. Alex Sharp, a young actor who’s done a few indies, is not good, especially considering he’s a Tony-award winning stage actor. Worst of all, however, is the science. It feels like a bunch of people saying words they don’t really understand. It’s all just window-dressing, and poorly conceived window-dressing at that. Needless to say, I was disappointed in this film. I like the basic concept — that normal people see odd things every day that are never fully explained, but this film was too in love with its disaffected main character and blind to the fact that he was simply not interesting or entertaining to watch.
Rather than spend another 300 words trashing on this movie that, honestly, very few of you would have ever sought out anyway, I’d like to throw a few titles your way — movies that “UFO” aspires to while failing miserably.
“Arrival” was possibly my favorite film of 2016. Quiet, thoughtful, and without wall-to-wall special effects actions, many people dismissed this movie as too cerebral. For my money, however, you can’t find a better examination of the potential differences between ourselves and an alien species, especially in terms of language. “Arrival” is also a beautiful, if heartbreaking story of motherhood and an examination of time itself.
“Interstellar” caught a little bit of a bad rap when it came out because it was Christopher Nolan’s big follow-up to his “Batman” films, but was much quieter and thoughtful. Matthew McConaughy plays an ex-astronaut living in a frighteningly possible near future where the world is on the brink of collapse due to global warming and where science is looked at with suspicion. When a nearby wormhole provides access to a neighboring galaxy, the remnants of NASA send an expedition in hopes of saving the planet. The film is at turns sad, thrilling, and thought-provoking. But ultimately, it’s uplifting — not a common trait of Nolan’s films.
Probably the grandfather of all modern hard-science fiction films would be… well, that would be “2001.” But because some people find that movie impenetrable, I’d recommend a film that’s a little more accessible. 1997’s “Contact” was based on Carl Sagan’s one fiction novel and really explores all the different aspects of what a first contact with another species might be like. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and packed with stars, including Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughy, this is one of my favorite movies. And again, like the previous two films, it all comes down to an emotional connection at the heart of it. Maybe that’s what “UFO” is missing. The previous three films get easy As, but “UFO” gets a generous C-.
“UFO” is rated PG-13 for adult themes and mild language.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.