UFO (2018)

ufo1A poor man’s Arrival, or a teen Close Encounters, pretty much sums this one up. The casting of Gillian Anderson would seem a stroke of genius, even if it does inevitably turn out to be a relatively minor role- the irony of casting one of the two X-Files stars in this does appear to hold a rather meta-narrative curio over proceedings. The comparison to both Arrival and CE3K though are naturally very obvious but quite instructive too. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is one of my favourite science fiction films of the last few decades and I’ve rewatched it several times now, but its only when you see something like this UFO film that you an really appreciate just how special Arrival is- likewise, it informs just how good Spielberg’s Close Encounters is too.

Its not so much that UFO is particularly bad- its fine enough for what it is. I would suspect that it owes a lot to Arrival in particular, as it uses mathematics as a narrative crux in just the same way as language and linguistics was the central theme of Arrival. Both films establish the presence of aliens from the start- the plots of the films rather about what the aliens want to tell us, or the difficulties in communicating with them.

The plot is patently a combination of both Arrival and Close Encounters: Derek (Alex Sharp) is a brilliant college student who is fascinated by reports of a UFO sighting at Cincinnati airport, using his mathematics expertise to deduce a message in static which interrupted general airport communications and mobile phone services during the short event. Derek has been ‘primed’ for this fascination due to a childhood UFO sighting of his own, but this quickly becomes a Roy Neary-like obsession as he realises a cover-up is in progress, an obsession that threatens to derail his studies and relationship with his girlfriend Natalie (Ella Purnell). When he deduces that a mysterious countdown seems to be in effect, he has to enlist the help of his mathematics professor, Dr. Hendricks (Gillian Anderson). Derek races to unravel the mystery before time runs out, with FBI special agent Franklin Ahls (a sadly under-utilised David Strathairn) on his heels.

Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Personally I’d have been more interested had Gillian Anderson (ageing professor feeling her best work is behind her) had been the central protagonist, galvanised by a discovery by one of her students too young to realise what he had stumbled upon. While that’s possibly the perspective of my own middle-age talking, I do think that would have been a better movie. For one thing, Anderson is (with the possible exception of Strathairn) the strongest actor in this film and it needs her gravitas, and its hard to really identify with an antisocial and slightly irritating teen/young adult protagonist lacking any real need for redemption. The plight of Roy Neary, middle-aged father and husband caught up in events he cannot understand, is the central drive of Close Encounters, and the lonely and socially-weary linguistics expert Louise Banks trying to come to terms with being caught up in world-shattering events is the core of Arrival. Maybe a maths lecturer would be too close to Arrivals linguistics lecturer, I’ll concede that.  I suppose the biggest problem UFO has though is how it ends, which teases much but lacks the grand conclusions of both Arrival and CE3K– its one of those films that, when it fades to black, you just know the credits are up next, the finale lacking any sense of satisfaction. I didn’t hate the ending, but it did leave me feeling mildly irritated that I’d rather wasted the last ninety minutes getting there.

Harry Price: Ghost Hunter

harry1In 1920s London, paranormal investigator Harry Price (Rafe Spall) is called upon by rising political star Edwin Goodwin to investigate the odd goings on in the MP’s home and the apparent mental disintegration of his wife Grace, who seem to be the focal point of the bizarre goings-on. Harry teams up with the family’s maid, Sarah Grey (Cara Theobold), and the two attempt to investigate the haunting and deduce if a ghost or something more earthly is behind the horrors.

Christmas schedules always offer something supernatural, and often ideally period, in nature and Harry Price: Ghost Hunter fits the bill brilliantly- a well-made tv movie that was also patently a set-up/pilot for a tv series. Unfortunately I’m late to the party as usual, as this originally aired in December 2015 and that tv series never came, which is something of a surprise- considering ITV had huge success with other period dramas such as Downtown Abbey at the time, a mystery series like this on Winter Sunday nights seems a sure-fire winner, with Harry Price and Sarah Grey an ideal British Mulder and Scully for some period X-Files-like shenanigans.

Maybe it was too obvious- admittedly its hardly high-concept, but the format seems to be a success, the period setting is pretty convincing as one would expect, and the cast perfectly fine. Two of the lead actresses also featured in Downtown Abbey, oddly enough. While Spall initially seems a bit of an odd fit for Harry Price, the subtlety of his performance wins through in the end and the brooding tension from his back-story (originally a charlatan and a devout sceptic, its clear he’s got a subconscious need to be proven wrong) suggests a clever narrative over a series of tales. Considering its period setting, its also deliberately modern, with the Sarah Grey character clearly a very modern woman struggling in the face of a very male-oriented world.

If I had any real criticism of it, its perhaps that the script obviously wants the best of both worlds- the investigators finally arrive at a rather prosaic explanation for whats going on, but it also offers a visual suggestion that there’s more going on than such a mundane solution offers (Grey herself witnessing a paranormal event that suggests that poor Grace is not seeing mere hallucinations at all). I don’t know if, had the format gone to a full series, that such a balancing act would have been able to be supported over a long arc.

So while I suppose its rather forgettable (it never went to series, after all, so clearly it was found wanting by the execs or the public at the time of its transmission) as a piece of Seasonal supernatural drama it works pretty well (watching this kind of stuff in the glow of the Christmas tree lights is a strange shade of perfect). Its just a pity, considering it didn’t go to series, that its so consciously setting one up over its last ten minutes, because it robs the film of proper closure, instead ending with that tease familiar in so many modern movies. Its all very well when you know Super Hero Caper Two, Three or Four is coming, but if that follow-up never comes it feels rather, well, all Alien Covenant, and that’s not good at all.

(Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is currently available on Amazon Prime in the UK).

In the Shadow of the Moon

shadowThis latest Netflix acquisition is a sadly flawed sci-fi flick posing as a police procedural thriller. Its got a neat idea but suffers from an ill-judged execution and strangely utterly wastes Michael C. Hall in a supporting role that really goes nowhere.

An intriguing prologue takes place in 2024, teasing a dark future in which Philadelphia is on fire, streets littered with debris, buildings smashed and an odd-looking alternate stars and stripes flag falling in the wind. We then cut to 1988, and a night of strange deaths with victims dying of bleeding-out of their noses, eyes and ears as their brains literally turn to mush- a result, it is soon deduced, of strange puncture-wounds on their necks. Police officer Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) pushes his way onto the case, infuriating his brother-in-law Detective Holt (Michael C. Hall), but the case is soon closed when the suspected murderer – a black woman in a blue coat- is killed evading capture, but when copycat murders occur nine years later, the mystery deepens, especially when it is discovered it seems to be the same, ‘dead’ woman committing the murders.

The film is episodic in nature, each chapter jumping nine years into the future and nights of repeated murders all matching the same method and suspect. Lockhart is a Detective by the time the second set of murders occur, and each chapter finds him increasingly unhinged and at odds with those around him as his wild theory -that the murderer is a woman from the future- forms.

shadow2I suppose one way to look at this is as an extended Black Mirror episode, or maybe something from the X-Files, but it also feels like something of the great old Kolchak: The Night Stalker, in which our unhinged hero is increasingly at odds with his common-sense peers. It has a great premise but its episodic construction, while understandable, hinders the flow of the story.

Holbrook is fine but the writing does him few favours. Strangely, I kept thinking of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and how Richard Dreyfuss’ character became increasingly obsessed and lost his job, home and family in his pursuit of answers. Its a very similar arc to that of Holbrook’s character here but handled much more convincingly and smoothly. The problem with even a great premise such as In the Shadow of the Moon has, is that it has to be grounded in some kind of reality, and it just gets more ridiculous and far-fetched in order to maintain what is essentially a very small tale, when Holbrook learns who the murderer is. I’m sure the central conceit thrilled the writers when they came up with it, but they have a really hard time making it work.

So anyway, spoilers ahead for this last bit:

shadow3One thing did bug me- if the time travel idea of being limited to single nights on nine-year periods going backwards was a ‘thing’ then surely the antagonist going further backwards each time (first 2015, then 2006, 1997, finally 1988) surely each time she was having to also wait nine years in the future for the stars to align in order for her to go back again? So if she was 30 in 2024 and travelled back to 2015, she would be 39 when she turned up in 2006, and 48 in 1997, and 57 in 1988?  So she should have been an old woman in 1988, and getting progressively younger every nine years as Holbrook naturally got older? But of course if the killings were intended to change time and avert the disaster of 2024, as they did so how would she be able to use her Time Machine in 2033, and 2041 etc if the ‘future’ (i.e. her ‘present’ kept being revised for good or ill?).

Agh, that’s the trouble with these Time Travel movies. They are often fun but can be very silly when you think too much about them. I guess you should just go along with it, in just the same way as I had to, say, with Avengers: Endgame. In the Shadow of the Moon is well-intentioned and always rather fun, so well worth a watch, but its execution really was flawed.

Mind, it offers an intriguing prospect for a sequel- the killings were all ‘justified’ because the victims could all be linked to the terrorist movement that caused a civil war in 2024. So its all based on a point-of-view, and the film conveniently ignores the fact that the victims were innocent when murdered, only guilty of future crimes. So what if someone from the future used that same methodology of changing the future by killing ‘good guys’ in the past to ensure the bad guys got their civil war instead? Or was that the Terminator movies?

 

Midnight Special (2016)

midnite1.jpg2016.61: Midnight Special (Amazon VOD)

Like Super 8 a few years back, Midnight Special displays its inspirations clearly- it’s very much kin to Steven Spielberg’s seminal CE3K and ET, and also John Carpenter’s Starman. Indeed, while it often looks like a Spielberg film it also feels like a Carpenter film because of an electronic score by David Wingo that sounds very much from a Carpenter film of that period. Midnight Special just overflows with this sense of being an artifact from circa 1977-1982, the danger naturally being this can bring to mind better movies. I guess it shares common ground with so many other cinema-referential films of late, such as Super 8 – films harking back to the films that influenced current film-makers. A generational thing then, and further sign I’m getting old when so much of the films I grew up with winds up in ‘new’ films, even the ones that aren’t reboots?

That being said, Midnight Special is, on a whole, quite superior to stuff like Super 8. For one thing it doesn’t feel so reverential, and does try to do something new even though it eventually falters. The first half of the film is its strongest, with the mystery holding the most attention; two adults are on the run having kidnapped a young boy, and they are being chased by both Government forces and agents of a strange religious cult. Having pretty much been dropped into the middle of a chase movie with X-Files undertones, its fun trying to unravel the backgrounds of the characters and what is really going on and why. Inevitably the film can’t really maintain the mystery and its reveals aren’t as imaginative or original as one would hope. That said, it’s a great thriller for most of its running time even if the conclusion leaves us asking more questions than is perhaps healthy for what I believe is a standalone picture.

The cast is pretty great, except, unfortunately, for Kirsten Dunst. She plays the childs mother, Sarah, and there really isn’t any conviction in her portrayal of motherhood, or indeed any chemistry between her and the child’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon)- it is a huge vacuum that the film doesn’t really recover from. I don’t know if it’s simply the script at fault (in Dunst’s defence, it is a fairly underwritten part) or miscasting, but somethings wrong and the film suffers for it, losing the emotional core that, say, ET had. Other than that, there is plenty to recommend in this film- a fairly low budget affair (something like just $20 million) it’s certainly more imaginative and entertaining than most of this summers blockbuster releases.