|By Robbie Graham|
The last decade has seen the theatrical release of dozens of big-budget UFO movies. The most high-profile alien-visitation-themed titles of last year included the lunkheaded Battleship (which sank at the box-office), Men in Black 3 (inoffensive but forgettable), The Watch (offensive and forgettable), and the UFOlogically-flavoured space operas John Carter and Prometheus – both deeply flawed but admirably brimming with big ideas.
In addition to these glossy Hollywood products, a number of non-American UFO movies were released theatrically, albeit in a smattering of independent cinemas across only a handful of territories.
Here are the five UFO movies you missed in 2012:
UK. Dir: Dominic Burns. 97 mins.
After a powerful earthquake causes a global power-cut, alien spacecraft position themselves over cities worldwide, their agenda unknown. As panic grips the world, humanity’s basest survivalist instincts kick in. Within hours, widespread looting and general criminality are rampant as every-man-for-himself prepares for what he rightly suspects is coming next – invasion.
The plot unfolds through the eyes of a group of friends in England (Nottingham, to be precise), who, like everyone else, are trying desperately to stay one step ahead of their alien aggressors. Along the way, suppressed animosities within the group bubble to the surface and we find that not everyone is who they pretend to be.
The film’s young writer/director Dominic Burns confirmed to me via email that he has a strong interest in the UFO phenomenon, and his movie reflects this in its fine details and narrative exposition – no more so than in a scene featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme as a bad-ass black-ops soldier with the inside scoop on our alien visitors. His character makes casual reference to Area 51 and confirms a pre-existing knowledge in the intelligence community of ET visitation, justifying its cover-up on the grounds that “it would have caused panic and spread fears.” He also warns that “the aliens can take human form.”
It is in its pre-invasion scenes that U.F.O. is at its best, attempting to paint a grittily realistic picture of how the populous might truly react to the sight of an alien armada in our skies. However, produced on a budget of just £2.5 million, this UK alien invasion flick falls hopelessly short of its epic vision. Needless to say, with such meagre funds at his disposal, Burns would have done well to stage in his alien invasion at the peripheries of the human drama (in much the same way that M. Night Shyamalan did in Signs). Instead, the director clobbers us with enough badly-rendered CGI to bring down a mothership. The result is a very poor man’s Independence Day which is further hampered by clunky direction and wooden performances from a mostly unknown cast.
U.F.O. is a B-movie through and through, then. But, if you accept it as such going in and set your expectations low (way low), you just might find yourself enjoying it... though you won’t feel good about yourself for doing so.
Ireland. Dir: Jon Wright. 90 mins.
There’s nothing particularly UFOlogical in Grabbers – aside from what might be interpreted as vague references to the animal mutilation phenomenon in a scene where mysteriously mutilated whales wash-up onshore and in dialogue explaining that the Grabbers’ modus operandi is exsanguination.
While U.F.O. takes itself entirely seriously, Grabbers keeps its liquor-soaked tongue firmly in its cheek, and is all the better for it. It also does wonders with its £3.5 million budget (which is just £1 million more than U.F.O. spilt over itself). There are no spaceships here, but the Grabbers themselves are impressively realized through CGI that wouldn’t look out of place in a Steven Spielberg movie. The script is tight and witty, albeit formulaic, and the lead performances from Richard Coyle and Ruth Bradley as mismatched police partners are charming and heartfelt, the chemistry between them tangible. Recommended.
UK. Dir: Johannes Roberts. 87 mins.
When a military plane crashes into the streets of Greater London, its extraterrestrial cargo breaks loose and seeks refuge in a sprawling, 24 hour public storage warehouse. With the city in total lockdown, four romantically-back-stabbing ‘friends’ find themselves trapped inside said warehouse only to discover they’re being stalked by something monstrous. As the friends’ interpersonal secrets begin to spill, so too does their blood, as the fugitive alien methodically hunts its prey.
Storage 24 owes a heavy debt to a certain genre-defining Ridley Scott movie, as a towering, razor-toothed space fiend skulks its way through the ventilation shafts and claustrophobic corridors of a cold industrial environment. But this is no space opera, its many references to government conspiracy and alien cover-ups placing it firmly in UFO movie territory, and its final scenes being more reminiscent of War of the Worlds than Alien.
Decently paced, ably acted, and with some reasonably successful humor and set-pieces, Storage 24, though entirely predictable throughout, is a watchable, bargain-bin sci-fi horror that’s slicker than its wafer thin £1 million budget might suggest.
Australia. Dir: Justin Dix. 117 mins.
“In 1966 the Australian and US Governments established Pine Gap, a top secret research facility in the remote Australian outback. 15 hours ago all contact with the facility was lost.” Thus reads the opening blurb for Crawlspace, a low-budget Australian sci-fi horror set in the infamous Pine Gap base, which, in real-life, is a joint US-Australian defence space research installation operated by the US National Security Agency in conjunction with the CIA. It is, by all accounts, one of the most secretive government facilities on Earth. It is also alleged by some to be a testing ground for captured alien technologies.
Crawlspace fully embraces the Pine Gap folklore, pitting an elite black-ops assassination unit against the terrors that lurk 200 feet beneath the surface of what is referred to in the movie as “Australia’s own Area 51.” The black-ops unit has been sent in to kill a number of highly psychic and extremely dangerous human “test subjects” who have escaped from their cells and wrought havoc on the facility.
That’s right, the Pine Gap of this movie is concerned less with satellite tracking and communications monitoring than it is with horrific “biomechanical research” involving inter-species grafting procedures that stitch-together human and alien brains to create the ultimate psychic warrior in a decades-long East-vs.-West remote viewing war. “What we do here isn’t exactly sanctioned by the government,” says a Doctor Mengele-like scientist. No kidding.
Crawlspace begins with bags of potential, but, within minutes, dumps those bags in one of its many cramped ventilation shafts, where they remain perennially beyond the reach of all involved in this clumsy and clichéd production.
With its (not so) wise-cracking, heavy-heat-packing elite military unit (complete with foul-mouthed macho woman), and its extensive use of night-vision POV shots, Crawlspace wants desperately to be James Cameron’s Aliens. But while Cameron’s movie is an adrenalin shot to the heart, Crawlspace is akin to a heavy dose of Valium, its meandering plot and ponderous direction lulling the viewer into the land of nod – or at least to the kitchen several times for a much-needed distractive snack. The DVD extras – in which the cast gush about the “vision” of their director (Justin Dix) – are fully twice as substantial and compelling as the movie itself. Enough said.
The Arrival of Wang
Italy. Dir: Antonio Manetti, Marco Manetti. 80 mins.
Unable to decline a substantial cash offer for her services, Gaia reluctantly accepts her clandestine assignment, which requires her to be blindfolded for her own security. Ushered into a darkened room in an underground government bunker, Gaia is asked to sit (still blindfolded) at a table opposite the subject of her translation – a mysterious “Mr. Wang.”
Inspector Curti then prompts Gaia to elicit from Mr. Wang the reason for his unexpected arrival in Rome. As Curti’s interrogation methods become increasingly hostile, Gaia demands that her blindfold be removed and the lights turned up, only to find that the quietly-spoken ‘Chinese man’ in front of her is, in fact, an alien. And a slimly, tentacled one at that. He’s shackled to a cold metal seat in a stark room under the watchful eye of an armed guard.
Gaia is horrified – first by Mr. Wang’s distinctly alien visage, then, more so, at the shameful manner in which this unique and timid visitor is being treated by her government. Mr. Wang is adamant that he comes in peace on a mission of “cultural exchange,” and it’s not long before the liberal Gaia begins admonishing Curti for his total disregard for human rights, pleading for the parched captive to have a sip of water and to be freed from his shackles. But Curti won’t budge, insisting that Mr. Wang, despite his gentle and courteous manner, is a grave threat to national security.
Things go from bad to worse for the poor Mr. Wang as he endures not only psychological but also physical torture in a prolonged effort to divulge his true agenda on Earth. At one point, Gaia even sneaks off to phone Amnesty International to inform them of the crimes unfolding beneath the Roman streets, and we want desperately for her call to be answered.
It may have been written as an allegory of Earthly foreign politics, but The Arrival of Wang raises interesting exopolitical questions: Would aliens have human rights? Should they? What would it take for non-human extraterrestrials (or any extraterrestrials, for that matter) to gain our trust? Are all potential alien races deceptive and invasive, as Hollywood so often assumes?
Intelligently scripted and powerfully acted, The Arrival of Wang has a brilliant premise, and one that directors the Manetti brothers (Antonio and Marco) deliver on until a most unwelcome last-minute twist that, rather than daring to subvert our inherent fear of ‘the Other’, cynically plays to it, imparting to the viewer a message that’s just plain abhorrent. Shame. A Hollywood remake is already in the works.
Robbie Graham is the editor of silverscreensaucers.com, which is dedicated to news, commentary and articles on Hollywood’s UFO movies. He has been interviewed about UFOs and the politics of Hollywood for BBC Radio, Coast to Coast AM, Canal+ TV and Vanity Fair, among others. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications including The Guardian, New Statesman, Filmfax, Fortean Times, Paranormal Magazine, Adbusters and the peer-reviewed journal of North American Studies, 49th Parallel. Robbie is currently writing a book on the subject of UFOs & Hollywood, titled: Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies.
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