Monday 13 May 2013


Director: Dominic Burns
Writer: Dominic Burns
Producers: Dominic Burns, Tim Major, Andy Thompson, Alain Wildberger
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Simon Phillips, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s daughter
Country: UK
Year of release: 2012
Reviewed from: UK DVD 

This is a slightly unusual situation in that I watched this film on Friday; I’m writing the review on Sunday; and inbetween I attended a director’s panel where the filmmaker discussed some of his experiences. I don’t know if this will make a difference to what I write. I’m just disclosing the information up front in the interests of transparency.

So: UFO. Not a great title, partly because it has already been used for two other slices of British screen SF, one much better than this, one much worse. Dominic Burns’ movie has no connection with the magnificent 1970 TV series starring Ed Bishop and George Sewell (trivial point: my current line manager’s mother played Lt. Nina Barry under one of the purple wigs). Nor, thank Christ, does it have any connection with Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown’s notorious 1993 sci-fi ‘comedy’. Still, it’s a title that I would have avoided. [The film was subsequently retitled Alien Uprising for its US release, which really isn't much of an improvement. - MJS]

Burns said, at yesterday’s panel at Derby Quad, that he was annoyed at the way the film was marketed, with the packaging making it out to be in the vein of Independence Day and District 9. But, to be honest, what did he expect? A damn great alien spaceship hovers in the sky, conforming to the modern trend of being basically a spinning top shape with lots of wee proby things sticking out from underneath. And in the third act, lots of little fighter spaceships whizz around the sky blasting at all and sundry on the ground. One can see that what he has aimed for is a story about people and how they are affected by the aliens’ arrival, somewhat in the vein of Gareth Edwards’ superb Monsters. But if you put whizzy spaceships and explosions in your film, even a little bit, they’ll end up as the focus of the trailer. Of course they will.

Some people were disappointed by Monsters - inarguably one of the very best BHR movies of the past few years - just because it wasn’t actually about monsters. Similarly, you are bound to piss some people off if you make a film called UFO where the central focus of the plot isn’t a flying saucer, however good your actual movie. Just saying.

The effects in UFO are very good indeed, showing what can be done now on a tiny budget (Monsters had a low budget, but it was still several times what Burns and co. had). What impressed me most about the effects however was not the CGI spaceships themselves, nor even the adroit way they were composited into the live action shots, but that (the trailer notwithstanding) they are not the film’s main focus or selling point. What they are is good enough to support - and not distract from - the actual story.

This actual story concerns three mates: Robin (Simon Phillips: Jack Says plus sequels, Jesus vs the Messiah, The Reverend, Kill Keith - giving the best performance I have seen from him to date) is an ordinary sort of bloke who proposes to his girlfriend Dana (Maya Grant) but almost immediately has to help out his two pals who have gotten into a fight with nightclub bouncers. Michael (Sean ‘Son of Pierce’ Brosnan, looking more like his dad every day) is a handy fighter, an elite soldier back from serving in Afghanistan, while Vincent (Jazz Lintott: Strippers vs Werewolves, Airborne) is a sort of comedy relief who started the trouble by drunkenly hitting on a girl. Michael, who has a rippling six-pack and spends much of the film with his shirt off, has been more successful, pulling an American hottie named Carrie (Jean Claude Van Damme’s daughter, Bianca Bree). These five, who all end up back at Robin’s house, are our main protagonists.

Come the morning and a widespread power cut has somehow also affected all communications including radio, TV, mobile phones and landlines. Robin’s neighbour’s wife, who works for some shadowy Government department, has been called down to London (somehow). Eventually, the aforementioned damn great spaceship turns up and hangs in the air in exactly the same way that bricks don’t. Our quintet decide that they need to stock up on essential supplies and head into town, where they find lots of other people have had the same idea.

This is the first scene where the film starts to come undone. On the one hand, Burns (who has a small role as assistant manager of the supermarket) shows how the need for supplies leads to bullying and intimidation; there’s a nice scene of the gang trying to stock up in the deserted supermarket without being seen from outside, which escalates to violence once the doors open. On the other hand, since the budget won’t stretch to replacing a large window (or presumably the health and safety aspects of smashing a large window with a bunch of extras standing next to it) we have to believe that aggressive, intimidatory people argue and fight while waiting patiently for the shop to open, rather than just lobbing a brick through the glass.

What Burns is trying to do here is explore the breakdown of society under the imminent threat of an alien invasion, with no emergency services or law enforcement available (we are never told what has happened to all the police). It’s a not dissimilar approach to something like The Zombie Diaries or The Eschatrilogy, showing that the biggest threat when civilisation breaks down is not the cause of the breakdown - whether that is ETs or the undead or whatever - but other people and their own over-riding, short-term aims of self-preservation. And in all fairness, UFO does this pretty well, although you can see why a punter suckered into buying this on the strength of a poster or trailer which promises intergalactic mayhem might be disappointed.

Truth be told, the last act does contain a fair amount of intergalactic mayhem as little fighter spaceships whizz around and blast things but this is not enough for those expecting Independence Day 2 while at the same time being an unwanted intrusion for those of us enjoying the dynamics of the surviving group, which grows to include a teenage girl (Emma Buckley) and a couple of squaddies (Andrew Shim: Dead Man’s Shoes, Fungus the Bogeyman; and Peter Barrett: Jack Falls). Relationships change, building on clues and hints and subtexts from the earlier, quieter part of the film. Characters kill, characters die, characters are revealed to be more or less than we (and other characters) thought. This is all good stuff.

Characterisation is UFO’s big strength: a combination of a good script, solid direction and sincere performances from all involved. So it’s a shame that so much of the third act is devoted to things blowing up, even though the blowing-up stuff is also very well directed. I can see that there needed to be a certain amount of blowing-up stuff to bring the situation to a crisis point but it does rather dominate proceedings and distracts from the character stuff. What I can’t see as necessary are the other third-act ideas suddenly thrown into the mix about one of our original quintet and the teenage girl, which relate to the aliens themselves and suddenly turn our small band of ordinary Joes into significant elements of the alien invasion.

This is too little, too late. If UFO had been a big Hollywood blockbuster, this out-of-nowhere subplot would have been the main story. If the film had the courage of its convictions (as Monsters did, for example) it wouldn’t have been necessary at all. It adds nothing to the film except some climactic unresolved confusion over what precisely is going on.

While I’m at it, there was also no need for the confusing splash-panel prologue which is in fact two unconnected scenes from later in the film, something which only becomes apparent much, much later when the scenes finally arrive, after the audience have spent an hour and a half wondering “This is all well and good but what was that first bit before the nightclub scenes all about?” Maybe this was another imposition of the distributors.

Also extraneous to anything except the marketing are Bianca Bree’s daddy, the Muscles from Brussels himself, making his first appearance in a British genre movie, and Sir Sean Pertwee, making his eightieth or so (and rounding out the triptych of acting dynasties on show here). Pertwee plays a mad tramp with mystic sigils marked on his face in biro, who mutters warnings. He pops up a few times proclaiming “24:36! 24:36!” which later turns out to have significance although we never find out the meaning of that significance. Unfortunately, it sounds like he’s just fantasising about Gina Lollobrigida or Jane Russell, endlessly repeating: “36-24-36...”

And JCVD? His character is called George and the gang decide they have to go see him because he will be able to help them but I’m damned if I could work out who George is or why he matters. Van Damme pops up occasionally in little solo scenes so short they are almost interstitial and it looks for all the world like he came over for a day and shot all his stuff in the corner of one room. Later, when the gang arrive at George’s house, they converse with him in this same room, shot-reverse-shot, and it is made even more obvious that he was filmed separately from the other actors and the conversation has been created in the edit suite.

So it’s a bit of a shock when we do finally see the other cast in the same shot as Van Damme and realise he was in the same room as them after all. Very odd.

UFO contains enough fear - from both extraterrestrial and very terrestrial sources - to qualify as a BHR film as well as being part of, well I don’t know if there is a British Sci-Fi Revival. I’m not sure there was ever really a British Sci-Fi genre to revive. But a number of explicitly science-fictional UK features have appeared in recent years, including Monsters (obviously), Waiting for Dawn, Dreamscape, Evil Aliens, The Planet, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel and Whatever Happened to Pete Blaggit (plus Tristan Versluis’ eagerly awaited Omni). UFO is another title to add to this list which, who knows, may eventually become a trend.

Taking the long view, UFO doesn’t really work overall but succeeds despite itself on the strength of its parts, more than their sum: the characterisation, the effects and also the action sequences. Some of these are quite magnificent, incorporating highly effective use of selected slo-mo, the undoubted highlight being a stand-off between Brosnan’s character and the only policeman we ever see (who may not be a policeman), played by Joey Ansah (Underground, Attack the Block) who also choreographed all the fights. Less effective are lots of hyper-edited flashbacks, little half-second shots of Robin and his mates which are, I think, supposed to offer us clues to their back-story and hence to their characters, but which are simply too brief and fragmentary to register.

Anyone seeking a clear-cut resolution or explanation of What Is Going On will be as disappointed as those viewers expecting Will Smith and Bruce Willis to team up and kick alien butt. The ending, which draws on both the last-act out-of-nowhere revelations and the distractingly pointless prologue, is satisfyingly bleak but head-scratchingly unclear. I have read at least one review claiming that there are actually two different alien races in the film but, if so, that doesn’t come across at all.

This is Burns’ fourth film as director, following the single-take Cut and a brace of Jonathan Sothcott titles: BHR entry Airborne and comedy How to Stop Being a Loser. He is currently producing Owen Tooth’s debut feature Devil’s Tower, written by Quad programmer Adam Marsh, who moderated yesterday’s panel. (Tooth was in the audience, as was Brit-horror expert Darrell Buxton. The other panellists were actor Felix Dexter, who recently made his directorial debut with Wild Bill, and Tower Block helmer James Nunn, who was 1st AD for Burns on the Sothcott films, as well as 1st/2nd AD on a string of BHR titles back to Beyond the Rave. Jake West, Johannes Roberts and Paul Andrew Williams were all initially lined up for the event but had to pull out for various reasons.)

Also in the cast are Raji James (EastEnders, The Bill and the 1999 Doomwatch TV movie), Christian Howard (the boyfriend in Warrioress), Robert Stone (Burke and Hare, the awful Deaths of Ian Stone and a semi-regular on brilliant CBBC variety show The Slammer), the ever-busy Forbes KB (The Zombie King, A Day of Violence, Kung Fu Flid) and additional name value Julian Glover (also in Airborne) as the obligatory mad old bloke at a service station. Zara Phythian stunt-doubled Bianca Bree in some shots.

Andy Thompson (director of Kill Keith and The Scar Crow) is one of four credited producers and Kill Keith DP Luke Bryant handled the impressive digital photography. In fact quite a lot of the crew works on Kill Keith and/or the Jack trilogy and/or Airborne, including editor Richard Colton and production designer Felix Coles (who was also part of the art crew on Eldorado). Costume designer Zoe Howerska worked on The Reverend and Panic Button; Agnieszka Kukulka handled make-up and the score was provided by Leicester-born electronic composer/DJ Si Begg who has released stacks of records under a dozen or more names which presumably mean something to young people.

Konstantinos Koutsoliotas was the man responsible for the impressive VFX. Co-founder of the Melancholy Star effects house, Koutsoliotas won British Animation Awards in 2009 and 2010 and was nominated for a Scottish Bafta for his short film Celaphais. Graham Aikman and Kevin Draycott supervised the physical effects: their combined experience takes in Storage 24, Lesbian Vampire Killers, Hellboy, Blade II, GoldenEye, Death Machine, right back to The Lair of the White Worm and Paperhouse plus a number of films directed by Stuart St Paul who was stunt co-ordinator on UFO.

Enjoyable and ambitious, UFO is one of those films which, while it’s not as good as some people might have wanted it to be, nevertheless punches well above its weight. The fact that the whole thing was shot up the road in Derby (in August 2011) just makes it that little bit more remarkable. UFO played at Derby Quad for a week in December 2012 just ahead of its UK DVD release by Revolver, which counts as a domestic theatrical release in my book. Incredibly there was also a brief theatrical release in Japan in March 2013.

MJS rating: B+

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