Most movies inspired by the UFO phenomenon have been and remain B-grade, generic science fiction or horror (not that such artefacts aren’t without their abyssal significance, either), but recently, at least in my media bubble, richer, more thoughtful films have appeared, among them some that have received publicity, such as Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and others, less celebrated, that have slipped under the radar, namely Jason Stone’s At First Light and Ryan Eslinger’s UFO, which is understated, smart, and dramatically complex.
[I’m writing about Eslinger’s film from the point of view of someone who’s viewed it, so, if you haven’t and don’t want the whole plot revealed, read no further!]
The film begins with a UFO sighting over Cincinnati airport, inspired by the famous O’Hare International Airport sighting of 7 November 2006, which catches the attention of the film’s protagonist Derek (who witnessed a UFO as a small boy) and an FBI agent Franklin Ahls, who seems a one-man UFO investigations desk with the entire agency’s resources at his beck and call. The plot is driven, at the narrative level, by Derek’s (primarily mathematical) investigation into the sighting and the social fall-out of his actions and Ahls’ parallel investigation and suppression of the event, while, thematically, by the question (in its many senses) “Are we alone?”.
Despite the impression left by the trailer, the plot is much more cerebral than cloak-and-dagger, dealing for the most part with Dereck’s efforts to decode the message from the film’s titular UFO that he discovers in recordings of air traffic control communications during the sighting. One of the most delightful moments in this narrative arc is Dereck’s debunking of an official debunking of the sighting, which identifies the observed object as a small drone: the audience witnesses the process, diagrams, numbers and all, by which Dereck calculates the approximate diameter of an object “about the size of a dime held at arm’s length” hovering at about two hundred feet below that day’s cloud ceiling. The plot doesn’t have so much a heart as a brain, one cracking itself over the complex mathematics of the numerical message sent by the UFO’s pilots, the solution to which ultimately involves considerations drawn from the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and physical constants of, e.g., hydrogen. This is a gambit as daring as satisfying, evoking as it does some of the real, hard problems of putative communications with a technically advanced, nonhuman species.
Mathematics and physics do not lend themselves to the run-of-the-mill UFO cover-up movie, frustrating viewers with an insatiable appetite for that same old same old. Eslinger’s script is both more daring and more complex than that, delving into Dereck’s character as a way into even more profound thematic depths. Derek’s obsessiveness and mathematical genius render him a bit of a sociopath, causing him to betray his friends and inspiring his wearily understanding mathematics professor Dr. Hendricks to compare him to Thomas Edison at his worst. By the end of the film, the attentive, reflective viewer will likely be struck by the manifold irony in Dereck’s wondering if “we are alone.” At least twice, through brief flashbacks, Dereck’s lonely, if not traumatic, boyhood is revealed: his mother refused to believe him when he told her that he had witnessed strange lights in the sky, and it is suggested he was the only child of a single parent whose lives were materially precarious. He is able to attend university only because his high intelligence secured him a prestigious scholarship, but his selfish single-mindedness alienates him from those around him. Little wonder someone so isolated should wonder about being alone in the universe.
But the real thematic pay off of the film comes at the end, which has mystified or disappointed some reviewers. Franklin Ahl’s investigation into this and other UFO sightings is driven by a growing anxiety about the fate of humanity. Invoking a certain strain of SETI speculation about different levels of technical civilization, at one point during a meeting with a panel of scientists, he wonders out loud if “the eerie silence” SETI has met with is not caused by all civilizations’ self-destructing as they approach the threshold ours is. If, however, the UFOs he is chasing are indeed spacecraft from distant civilizations, then these have solved the problems that threaten to snuff ours out and learning to communicate with them might win us access to this direly needed information. When Dereck does decode the aliens’ message, which reveals the location of their next appearance, he witnesses the UFO and is immediately taken into custody by Ahls. The agent reveals that the aliens have been communicating in this way for some time and in increasingly complex ways, presenting problems whose solution seems to be leading along a path of research and discovery that imaginably leads to that know-how that saved them from the self-destruction that threatens us. Ahls recruits Dereck, who learns that we “are not alone”, in the literal sense that the universe is indeed (perhaps) inhabited by other technological intelligences, but also, unconsciously, that he is not alone in his obsessions, that finally he has found a place in this world.
But such an emotional resolution would be cheap if larger stakes were not in play. The Fine Structure Constant plays an important role throughout the film, right from its very beginning. At one point, discussing the constant with two scientists, it is suggested that the constant may in fact be the same throughout space, but not time. That the constant might be variable proves important to possibly solving the much more complex communications received from the aliens, which, in turn, suggests, though this is never spoken by any character, that the aliens are not from a distant point in space, but in time, namely our own future. Dereck, then, is representative of today’s youth whose ingenuity is required to solve the questions that lead to solving the problems that threaten our future. But not only that: that mathematicians make their breakthroughs only in their youth is a cliché invoked at least twice. However, when Dr. Hendricks gives him this spiel, he immediately contradicts her, supplying as many examples of older mathematicians who have made important contributions. Thus, the intelligence of all generations is presented as being up to the task of facing down the world-threatening problems that loom before us. None of us are “alone” in this world or what threatens it. Young, old(er), and even future generations have a stake in the game and a role to play.
Eslinger’s is a sly sleeper of a film because of how, like Villeneuve’s Arrival, it deploys the UFO as a material, weaving it together with emotional and social matters to address larger but no less related concerns. The result is, from this point of view, an original, refreshingly pleasant and emotionally satisfying movie. Within the larger context of the UFO phenomenon, however, it doesn’t quite escape one of the central and most compelling suppositions in the reception of the phenomenon, that our technical ingenuity, which got us into this perhaps suicidal mess, will be what gets us out. It does, nevertheless, leave one with a sense of hope.