FANTASTIC FEST 2023: UFO SWEDEN is a Soaring Scandinavian Sci-Fi Wonder

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

The latest from Sweden’s Crazy Pictures is a reverential retro action flick that resonates with the whole family

In 1988, young Denise’s father abruptly goes missing after he makes a breakthrough correlating the weather and gravity phenomena of their small Swedish town Norrköping with the possible existence of UFOs. Almost a decade later, Denise (Inez Dahl Torhaug) is a rebellious young teen in foster care with more than a flair for tech and hacking–leading her into frequent clashes with the authorities. Tomi (Sara Shirpey), the officer who first picked up Denise after her father’s disappearance, tries to protect Denise from anything that’ll lead her down a bad road. When a Saab possibly belonging to Denise’s father falls from the sky into a rural barn, Denise’s path leads to her father’s old UFO organization, UFO Sweden. They’re a lovable ragtag group led by Lennart (Jesper Barkselius), a former Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI) researcher fired after providing Denise’s father with the confidential research that eventually led to his disappearance. Denise and the misfits of UFO Sweden must confront their shared past as they investigate new leads that may not just reveal the fate of Denise’s father, but the existence of life beyond Earth. But SMHI and Tomi have other plans for Denise and the group…

Many recent American studios have tried to recapture the wide-eyed wonder of Amblin, Joe Dante, or Richard Donner features of the 80s–but many of these projects, from Super 8 to Stranger Things, shortchange a story from emotionally connecting with their audience–leaning on their retro setting and modern VFX as a fatal crutch rather than a springboard for something new or meaningful. UFO Sweden, however, supercharges its story with an unflinching sense of heart, wonder, and importantly consequence–giving its characters an unerring drive to explore the unexplainable, with their actions fueled by an emotional heft that leads to even deeper reactions by the world around them. Film collective Crazy Pictures creates a modern sci-fi tale that wears its inspirations on its sleeve–yet never ceases to be blazingly original from start to finish. 

The shining center of UFO Sweden is a fierce and funny lead performance by Torhaug, whose Denise turns the heartbreak of losing her Dad into a journey of self-discovery: first by rediscovering the passions for exploration that connected Denise to her father, then following that path to the found family she desperately needs. Once her mind’s set on something, Denise wreaks whatever havoc she needs to to achieve it–something that alienates society at large, but are virtues prized by the reclusive outcasts of her father’s former group. The ensemble work done here is wondrous–with the five other members of UFO Sweden each either winning over the audience or quickly earning our suspicion as they get closer to or lightyears away from the proof they’ve always sought after. Karl-Saucer (Niklas Kvarnbo Jönsson) is never without a trusty bit of Aurelite he thinks will block signals from aliens; Töna (Isabelle Kyed) and Mats (Mathias Lithner) are the studious yet stubborn muscle of the group, with Töna perpetually with a cigarette in mouth; and Gunnar (Håkan Ehn) seems more interested in searching for a reason to keep the group in their basement office with coffee and tarts than actually getting out into the big unknown. Barkselius as leader Lennart, however, is a towering, wounded man who can’t help but try to find something in the skies no matter how much that search has harmed him in the past–with Denise acting as both an opportunity to change things but also as a totem to how much he hasn’t. All of these actors, however, are united in their addictive enthusiasm to find the truth that’s supposedly out there–which easily becomes infectious to audiences as their quest teases out some pretty stellar interstellar proof. 

The journey there isn’t a safe one in the slightest for the UFO Sweden crew. Aside from police chases and explosive property destruction, there’s some damn effective emotional reckoning at play. Denise and the collective investigative team have some pretty buried trauma they need to confront, and everyone’s attempts to do so range from cathartic to toxic. Other supporting characters, namely Shirpey’s Tomi, have fantastically antagonistic and potentially disastrous arcs coming from places of otherwise good-natured intentions. Where other films might play things safe with tidier resolutions or redeeming character arcs, UFO Sweden tempers its wide-eyed joy with a mature approach that acknowledges how much work–from investigation to reconciliation–still needs to be done. Along the way, it’s a film that satisfyingly and thrillingly rewards the explorative spirit, creating found families, and making peace with the past.

The film’s special effects sequences, created through some serious homegrown ingenuity by the Crazy Pictures collective, put many bigger budget pictures to shame. Sure, we get plenty of the Abrams/Spielberg lens flares throughout, but the sparingly-used special effects sequences are jaw-droppingly practical, from the opening barn crash to a finale inspired by the best of Contact and Interstellar. They feel so tactile in ways that modern Star Wars or Indiana Jones films just can’t be when it comes to blankets of green-screen action, which in turn gives the actors at the center of the chaos genuine visuals to react to. 

The resulting wonder is wholly genuine–for us as much as it is for them. It’s the thrill of that chase that makes for some of my favorite Fantastic Fest titles–from 2019’s The Vast of Night to 2021’s Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes. It was revealed in our screening’s intro that UFO Sweden was meant to premiere at last year’s festival but sadly wasn’t done in time. From the thrilling story, captivating characters, and dazzling sci-fi visual wizardry on display, this handmade epic was undoubtedly worth the wait.

UFO Sweden had its U.S. Premiere at Fantastic Fest 2023. A 2024 release from XYZ Films is in the works.

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