By Robbie Graham
The movie "Battle of Los Angeles opens March 11
For the purposes of this article we can define a ‘UFO movie’ as any motion picture that taps directly into any aspect of UFO mythology or notably draws inspiration from UFOlogical literature, incorporating into its plot references to frequently debated UFOlogical phenomena, events and locales, as well as specialised UFOlogical terminology. With this definition in mind, it’s safe to say that the first decade of the new millennium was witness to the release a dizzying array of Hollywood UFO movies.
Of course, flying saucers have always sold well at the box-office – from the Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Independence Day (1996) and beyond – but the decade past saw an explosion in the popularity of the UFO subgenre with such Hollywood fare as Signs (2002), Men in Black 2 (2002), Dreamcatcher (2003), The Forgotten (2004), War of the Worlds (2005), Chicken Little (2005), Altered (2006), Slither (2006), Transformers (2007), The Day the Earth Stood Still remake (2008), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), The Objective (2008) Race to Witch Mountain (2009), Monsters vs. Aliens (2009), Aliens in the Attic (2009), Knowing (2009), The Fourth Kind (2009), Planet 51 (2009), and Skyline (2010), to name but a few. With major TV series such as the recently re-booted V (2009-) and Spielberg’s Taken (2002) added to the mix, audiences stood little chance against what amounted to a full-scale alien invasion of our popular culture.
But the invasion did not end when the decade did as 2011 also has begun with an extraterrestrial boom at the box-office. With the Brit comedy Paul and the Spielberg production I Am Number Four kicking-off the year, and with Battle: Los Angeles and Mars Needs Moms released in US cinemas this week, 2011 will see the release of numerous UFO movies, including the post-apocalyptic The Darkest Hour, the NASA moon conspiracy chiller Apollo 18, a remake of The Thing, the low budget horror Area 51, and, with Spielberg acting as producer: Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Cowboys and Aliens, Super 8, and the epic alien invasion series Falling Skies. Looking farther afield, 2012 will bring Men in Black 3 (Spielberg again), the ‘Navy vs. aliens’ actioner, Battleship (2012), and the NASA black-ops thriller Dark Moon (noticing a sinister moon theme developing?), while 2013 promises the paranoid alien conspiracy thriller, Umbra (2013).
Debate has rattled on for years among UFO researchers as to precisely what impact – if any – Hollywood has on popular perceptions of UFOs. Do UFO movies serve to fictionalise the phenomenon for audiences, or to actualise it? There is an argument to be made that Hollywood entertainment may actually serve both functions simultaneously. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard suggested that “simulation threatens the difference between true and false, between real and imaginary.” In the case of the Hollywood UFO movie this is true now more than ever, as cinematic simulations of UFOlogical history have all but consumed through the process of replication the history itself – just as humans were consumed and replicated as ‘pod people’ in genre classics such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). The blurring of true and false, real and imaginary within the context of that most fantastical of genres – science-fiction – engenders popular acceptance of the UFO as just that: a fictional cinematic construct with little or no grounding in lived historical reality.
The complexities of this fictionalisation dynamic were crystallised for me unexpectedly several years ago while in casual conversation with a friend who had no particular interest in the UFO subject. When I asked her: “have you heard of men in black?” she replied instantly: “you mean the film? Of course, everyone’s seen Men in Black!” To my friend, men in black were a cinematic creation and nothing more, and certainly they had no counterparts in the world outside of the cinema. Like most people, my friend had been completely unaware of the historical reality of the ‘men in black’ phenomenon – a reality documented in FBI files dating back to the 1950s. For the UFOlogically uninitiated masses, then, a significant chapter in UFO literature – thanks to its adoption, adaptation and projection by Hollywood – had been fictionalised in spectacular fashion.
But while cinema may fictionalise the UFO phenomenon in the mind of the viewer, so too, paradoxically, may it actualise it. The philosopher Walter Benjamin recognised cinema for its “unique faculty to express by natural means and with incomparable persuasiveness all that is fairylike, marvellous, supernatural [and, we might add, alien],” and the artist Valie Export speaks of films as “expansions of our structures of time and space, of our experiential structures... they are expansions of our reality and our independent consciousness.” Through cinema, Export suggests, “the past is made visible, space and time can be transported... the boundaries between artificial and natural reality, between actual and possible reality... between man and object are transcended.” The actualising power of the image is not to be underestimated, for, as was observed by radical thinker Guy Debord, “where the real world changes into simple images [as it does in today’s visual culture], the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour [or, indeed, belief].”
Although an assumption prevails that cinema audiences recognise with crystal clarity the difference between fact and fantasy, fictional and actual, spectacle and reality, Debord suggested that our “lived reality is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle [the spectacle in this case being cinema; specifically, the collective image of the extraterrestrial]”; in turn, “reality rises up within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real.” Similarly, art historian John Moffitt notes that in today’s visual culture, “the image matters more than the object, in fact, much more so than mere objective truth”: the image replaces the truth – it is the truth, it is reality.
Whether cinema serves to fictionalise the UFO phenomenon, actualise it, or both, one thing is clear: what was true in the 20th Century holds true in the 21st: Hollywood does not so much inform UFOlogy as UFOlogy informs Hollywood. Truly original ideas – or at least original takes on existing ideas – in the UFO subgenre, or in any genre for that matter, are rare in American cinema. Inevitably, then, in the new millennium, as ever, Hollywood continues to rely on UFOlogical literature for its inspiration, and never before has the industry’s parasitic reliance upon UFOlogy been more evident, nor the blurring of UFO fact and fantasy more sophisticated. To demonstrate these points, let’s take a look at selected UFO movies from the past few years.
Filling the Gaps in Our knowledge
In 2003 director Joe Dante’s Loony Toons Back in Action mixed live action and animation to bring Warner Bros.’ classic cartoon characters to new audiences in the 21st century. In a pivotal scene, the film’s human protagonists (played by Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman) along with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck stumble across a Top Secret military base in the Nevada desert where they see live alien creatures sealed in giant glass jars; the self-reflexive twist here, though, is that all of these specimens are iconic ‘monsters’ or characters from science-fiction cinema and television: the eponymous Robot Monster and the Man from Planet X; Daleks from Doctor Who; a Mutant from This Island Earth; and Warner Bros.’ very own Marvin the Martian. The odd one out alongside these fantastical celluloid creations is a typical alien ‘Grey’ from UFO-lore stretched out on a medical table; this supposedly fact-based rendering effectively fictionalised by its association with the line-up of schlock Hollywood creatures that precedes it.
“So, this is Area 51, right, the secret military base where they keep the aliens?” asks Bugs Bunny, to which a scientist (played by Joan Cusack) replies: “No, Area 51 is actually a paranoid fantasy we concocted to hide the true identity of this facility.” Behind the characters, a bold red sign clearly reads: “AREA 52: KEEPING THINGS FROM THE AMERICAN PEOPLE SINCE 1947.” This short but memorable scene demonstrates that the idea of Area 51 today as a tangibly real, UFO-related facility is ridiculed not only through film texts (as a natural effect of cinema’s fictionalising power), but within them also, as if to prove that Hollywood, too, is in on the joke.
In a 2008 interview, director Joe Dante explained to me that the decision to call the base “Area 52” in his film was purely a comedic one, apparently unaware that a site bearing this name really does exist. Located in the Nevada desert approximately 70 miles northwest of Area 51, the Tonopah Test Range is designated by the US Department of Energy as “Area 52,” and, like its infamous sister site, it has long been a testing ground for Top Secret military technologies, including the F-117A Nighthawk, more commonly known as the Stealth Fighter.
According to Dante, his film’s corporate overseers attempted to have the Area 52 scene removed in its entirety; Warner Bros.’ concerns were not political, said Dante, but artistic: “There was pressure to take the scene out of the picture, but it was because the studio thought the monsters were stupid, it wasn’t because they had any issues with Area 51.” When I told Dante that the Pentagon had denied its cooperation to Independence Day in 1996 due in part to the film’s Area 51 plotline, he replied: “Well the cat’s out of the bag, I’m afraid; I mean it’s a little late [for the Pentagon] to be worrying about that – this thing [Area 51] has entered folklore.” Indeed it has, and Dante can now count himself among the small group of filmmakers who have helped push America’s most enigmatic military base firmly and forever into folkloric territory.
Area 51 can easily be considered within the framework of hyperreality, as a hyperreal media construct. According to cultural theorist John Storey, “In the realm of the hyperreal, the distinction between simulation and the ‘real’ implodes; the real and the imaginary continually collapse into each other.” The result, Storey suggests, is that “reality and simulation are experienced as without difference,” and, moreover, that “simulations can often be experienced as more real than the real itself.” Cinematic simulations of Area 51 are, to most people, assuredly more real than the place itself, which is so remote in its desert locale, so far removed from prying eyes, as to be virtually non-existent. Filmmaker Ken Russell has noted that “Hollywood fills the gaps in our knowledge of the world”; no more so is this true as than with our “knowledge” of Area 51.
Down to Earth
Also in 2003, director Lawrence Kasdan’s Dreamcatcher (adapted from the Steven King novel) drew inspiration from the murkier annals of UFO-lore. In the film, an elite UFO crash/retrieval unit codenamed ‘Blue Boy’ has been operating secretly for decades to secure and capture downed alien spacecraft around the world; naturally, the aliens are hostile and so the unit’s secrecy is justified on the familiar grounds of ‘National Security.’ Most cinema-goers likely will be oblivious to the fact that the film’s fictional project “Blue Boy” is actually inspired by its one-time real life equivalents, Blue Fly and Moon Dust – Air Force intelligence projects whose personnel were employed “on a quick reaction basis to recover or perform field exploitation of Unidentified Flying Objects.” Beyond this vague official description, however, and outside of a handful of declassified Air Force documents which mention Moondust and Blue Fly in the context of historical efforts to retrieve downed celestial objects around the world, little information is available publicly concerning these mysterious Air Force units, and it was mainly through Sgt. Clifford Stone that projects Blue Fly and Moon Dust entered the UFO debate. In September 2000, Stone told Steven Greer’s Disclosure Project: “In short, under Moon Dust and under Blue Fly, we have recovered alien debris not of this Earth... we saw living and dead bodies of entities that were not born on this planet. We have contact with aliens not originating from some foreign country but from some other solar system. And I have been a party to that.”
Reality Masked and Perverted
Disney’s live action family film Race to Witch Mountain is perhaps one of the most significant films of its decade in terms of UFOlogical content. Working within the narrative constraints of the film’s previous incarnation, Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), director Andy Fickman – a self-confessed UFO ‘buff’ born and raised in Roswell, New Mexico – took pride in infusing his remake with as many elements as possible drawn directly from UFO literature. In a 2010 interview, Fickman explained to me that the majority of the film’s UFO-related content had been shaped by him from the outset.
When Fickman first received the script from Disney it had been “more of a comedy,” but the director felt the material should be treated seriously and wanted to make use of events, debates and terminology featured in recent UFO literature: “I’m willing to do this movie,” Fickman told Disney, “but I want to ground it in as much reality as I possibly can.” To this end, Fickman personally schooled his cast – including Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino – in UFO history: “I would spend time with my actors literally just going through ‘UFO 101 – we’d watch every DVD that was out there, every documentary; I would give them book, upon book, upon book.” Fickman noted that:
In UFO mythology – in terms of literature, in terms of research – there begins to become a language; people in the UFO movement would easily speak of Roswell and have very clear ideas of what that means, what an ‘EBE’ means – all of this terminology we were kind of slipping in... even the wormhole theory of travel and how someone could visit us from so many light years away – that was all stuff that we were repositioning for our own mythology and storytelling, but all based on previous research.
The film opens with a dramatic, rapid montage of real UFO-related newspaper reports, as well as famous UFO footage and photographs. Towards the end of the montage, however, Fickman subtly edits in faux newspaper reports relating to fictional events from his own film.Following this montage, we see military personnel in a NORAD command-style facility monitoring a UFO as it plummets to Earth. Soon after, we are introduced to the story’s primary antagonist – Henry Burke (Ciaran Hinds) – a specialist in UFO crash/retrieval scenarios who carries with him a thick ring-bound document displaying, in bold lettering, the words: “PROJECT MOON DUST: CLASSIFIED.” Project Moon Dust appealed to Fickman because “It was coming new to the [UFO] mythology.” “It’s fun for me to talk to you,” Fickman told me, “because you’re somebody who gets when he [the character] is carrying that [Project Moondust] folder you can really appreciate that there’s some historical truth to that, or at the very least some historical reporting of it, whereas to a lot of people it was just a prop.” Such minute attention to detail was a bid on Fickman’s part to “engage the UFO community.” In a scene in which the characters attend a Las Vegas UFO convention, the director went so far as to populate the set with real UFO researchers and enthusiasts: “almost every extra in there was someone from the UFO community,” said Fickman; among these people most notably – and visibly – are Whitley Strieber (whose 1985 book Communion was largely responsible for popularising debates surrounding alien abductions), Dr. Roger Leir (a medical doctor famous for specialising in the removal of alleged alien implants from abductees) and William J. Birnes (editor of UFO Magazine).
Although Fickman recognises that his film is first and foremost an entertainment product, he is hopeful that it may also hold some educational value with regard to UFOs and encourage wider acceptance of the fundamental reality of the phenomenon (this ‘reality’ being that UFOs, regardless of their nature and origin, exist, and are treated seriously by numerous governments). Ironically, however, by grounding his ‘science-fiction’ film so deeply in UFOlogical literature, by incorporating so many references to documented UFOlogical theories and events, the director arguably has further muddied the waters on a subject he hopes one day will be treated seriously by mainstream science and culture. In this regard, Jean Baudrillard would have observed that Fickman’s film actually “masks and perverts the basic reality” of the UFO phenomenon.
The Line Dissolves
Although Fickman and Dante’s blurring of boundaries between UFO fact and fantasy was largely unintentional, a trend is currently emerging in Hollywood that sees filmmakersseek actively to dissolve these boundaries through the utilisation of veritie techniques and wilfully deceptive viral marketing campaigns. The Fourth Kind (2009), for example, was purported by Universal studios to be a true story “based on actual case studies” from the files of Dr. Abigail Tyler – a psychologist who had collected disturbing testimonies from the town of Nome, Alaska, where numerous residents allegedly had vanished since the 1960s. Archive news clippings from various Alaskan newspapers were presented by Universal online, painting a picture of a town historically plagued by UFO sightings and apparent alien abductions.
The film itself was presented as a docudrama featuring “real” footage documenting the events in Nome alongside dramatic reconstructions with Hollywood actors.In the opening scene, actress Milla Jovovich, looking directly into the camera, tells the audience: I’m actress Milla Jovovich and I will be portraying Dr. Abigail Tyler... every scene in this movie is supported by archive footage.” At various points throughout the film the ‘dramatic reconstructions’ and footage of the ‘real events’ are presented simultaneously in split-screen form in order that the viewer can clearly distinguish between the two; the irony being, of course, that none of it is real. Not only was the “real” footage fabricated in its entirety, but so too were all of the Alaskan news clippings used by Universal in its marketing campaign. Dr. Abigail Tyler never existed; neither did anyone else portrayed in the film. When this elaborate Hollywood sham was revealed, Universal was served with a lawsuit from the Alaska Press Club, to whom the studio agreed to pay $20,000 for undermining the credibility of the various Alaskan papers whose names had been exploited by the studio.
Also working from a $10 million budget, the independent alien invasion film Skyline (2010) similarly incorporated real news stories into its marketing campaign. This time the stories weren’t fabricated. The trailer for the film begins with bold text against a cosmic backdrop reading: “On August 28, 2009, NASA sent a message into space farther than we ever thought possible in an effort to reach extraterrestrial life.” This is true. On the date specified, the Australian government, through its “Hello from Earth” science initiative, and with the help of NASA, sent some 26,000 (carefully vetted) messages from the public to the extra-solar Earth-like planet Gliese 581d in a single transmission. This proactive approach to alien contact known as METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) differs from the traditional passive approach favoured by SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which devotes its efforts simply to listening for any potential incoming alien signals. The METI approach is controversial for the reason that some scientists consider it unwise to knowingly alert our presence in the galaxy to any potentially technologically superior civilizations. In April 2010, Professor Stephen Hawking made international headlines by stating his firm belief that humanity should seek to avoid extraterrestrial contact: "To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational," Hawking said, but added, ominously, "If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the American Indians.” Hawking suggested that aliens "might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet” and would perhaps be “looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”
Skylinemade use of Hawking’s comments in its trailer, which shows well known American newsreaders, including Dan Rather, citing the renowned physics professor regarding the potential dangers of extraterrestrial contact. The trailer then cuts to panoramic views of an American city being obliterated by dozens of the “massive ships” to which Hawking had referred in real life. Against a black screen, again referring to Hawking’s warning, bold text then reads: “Maybe we should have listened.”
A thoroughly documented historical UFOlogical event is at the heart of Battle: Los Angeles (2011), the marketing for which effectively blurred fact and fantasy in its prominent use of a real photograph of a saucer-shaped Unidentified Flying Object which in 1942 hovered silently for several hours over Los Angeles, drawing heavy artillery fire from the US Army to no apparent effect. The incident resulted in the deaths of six civilians and is known to UFO researchers as ‘The Battle of Los Angeles.’
Because cinematic texts – especially those in the sci-fi genre – are seen as forms of public fantasy, Hollywood’s longstanding parasitic reliance upon historical UFOlogical discourse as inspiration for its fictional UFO-themed movies arguably has been the primary contributing factor in the blurring of UFO fact and fantasy in the public mind, and thus to the deligitimisation of the UFO phenomenon in mainstream culture. At the same time, in light of cinema’s remarkable capacity to transcend the boundaries “between actual and possible reality,” this very same reliance may also have contributed to the actualisation of UFOs and extraterrestrials. Hollywood has saturated us with extraterrestrial imagery and familiarised us with UFOlogical concepts and terminology to the extent that UFOs and aliens are now permanent fixtures in our cultural landscape, occupying the realm of our cinematically expanded reality, of our hyperreality – a realm where “reality and simulation are experienced as without difference.” In this sense, Hollywood could very well be serving to acclimatize us to UFO reality, as some in the UFO research field have suggested. Whether this acclimatization is the result of a natural cultural process driven by autonomous Hollywood creatives savvy to the box-office appeal of the UFO, or whether political forces embedded within the industry (such as the CIA) have conspired to pursue an agenda of sophisticated UFO perception management and gradual disclosure, the impact on popular perceptions of the UFO phenomenon is the same.
Some sixty years after Mikel Conrad’s The Flying Saucer (1950) landed in Hollywood as the industry’s first fully fledged UFO movie, the dynamic between UFOlogy and UFO cinema today brings to mind Baudrillard’s allegorical musings on the Borges tale “where the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory” and where, eventually, the “double ends up being confused with the real thing.” Applying this allegory in the context of this discussion, if the UFO phenomenon itself is the territory: as a vast and largely unexplored landscape of nevertheless factually documented historical reality, then UFO cinema is the map: as a simulacrum so detailed as to be indistinguishable from the events it has simulated.
Robbie Graham is a full-time doctoral candidate at the University of Bristol for a PhD examining Hollywood’s historical representations of UFOs and extraterrestrial visitation. He has broadcast on BBC Radio, Coast to Coast AM and Canal+ TV and has written for a variety of publications including The Guardian, New Statesman, Filmfax, Fortean Times, Adbusters and the peer-reviewed journal 49th Parallel. He can be contacted through his blog, Silver Screen Saucers.