16 April 2014

Area 52 movie seeks funding

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

Writer/director Rory Johnston is seeking funding through Kickstarter for a found footage sci-fi horror feature titled Area 52: The Actual Footage, which will draw liberally from UFOlogical literature and debate. This movie is not to be confused with the in-development Lorenzo di Bonaventua project Area 52, based on the comic book series of the same name.

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.


I spoke recently with Rory Johnston about the inspiration behind his movie and the impact he hopes it will have on audiences...

RG: To what extent will Area 52: The Actual Footage be informed by UFOlogy? 

RJ: The premise is that eight scientists and UFOlogists break into Area 52, which in real life is located 65 miles away from Area 51. The premise of our movie is that it’s here that the government’s alien archives are really stored. Area 51 is just a ruse – a distraction. What’s cool about this is that during the first part of the film as they’re driving out to Area 52 there’s a lot of debate going on between a scientist character, who doesn’t believe this stuff is going on, and a UFOlogist, who’s an expert in this stuff and who lays out a lot of really good documented information about an alien presence on Earth and the history of it and how it has all been covered up. After audiences have watched the movie they can go look this stuff up and find that it’s essentially true. So this gives the film a realism that goes beyond your average found-footage movie. We also have an experiencer/abductee character in the movie. She’s not fashioned after any one abductee, she’s fashioned after a lot of different experiences that I’ve read. I’ve put things together in a way that’s pretty cool and I’ve added what I think is a very interesting twist.

RG: You’re going down the viral route with your marketing, correct? 

RJ: Right. We’re doing a viral campaign which will allow people to look up the movie characters online, and those characters will be presented as real people – real UFOlogists, real scientists, with their own websites, Facebook pages and books that people can Google. So it will all look as though it’s real.

RG: So you’re seeking to blur the lines between fact and fantasy? 

Director Rory Johnston in his Area 52 vault
RJ: Yes. And the reason to do that is to really make it scary. It takes the fear to a new level if the audience believes what they’re watching is essentially real, or at least based on fact.

RG: This sounds like a passion project for you. Clearly you have a genuine interest in the UFO subject.

RJ: That is very true. I grew up with my mother; she was a member of several UFO groups, so we got the newsletters all the time and I read all the books. I’ve seen two UFOs in my life – both unexplainable to me, and so I find the entire subject completely fascinating.

RG: Should your movie come to fruition no doubt many in the UFO community will accuse you of being part of a Hollywood UFO conspiracy to acclimate and/or disinform about the UFO issue.

RJ: The truth of it is that Hollywood will make anything that it thinks will make money. That’s the big motivation in Hollywood: ‘can I make a buck?’ In our case we’re not out to make a ton of money. We’re not out there specifically trying to educate people, but I am hoping that this movie can open up the dialogue about UFOs, because the movie does include a lot of real information about the subject.

RG: Why the found footage approach?

RJ: Originally it was strictly for budget reasons, but it’s also because this particular style lends itself to the realistic feel we’re aiming for. That’s also why we have no stars in the movie. Currently we’re relying on the Kickstarter campaign because we couldn’t find financing through Hollywood studios because they fund movies based on who’s in your cast. But in order to maintain the illusion of reality we couldn’t have any recognizable faces in the cast, because that would immediately shatter the illusion. We have three actors lined-up so far and have done screen tests.

An abandoned Nevada prison will double for the Area 52 exteriors in the movie
RG: What’s your background in Hollywood?

RJ: I started writing back in the late 1970s and I’ve had several movies produced and scripts that I’ve sold. The Secret Agent Club was the first ‘kids as secret agents’ script out there, and then of course that was followed by Spy Kids and Agent Cody Banks, but I was the one who kinda kicked that off with The Secret Agent Club. I also did a movie called Prey of the Jaguar. I directed five music videos and I’ve been involved in a whole lot of theatre work. But this will be my first major motion picture directing job.

RG: Is the existence of alien life a cause for fear or for hope?

RJ: I think hope, not fear. Although a great majority of the Hollywood films lean towards fear. But I think the day we make open contact will be a great day in the history of mankind.

RG: To what extent do Hollywood UFO/alien-themed movies and TV shows influence popular expectations of potential alien life?

RJ: I think Hollywood is one of the most overriding influences in all aspects of life. People look to movies to know what else is out there in the world in general – different kinds of lives, cultures, etc. And so I think Hollywood has huge influence.

The cryo-chambers: concept art for Area 52: The Actual Footage

RG: Do Hollywood's UFO movies fictionalize the UFO phenomenon in the public mind, actualize it, or both?

RJ: I think it... gosh, that’s a good question! I think it fictionalizes it in the mind. I think people probably believe in UFOs less because of Hollywood... because of the outrageous take they have on the phenomenon.

RG: And so how would you hope you counter that fictionalization effect with your movie?

RJ: I would hope to counter it in the regard that we will let people know about all the evidence that’s actually been out there and that audiences might be inspired to follow up on that. So hopefully our film will open up a dialogue.

RG: If and when humanity makes full and open contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, would we as cinemagoers be able to divorce Hollywood’s alien depictions from the alien reality with which we are presented?

RJ: I would guess that we wouldn’t divorce it because the influence of Hollywood is so engrained in us. And I think it would mostly be a fear factor, because most alien movies are about fear, although you do have an E.T. that comes along every now and then. But I think people would mainly be apprehensive. Some people say to me: “why do your aliens have to be bad aliens? There are good aliens, too!” Well I’m sure there are good aliens, but I don’t think I could do good aliens better than Steven Spielberg did with E.T, but I think I can bring something new to bad aliens.

For more details about Area 52: The Actual Footage head on over to its official website and to Kickstarter.

10 April 2014

Pesky reptoids in film and TV

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers 

A visitor's true form is exposed in the original V miniseries.
In 1956 cinemagoers were scared witless at the drive-in by a stealthy little sci-fi flick called Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which aliens replace humans with ‘pod people’ – duplicates superficially identical to the original victim, but which are utterly devoid of individuality or emotion. The movie would be memorably remade in 1978 by Philip Kaufman with Donald Sutherland in the lead role, before being lamentably ‘re-booted’ by Oliver Hirschbiegel in 2007 as the Nicole Kidman vehicle The Invasion. Body-snatching aliens have appeared in many other film and TV narratives, including, most notably, Life Force (1985); The Hunted (1988); The Faculty (1998); Dark Skies (1996-97); Invasion (2005); and, more recently, The Host (2013), based on the Stephanie Meyer book in which alien entities called “Souls” silently conquer Earth by occupying the bodies of its inhabitants.

The central conceit of all these ‘body snatcher’ stories – that the human will (and even the soul) can be invisibly hijacked by a malevolent alien power – is one that has become increasingly popular in recent years within the most paranoid factions of the UFO/conspiracy community. British TV-sports-presenter-turned-conspiracy-icon David Icke has been chiefly responsible for the popularization of the idea that many of our world leaders secretly are lizard-people from outer space. Icke’s massively popular books and lectures posit that the world as we know it is a hologram designed and maintained by a race of inter-dimensional reptilian beings – known to ancient Mesopotamian cultures as the ‘Annunaki’ – who feed not only on human flesh, but off the suffering of the human soul. According to Icke, many prominent figures of the global elite are descended from reptilian bloodlines and are working in secret to enslave humanity. In his development of these theories throughout the 1990s, Icke borrowed liberally from Ancient Astronaut proponent Zecharia Sitchin, who first made the theoretical connection between the Annunaki and extraterrestrials in his 1976 book The 12th Planet.

But while Icke’s premise may be rooted in old-school Ancient Astronaut theory, the finer details of his elaborate narrative seem at least partially indebted to Hollywood entertainment. Some 16 years prior to Icke’s first book on the ‘reptoid’ agenda in 1999 (The Biggest Secret), the television mini-series V (1983–1984) was spinning its own compelling yarn about flesh-eating reptilian aliens who disguise themselves as humans and exert their influence on our society and politics. Indeed, it is almost impossible to contemplate reptilian aliens today without immediately recalling iconic imagery from the TV show that first thrust these pesky lizard folk into our popular culture. The 2009 V ‘reboot’ explored similar themes to the original, but this time, ironically, seemed to owe more to Icke’s by-now fully-developed reptilian lore, with the show’s alien ‘Visitors’ craving not only human flesh, but the human soul itself. Talk about a feedback loop.

More than a decade before Icke embarked on his lizard-bashing crusade, John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) had already captured lightning in a bottle for the conspiracy community as it tapped into and helped shape prevailing ideas about evil extraterrestrials colluding with human elites – ideas already sown into our sub-cultural fabric through the original V television series.

Based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story Eight O’clock in the Morning, They Live depicted a blue collar drifter (played by Roddy Piper) who finds a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see the stark reality of corporate America, where shops are covered with subliminal signs that say “Submit,” “Stay Asleep,” and “Do Not Question Authority.” The world is being secretly run in this Orwellian fashion by malevolent, skeletal-faced aliens who are allied with the US establishment – the human elite having been promised tickets off-world when Doomsday arrives.

Carpenter pulled no punches in describing his film’s politics. “I looked at the country and thought we were in really deep trouble. This seems like fascism to me, the rise of the fundamentalist right and the kind of mind control they’re putting out, the kind of presidency Reagan has had. We haven’t got a chance.”

Unfortunately for Carpenter, his film’s searing political vision may have played a key role in its undoing at the box-office. They Live was pulled just two weeks after its November 4, 1988 release date. While Carpenter blamed audiences who “don't want to be enlightened,” co-star Keith David had a more conspiratorial take on the film’s failure: “not that anybody’s being paranoid,” said the actor, “but it was interesting that They Live was number one at the box office... and suddenly you couldn’t see it anywhere – it was, like, snatched.” Proof, if proof was needed, that the reptoids’ dastardly influence extends even into Hollywood.

Regardless of their cultural provenance, the reptilians have clawed their way deep into the modern conspiratorial psyche, and they show no sign of leaving – a comforting thought, no doubt, for cigar-chomping Hollywood producers and ex-sports presenters alike.
Showing us what she's made of: Morena Baccarin as the alien leader Anna in the 2009 reboot of V.

4 April 2014

When Disney flew us to the moon... with alien assistance

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

Dany Saval and Tom Tyron in Disney's Moon Pilot (1962)

Students of the UFO subject – and of UFO cinema in particular – will find much to enjoy in a little-known Disney movie from the early years of America’s space age. A live-action romantic comedy released in 1962 and based on the novel Starfire by Robert Buckner, Moon Pilot follows astronaut Capt. Richmond Talbot (Tom Tryon) as he prepares to make the first manned flight around the moon. The mission is classified Top Secret, requiring Talbot to be kept under close and constant observation by NASA, the CIA, and the FBI.

When Talbot is approached by a mysterious and attractive “foreign” woman (played by the French actress Dany Saval), the government immediately suspects her to be a spy. Calling herself ‘Lyrae,’ the woman has a disquieting amount of knowledge about the US space program and warns Talbot about possible technical faults in his spacecraft, offering to remedy them with a special formula. We soon learn that Lyrae is a friendly extraterrestrial from the planet Beta Lyrae (Beta Lyrae, not incidentally, is a real binary star system in the constellation of Lyra, approximately 960 light-years from Earth).

Inevitably, Talbot falls for the cosmic beauty and decides to give his government tails the slip in order to spend some quality time with her. The movie ends with Talbot and his rocket launching successfully into lunar orbit with Lyrae onboard as a stowaway, the two lovebirds singing a kitsch ballad about Beta Lyrae as the credits roll.
Moon Pilot is notable for its depiction of an attractive human-looking alien who wouldn’t seem out of place in any classic contactee story; but it also boasts a few other points of interest. Lyrae can read minds – an ability commonly attributed to aliens in experiencer testimonies. At one point in the movie, she even manifests a psychic projection of a little boy who we are told is actually her and Talbot’s future offspring – a very early allusion to alien-human interbreeding and hybrid children.

Curiously, the movie received limited co-operation from the US Air Force, despite the USAF’s almost unbroken track record up to this point of denying assistance to UFO-themed productions (although, technically, no ‘UFOs’ are featured in the film). The FBI, on the other hand was less sympathetic. Upon seeing the movie’s portrayal of FBI agents as buffoons, J. Edgar Hoover himself reportedly put in an angry phone call to Walt Disney. But Hoover’s concerns about the film likely went deeper than its comical depiction of FBI field agents. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act show that the flying saucer fever that swept America during the late-1940s reached as far as FBI headquarters and had Hoover himself in a sweat. The FBI Director was particularly frustrated at his inability to get straight answers on the subject from the USAF, which he was convinced was withholding crucial UFO-related information from the FBI.  

Today, Moon Pilot stands as an almost forgotten oddity of space-age cinema – sweet silliness meets national security paranoia. UFOlogically fascinating, it depicts a human-looking extraterrestrial quietly assisting the US space program and features ideas now common in UFO literature relating to alien-human hybridization and communication through means of psychic projection. It was partially supported by the US Air Force but provoked criticism from the FBI. It’s a curiosity, for sure. Check it out if you can.

1 April 2014

'Under the Skin': Silver Screen Saucers review

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

Our world through alien eyes...


A beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson) seduces random men off the street and lures them to their doom. She is closely monitored in her activities by a mysterious and ruthless man on a motorcycle  (Jeremy McWilliams) who treats her like property, as would a pimp; but they are not human, this odd couple, only playing at it. Something cold and otherworldly moves beneath their skin. The precise nature of their mission on Earth is never specified and, like most everything else in this striking and challenging film, is left open to viewer interpretation.
Based on the novel by Michel Faber, Under the Skin has divided critical opinion, with some commentators dismissing it as pointless and impenetrable, and others hailing it as a masterpiece. Certainly it is unique; a bizarre yet gratifying clash of Kubrickian precision and a gritty naturalism more identifiable with the work of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach. Plot plays second fiddle to disturbingly beautiful imagery, which evokes themes of urban alienation, isolation, sexual identity, humanity, and compassion.
This is also a film about alien abduction, and – intentionally or not – the abduction scenarios it depicts are remarkably similar in certain respects to those reported in real-life abductee accounts, despite the absence of little Grey aliens or flying saucers (although lights in the sky do feature early on). Johansson, a succubus of sorts (although she never actually has sex with any of her victims), lures her men into various dilapidated buildings wherein they submit entirely to her desire. Mystifyingly, upon entering these seemingly normal urban spaces and shedding their clothes, the men find themselves in a distinctly alien environment and submerged in a strange dense liquid. Abductees often have reported moving inexplicably and seamlessly from an earthly environment to an alien one.  In the film, Johansson’s alien leads her men into what appear to be earthly structures, but which inside are surely alien spacecraft, or an alien dimension of some sort. In one abduction scene a man with a neurofibromatosis disfigurement (Adam Pearson) remarks to his naked seducer: “I’m dreaming.” Given his situation and surroundings, certainly he has no reason to believe otherwise. Many abductees have described their experiences as being dreamlike, and yet clearly distinct from a dream.

The aliens here are hostile insomuch as they abduct humans and – but for one exception – never return them. The abductees’ fate is a grisly one, never fully explained in the movie but made clear in Faber’s source material (clue: they’re a delicacy). But describing the aliens in Under the Skin as ‘hostile’ seems redundant given their harsh terrestrial surroundings and the at times predatory nature of the humans we meet. We see our world – specifically Glasgow in Scotland – exclusively through alien eyes, and it’s a scary place indeed. A mark of the film’s brilliance is that we eventually begin to empathize with Johansson’s alien as she suffers an identity crisis and the world around her begins to suffocate both her and us. The ending is devastating as the hunter becomes the hunted and the final reveal of what’s under that skin is realized through jaw-dropping, photorealistic CGI. Many (but by no means all) abductees describe their experiences as intensely horrifying but ultimately transformative and rewarding. Fittingly for a film depicting alien abduction, Under the Skin is a sensory overload – extremely disturbing, yet not without its rewards for those who are open to receiving them.

Under the Skin, 2014, Dir. Jonathan Glazer, 108 mins.

27 March 2014

'Blair Witch' director talks UFOs & aliens

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

The Objective is a 2008 low-budget sci-fi horror directed by Daniel Myrick, who is perhaps best known for co-helming the influential found-footage horror The Blair Witch Project (1999). The Objective follows a team of US Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan led by tight-lipped CIA operative Benjamin Keynes (Jonas Ball); their mission: to locate an important Afghan cleric. Further details are classified Top Secret and known only to Keynes. As their mission unfolds it becomes terrifyingly apparent to all involved that otherworldly forces are at play in the harsh Afghan wilderness. The film grows increasingly surreal as it progresses, incorporating UFO conspiracy theory, esoteric symbolism, and even the Vimanas of Vedic literature and Ancient Astronaut lore. If you’ve not seen the movie, check it out. In the meantime, here’s a short Q&A I conducted with director Daniel Myrick about the interplay between UFOs and Hollywood...

RG: The Objective seems to have been influenced by the UFOlogical theory of 'Ancient Astronauts', specifically in its references to Vimanas. What served as your primary inspiration for writing and directing this movie?

DM: I grew up with watching The Case of the Ancient Astronauts, as well as the series In Search Of Ancient Astronauts. Both had big influences on my imagination and world view about earth and the cosmos.

RG: Wesley Clark Jr. – son of General Wesley Clark – is credited as a co-writer on the movie. What role did Clark Jr. play in the scriptwriting process, and what attracted him to the project?
Daniel Myrick
DM: He provided me with an initial first draft based on my story outline. From there I revised and eventually produced the shooting version you see in the film. My understanding is that Wesley liked the premise and the fact it was dealing with Special Forces operations.

RG: Assuming that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists in the universe, do you consider it likely that we will make contact with it any time soon?

DM: One can hope. It’s impossible to tell if and when that will be, but I would love for it to happen during my lifeftime.

RG: Is the potential existence of ET life a cause for fear or for hope?

DM: A little of both, depending on your outlook. Personally, I view this kind of discovery analogous to a man on the deserted island suddenly finding out he's not alone. 

RG: To what extent do Hollywood UFO/alien-themed movies and TV shows influence popular expectations of potential alien life?

DM: Quite a bit. My first real experience was with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For me that film was the quintessential, contemporary 'Alien film' that took the unorthodox step of portraying extraterrestrials as friends rather than foes.

RG: Do Hollywood's UFO movies fictionalize the UFO phenomenon in the public mind, actualize it, or both? Indeed, do you believe in the objective existence of a ‘UFO phenomenon’ at all?

DM: Well, there is a "phenomenon" to be sure. Exactly what is the root cause is more open to speculation. Scientifically, I find it hard to imagine that a race of beings with the capability of space travel over such distances would come all this way only to leave blurry remnants of themselves for us mere mortals to argue over in the ensuing years after their departure. More likely we'll be making contact via radio telescope or some other technology that has yet to be invented. 

RG: Does Hollywood fuel the UFO mythos, or vice versa?

DM: Both. Art and life influence each other. It has always been a symbiotic, cultural relationship… for better or worse. 

RG: If and when humanity makes full and open contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, would we, as cinemagoers, be able to divorce Hollywood’s ET depictions from the ET reality with which we are presented? 

DM: We would have to. I imagine that if and when that day comes any preconceptions we may have with regard to alien characteristics will be blown away. 

RG: Films depicting benevolent extraterrestrials – such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Avatar – have enjoyed enormous success at the international box-office. Despite this, Hollywood prefers to explore the negative impact of human/alien contact. Why is this so? Would you like to see more ‘friendly alien’ movies out of Hollywood?

DM: America, in particular, loves its 'bad guys'. It gives us a way to focus our fears and exercise our need to conquer things. However, it always seems to go in cycles in Hollywood; always driven by the almighty box office, so I won't be surprised to see another ET come along pretty soon.

RG: Thank you so much for your time and insights.

DM: Glad to help out.
Trailer: The Objective (2008)...

31 January 2014

'Silver Screen Saucers' book due Sept. 2014

Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood's UFO Movies has been scheduled for publication in September 2014 by White Crow Books.

More so than any other medium, cinema has shaped our expectations of potential alien life and visitation. From The Day the Earth Stood Still and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to Battleship, Prometheus and beyond, our hopes and fears of alien contact have been fuelled by the silver screen. But what messages does Hollywood impart to us about our possible otherworldly neighbours, from where do UFO movies draw their inspiration, and what other factors – cultural or conspiratorial – might influence their production and content? Silver Screen Saucers is a timely and revealing examination of the interplay between Hollywood’s UFO movies and the UFO phenomenon itself, from 1950 to present day.
The book grants the reader a rare, close-up examination of the DNA that builds our perceptions of the UFO mystery: one strand of this DNA weaves real events, stories and people from the historical record of UFOlogy, while the other spins and twists with the film and TV products they have inspired. With our alien dreams and nightmares now more fully visualized onscreen than ever before, Silver Screen Saucers asks the question: what does it all mean? Are all UFO stories just fever dreams from LA screenwriters, or are they based in something else? Could any of them be real and are they part of a bigger message?
From interviews with screenwriters and directors whose visions have been shaped by their lifelong UFO obsessions; to Presidents Carter and Reagan talking aliens with Spielberg at the White House; to CIA and Pentagon manipulation of UFO-themed productions; to movie stars and producers being stalked by real Men in Black, Silver Screen Saucers provides fresh perspective on the frequently debated but little understood subject of UFOs & Hollywood.
The book addresses questions such as:
·         Does Hollywood fuel the UFO mythos, or vice versa? In other words, are our beliefs about alien visitation shaped by UFO movies, or are UFO movies shaped by our beliefs about alien visitation?
·         Do Hollywood’s UFO movies fictionalize the UFO phenomenon in the public mind, actualize it, or both?
·         If and when humanity makes full and open contact with an unearthly intelligence, would we, as cinemagoers, be able to divorce Hollywood’s historical imaginings from the reality with which we are presented? Indeed...
·         Should we? After all, a great deal of Hollywood’s UFO movie content has been closely informed by supposedly factual UFOlogical literature, events and debates. Perhaps, then, there is more truth to be found in Hollywood’s UFO movies than we might imagine – which raises the question:
·         Just how has so much dense UFOlogical theory (by its very nature ‘fringe’ and subcultural) managed find its way into Hollywood’s populist science fiction narratives? Is Hollywood’s incorporation of UFO lore attributable to a “Hollywood UFO conspiracy” designed to acclimate us to a UFO/alien reality, or is it merely the result of a natural cultural process?
Silver Screen Saucers is bursting with ideas and information that will excite and intrigue any reader with a passing or serious interest in UFOs and/or science-fiction cinema.

For more info about the book, visit White Crow Books.

27 December 2013

Close Encounters of the Mythic Kind

The Fact, Fantasy, and Speculation Behind Cinema's Greatest UFO Movie

By Robbie Graham Silver Screen Saucers

More so than any other filmmaker, Steven Spielberg has moulded our perceptions of otherworldly visitors. His films teem with iconic imagery seared into the minds of millions: a mothership’s miraculous ascension at Devils Tower; a boy and his fugitive friend from the stars cycling in silhouette across the face of the moon... Even Spielberg’s less memorable alien offerings – War of the Worlds (2005) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – have enjoyed enormous success at the worldwide box-office, raking in some $1.4 billion between them.

Although he has donned his director’s cap for just four alien-themed movies, Spielberg’s role as a producer has long seen him neck-deep in entertainment of the extraterrestrial kind. His credits to date include Batteries Not Included (1987), the Men in Black franchise (1997 – 2012), the alien abduction mini-series Taken (2002); the Transformers franchise (2007 - ); the alien invasion series Falling Skies (2011 - ); the ‘Sci-fi-Western’ Cowboys and Aliens (2011); and Super 8 (2011), the plot for which features Area 51, the US Air Force and an escaped alien entity.

That Spielberg continues to make movies about life elsewhere is owed not simply to good business sense but is due in large part to his own childhood fascination with UFOs – a fascination that would intensify into his late twenties and culminate in his cathartic production of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

A teenage Spielberg in 1964 awaiting the premiere of his first feature-length film, Firelight, which would serve as the blueprint for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Close Encounters was a miracle of a movie. It imparted to the viewer a message of universal hope, revealing to cinemagoers that aliens were not necessarily a force to be feared. According to Spielberg’s vision, aliens were simply misunderstood – not our maleficent destructors, but our gloriously beneficent friends. He told his cast during filming that the movie was to be “very gentle, like an embrace.” Here, then, was the work of an unashamed idealist, its director’s childlike sense of wonder infusing its every frame.

Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) on the trail to Devils Tower.
The film’s plot, such as it is, follows telephone linesman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a Spielbergian ‘everyman’ with a thirst for adventure who is trapped in a joyless marriage with bratty kids in middle-American suburbia. Roy’s life is turned upside down one night after a close encounter with a UFO convinces him that we are not alone in the universe. This experience prompts Roy to embark upon an obsessive and isolating quest for the truth behind the UFO enigma and ultimately leads him to Devils Tower in Wyoming where he meets angelic extraterrestrial beings and blissfully takes his leave of our ‘humdrum’ planet.

Close Encounters is notable for being the first film ever to feature the archetypal ‘Grey’ alien. While shades of the Grey are identifiable in film and TV products dating back to the 1950s, Close Encounters marked the Greys’ first fully crystallized appearance onscreen with trademark spindly bodies, small stature, oversized heads and eyes, and otherwise featureless faces. Cultural commentators often have used this fact to suggest that it was Spielberg’s iconic movie – not real life occurrences – that lead witnesses to claim personal encounters with the diminutive Greys. However, the man who designed the aliens for Close Encounters – famed production designer Joe Alves – deflates this theory. When I interviewed Alves recently he told me that he based his alien designs on descriptions he’d received directly from witnesses. “I had called a lot of people when trying to design the aliens to see if people had actually seen anything,” said Alves, “and I talked to a lot of legitimate people... who described to me very simplistic creatures with large eyes and small mouths, no nose.”

Production Designer Joe Alves (kneeling) with Spielberg (left) in 1976
during the shoot of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Based on what he heard during his research, Alves began conceptualizing the alien beings. “The descriptions I heard were of these big-eyed things with small mouths and no nose, long fingers, that kind of thing. So I made some sketches and I also made a couple of clay models.” Spielberg was pleased with Alves’ designs: “Steven said ‘I like these simple little childlike beings. That’s what I want.’” It was soon after that Spielberg made the decision to have little girls wear the alien costumes in order to imbue the cosmic entities with a sense of innocence and grace.

Enter the Greys: the movie's aliens were designed by Joe Alves based on real witness reports.

Spielberg’s film is rich in UFOlogical detail beyond the appearance of its aliens – from its depiction of silent but spectacular UFO manoeuvres, UFOs interfering with electrical grids and car engines, government secrecy and disinformation surrounding the subject, and even alien abduction (around a decade before such stories began to permeate the literature). The movie achieved its extraordinary UFOlogical verisimilitude thanks in large part to the advice of legendary UFO investigator Professor J. Allen Hynek. It was Hynek’s classification system for UFO sightings that gave Spielberg’s movie its unusual title (a ‘close encounter of the third kind’ referring to any sighting of a UFO within 500 feet of the witness during which UFO occupants are also observed), and Spielberg appointed the man himself as his official UFO advisor on the movie.

Close Encounters also owes a debt to the pioneering UFO research of Hynek's most famous protégé, Dr Jacques Vallée (pictured here with Hynek). Indeed, one of the movies main characters, the Frenchman Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), was partly inspired by Vallée himself. Spielberg consulted briefly with Vallée during the movie’s production and the scientist attempted to sway the director in favour of a more exotic explanation for the UFO phenomenon. Spielberg’s movie should explore the interdimensional hypothesis, Vallée insisted. “When I met Steven Spielberg, I argued with him that the subject was even more interesting if it wasn’t extraterrestrials,” said Vallée, “if it was real, physical, but not ET.” Spielberg wasn’t convinced, however, telling Vallée: “You’re probably right, but that’s not what the public is expecting – this is Hollywood and I want to give people something that’s close to what they expect.’”

Spielberg chats with (takes direction from?) legendary director Francois Truffaut, whose character in the movie
was partly inspired by Dr. Jacques Vallée.
For years, Close Encounters has been the subject of fervent speculation in the UFO conspiracy community, with even some of the most level-headed of researchers inclined to believe it was part of an official UFO acclimation campaign. Such speculation can be traced back to the production of the movie itself. On July 23, 1976, after a hard day’s shoot, around forty of the Close Encounters cast and crew (including stars Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon) gathered in the sticky night air of Mobile, Alabama to hear a lecture on UFOs delivered by Hynek (who had been flown in for a brief cameo in the film’s closing scenes). It was shortly after this lecture that the co-star of the movie, Bob Balaban (who plays the character of translator David Laughlin) spoke of an intriguing rumour that had been circulating during the production – “a rumour,” said the actor, “that the film is part of the necessary training that the human race must go through in order to accept an actual landing, and is being secretly sponsored by a government UFO agency.” I asked Close Encounters production designer Joe Alves if he had heard any such rumours during the shoot and if there was any substance to them. “There were a lot of rumours,” he replied ambiguously, before changing the subject.

Making history. Left to right: Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban, Steven Spielberg, and Lance Henriksen.

In 1977, after the production had wrapped, Spielberg told Sight and Sound magazine what inspired him to make a film that dealt seriously with the UFO issue. “I realized that just about every fifth person I talked to had looked up at the sky at some point in their lives and seen something that was not easy to explain,” said the director, “and then I began meeting people who had had close encounters... where undeniably something quite phenomenal was happening right before their eyes. It was this direct contact – the interviews – that got me interested in making the movie.”

Left to right: Dreyfuss, Truffaut, Balaban, and Spielberg.
Spielberg’s interest in UFOs even extended to a belief in an official cover-up: “I wouldn’t put it past this government that a cosmic Watergate has been underway for the last 25 years,” he remarked during a Close Encounters promotional interview in 1977, “eventually they might want to tell us something about what they’ve discovered over the decades.” During the same interview, Spielberg spoke with relish of “rumours” that President Carter was due to make “some unsettling disclosures” about UFOs later that year. Needless to say, no such disclosures were forthcoming.

But was Spielberg dropping a hint? Was Close Encounters really part of a government-sponsored UFO indoctrination program – an effort to educate the public about the reality of an alien presence? We may never know for sure, although comments made more recently by another Hollywood professional make for intriguing reading in the context of this discussion. In February of 2011 – thirty-four years after the release of Close Encounters – I spoke with Andrew Thomas, a writer/director/producer who worked on Spielberg’s UFO epic in 1976 as head of ‘special marketing.’ Eighteen months before the film was scheduled to premiere, at the behest of the film’s studio, Columbia Pictures, Thomas worked with a major planetarium to create a dazzling twenty-minute show for the American public. He described it to me as follows:

“You sit down and a UFO shoots across the planetarium dome and then the audience is trained on how to figure out whether that was a meteor, a comet, or actually an extraterrestrial. We managed to bus-in tens-of thousands of kids from all around the country on the pretence of seeing an educational planetarium show, but what they really got was a sophisticated message to explain to them that extraterrestrials and UFOs are real and what an encounter of the first, second and third kind actually meant.”

At first glance, this testimony would seen to lend weight to the indoctrination rumours, but Thomas himself has a different take on why Columbia Pictures adopted such an unusual and deceptive marketing strategy: “They were concerned that the title ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ sounded suspiciously like a pornographic movie, because no one had any reference to what that vocabulary meant.” Thomas says his job was simply to introduce the ‘close encounter’ terminology into the vernacular, “so when the film opened-up everyone would know what was being discussed, and there wouldn’t be any question.”

There were further indications of secrecy and deception relating to Close Encounters shortly after the movie was released. It is curious, for example, that the Carter Presidential Library contains no record of the film-loving President ever having viewed Close Encounters while in office. However, in a 1977 Canadian TV interview conducted directly after the movie’s theatrical release, Spielberg said matter-of-factly that Carter had viewed the movie “Last Saturday.” “We haven’t heard the direct feedback,” Spielberg remarked, but added, “We hear he [Carter] liked it quite a bit.” The following March, The Phoenix Gazette cited Close Encounters as “Jimmy Carter’s favorite movie,” noting that “The President has seen the movie many times.” This is not the only discrepancy over the official record concerning Carter and Spielberg. Officially, Spielberg never set foot in the Carter White House and had never met the President; and yet a solitary photocopy of a photograph discovered in the Carter Presidential Library proves that the two men did meet. The photo shows Carter and Spielberg engaged in conversation and is signed: “To Steven Spielberg, [from] Jimmy Carter.” An accompanying White House stationary note signed by White House Social Secretary Gretchen Poston and addressed to Spielberg reads: “The President thought you would enjoy receiving the enclosed photograph.” 

This apparent secrecy almost certainly resulted from a desire in the military-intelligence community – and even among Carter’s staff – to keep the Administration from being further publicly associated with flying saucers. Famously, Carter had his own UFO sighting in 1969 in Leary, Georgia, witnessing a bright white round object that approached his position before stopping and then receding into the distance. Carter was with twelve other people at the time, all of whom witnessed the strange phenomenon. Needless to say, a UFO-spotting President viewing the ultimate UFO movie at the White House and having get-togethers with its alien-obsessed director would have been a PR nightmare.

By far the most outlandish of the conspiracy theories surrounding Close Encounters relates to ‘Project Serpo’ – an alleged human/alien exchange program between US military personnel and a race of extraterrestrials from the Zeta Reticuli star system.

The story goes that, in July of 1965, twelve astronauts were taken to the planet Serpo aboard an alien spaceship and remained there for thirteen years. In exchange, the aliens left one of their own in the custody of the US government. This story didn’t emerge until 2005 in the form of a string of anonymous emails that were sent to selected UFO researchers, including Project Camelot/Avalon’s Bill Ryan, who created a website dedicated to the “leaks.”

The Serpo story lead some in the conspiracy community to speculate that Close Encounters was partly inspired by the alleged alien/human exchange program of 1965, which assumes that Spielberg himself was privy to inside information on the UFO issue. In the movie’s final scenes, a taller alien (this one not designed by Alves but by effects expert Carlo Rambaldi) is seen to exit the mothership and communicate with the character of Claude Lacombe via a series of hand gestures. Soon after, we see twelve scientists clad in jumpsuits preparing to board the mothership and take permanent leave of planet Earth. Roy Neary joins the group as its thirteenth member. 
Again, it is important to note that the Serpo story, which has not a shred of credible evidence to support it, did not emerge until 2005 – twenty-eight years after the release of Close Encounters. The logical assumption, then, would be that the former was inspired the latter, rather than vice versa. 

Whether or not there is a shred of truth to any of the conspiracy theories surrounding Close Encounters, Spielberg’s movie remains hugely significant for the fact that it played a central role in Hollywood’s mid-to-late-1970s economic revival, forcing aging studio executives to recognize America’s vast and largely un-catered-for youth market and to adapt their output accordingly. It is notable that two other alien-themed movies of the period also played a key role in this industrial paradigm shift: Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978). Together, these three films about the wonders of the universe acted as adrenalin, shot straight into the heart of a dying industry (though many critics would argue, perhaps justifiably, that this adrenalin acted as poison in the long-term, stifling creativity and individuality in Hollywood). Spielberg’s film also reignited public curiosity about UFOs as an enduring enigma, and its release closely coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of the Roswell Incident. Just one year later, Jesse Marcel would spill the beans on his firsthand experiences of that event, opening the floodgates for hundreds more closely-corresponding Roswell testimonies.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg -- the future of Hollywood, for better or for worse -- pictured with Francois Truffaut on the Close Encounters 'Big Set' in the summer of 1976.
It had taken the better part of thirty years, but Hollywood’s aliens had made the transition from invaders to saviours. Remarkably, this transition was affected almost single-handedly by a wunderkind director with a vision. With Vietnam and Watergate still fresh in the mind, Close Encounters came as a reassuring hug for America towards the end of a decade of disillusionment, and, for the next few years, at least, Spielberg’s movie would redefine Hollywood’s working relationship with aliens. With movies like E.T., Starman, Cocoon and The Abyss cleaning up at the box-office throughout the decade, the 1980s would be a time of extraterrestrial kinship and splendour in Hollywood when UFOs would return to the silver screen en masse, and, for the most part, in peace.

This article appears in Issue 4 of UFO Truth Magazine, Nov/Dec, 2013.