The Spoof is Out There

The Roswell Incident And Other Fairy Stories
by Jim Swallow

The Truth Is Out There. Trust No One. Deny Everything. It’s sinister to consider that all these X Files quotes apply so well to the so-called “Roswell Incident”… Probably the best-known and worst-documented (in terms of actual “truth”) UFO event in history, say the name of this sleepy New Mexico town at an average dinner party and you’ll hook a dozen folks each with their own take on what happened. Strangely, Roswell is actually better known than so-called “first ever” sighting by pilot Kenneth Arnold, in reporting which a wag journalist coined the term “flying saucer” and the rest was history (In actuality, Arnold’s sighting was pre-dated by the less famous but no less intriguing Maury Island sighting, which also featured recovered UFO material, three days before). Arnold’s sighting in Washington State was on 24th June 1947, and a little over a week later, something odd crashed in New Mexico.

The fog of claim, counter-claim and theory upon theory about the event has helped to muddy the waters so much that it’s likely we’ll never know what happened. We may even have seen some glimpse of the truth, but now we’ll never be able to tell. Even the few remaining people who were there probably aren’t even sure anymore. All you can say truthfully about the Roswell happening is that;

  • a) Something crashed in the desert. It may even have been several somethings…
  • b) The local airbase said it was a UFO, then they changed their minds and said it was a balloon
  • c) The people in charge lied about some things. Quite how much is another story.

Like any legend, Roswell has grown grander and more exciting with each telling. 1995 saw the ‘revelation’ of alleged autopsy footage of bodies and hardware recovered from the crashed vehicle, and with the public’s pre-Millennial appetite for weirdness, conspiracy & paranoia stories still not sated, it’s a legitimate target for the media to sink it’s teeth into. Even that most popular of SF TV, Star Trek, has taken the myth to it’s own — the fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine spilt the beans for all time by revealing that the crashed UFO was in fact a time-travelling starship crewed by some of DS9’s resident aliens. Roswell was name-checked in The X Files first season finale “The Erlenmeyer Flask” and later in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” (which spoofed practically every bit of UFO lore in forty-five minutes), but noticeably missed from the 70’s series Project UFO (and indeed, missed from the real Project Blue Book on which the TV series was based). Perhaps the most entertaining TV outings for the story formed part of the series Dark Skies, which ran an interesting tap-dance act between its own story arc and dozens of “real” UFO events.

It seems that the movie and TV execs love affair with this infinitely malleable story has yet to wane; Here’s a rough guide to some of the fall-out you can find on your video shelves….

Incident At Roswell – Shown on Channel 4 here in the UK and also sold on video, Incident At Roswell is a documentary on the event that covers the salient facts well and allegedly introduces a new element with a previously silent witness. The program is built largely around Ray Santilli’s “lost” alien autopsy footage, and as such might make the entire endeavour as suspect as the autopsy film.  I have to say that I’m not convinced by the Santilli footage…It just doesn’t look right to me. But, you’ll have to make your own mind up on that one. All I will say is that I recently spoke with a British video company executive who lightly offered to put me in touch with everyone involved in the faking of the film — for free. The Santilli film also aired in the USA and later here in Europe on the Sci-Fi Channel in Fox Television’s doc Alien Autopsy: Fact Or Fiction?, which did so well that it has since spun off it’s own series, The Paranormal Borderline, presented by Star Trek: The Next Generation dude Jonathan Frakes. Frakes’ programme also shares airtime with other video-verité and yes-it’s-true shows like Sightings and The Extraordinary.

Roswell – Kyle MacLachan stars as Major Jesse Marcel in this docu-drama loosely based on the book “UFO Crash At Roswell”. For those of us familiar with the story of the incident, there’s nothing new here to see, but for people after a quick and dirty synopsis of the event, you can do worse than watch this. The story finds an aged Marcel piecing the truth behind the cover-up together through flashback and chats with other witnesses. When he has most of the pieces, enter Martin Sheen as Townsend, a shady type who muddies the waters completely with the woolly saucer theories familiar to anyone who’s read a few UFO books. Story wise, Roswell is (like the real thing) interesting but quite incomplete, and the effects are quite neatly donebut it fails to capture any sense of the more sinister elements of the Roswell crash.

Overall, Roswell is more a movie about Marcel than it is about the incident; We sympathise with this family man who’s made the fall guy for a military cover-up, but to be honest it could have been anything they were hiding. The UFO angle is almost incidental. There’s also a few gaps that could have been filled in the movie – we see flashbacks from other witnesses as they speak to Marcel – but some of the more interesting Roswell accounts have been bypassed…  There’s nothing much of the actual UFO crash site aside from a few blurry pictures. Budget restrictions, maybe? But gripes aside, Roswell is one of the better of the bunch. B+.

[One other interesting Roswell item, in the category of “life’s little ironies”. A flap that spread over the Internet in 1995 when someone released grainy new pictures of a Grey’s corpse, was eventually put down when some movie buff realised they were actually props from this film, that had been mistaken for the “real” thing…]

Official Denial – This at-first promising piece of 1993 UFOria stars Parker Stevenson as your typical abductee-spurned-by-those-around-him-who-do-not-believe, trying to convince his wife (played by Buck Rogers alumnus Erin Gray) that the little grey men are coming to get him. Enter the U.S. Air Force, watching his every move, waiting for the aliens to come; And come they do, in a nifty CGI UFO, beaming him up to the ship, implanting the traditional “nasal object” before dumping him back on the lawn. The USAF give chase, first in Apache helicopter gunships, then in stealth fighters, before the general in charge of the ‘secret compound’ orders the UFO lasered out of the sky by an SDI satellite. Pretty soon, the government forces under the control of the ‘Majestic’ agency cordon off the site around the downed saucer and investigate;

We get scenes of the alien ship inside and out (oddly familiar in tone to anyone who’s played the PC game UFO: Enemy Unknown), a dead Grey and subsequent autopsy thanks to trigger-happy Colonel Dirk (Battlestar Galactica) Benedict, and a live one too. Stevenson is brought in as a last-ditch attempt to communicate with the alien and then it all goes pear-shaped…About twenty minutes in, Official Denial changes from a reasonable TV movie to a low-grade rip-off of E.T., even pinching John Williams’ musical riffs. In the end, we discover the Greys are actually genetically engineered time-travelling humans from the polluted world of the far future, and they’re only abducting us for our (and their) own eco-aware good. I’m reminded of the Commander X books and William Cooper’s warnings about movie conspiracies – that the media is being manipulated to portray UFOs and aliens as benevolent – after watching this one. Official Denial gets my official denial and scores a D, or a C+ if you turn off before the cute stuff starts.

[As an aside, the writer of Official Denial, Bryce Zaybel, was one of the co-writers for the aforementioned Dark Skies, which starts in the Kennedy-era Sixties and posits a “hidden history” of alien invasion and conspiracy. Unlike his movie, this is much more fun, a neat hybrid of JFK, The X Files and The Invaders, Dark Skies is well worth a look, a punchy romp through the sinister countryside of the UFO mythos, with all the trimmings. For saucer buffs, Dark Skies is the show, as its plot thread neatly dovetails with “real world” incidents like the Gary Powers U2 crash, the Kennedy assassination and the Betty & Barney Hill abduction in 1961. The last also has its own movie version, The UFO Incident, with James Earl Jones playing Barney like he’s phoning his lines in.]

Fire In The Sky – This one seems to have something going for it from the outset, as we’re proudly told that Fire In The Sky is based on the true-life abduction of logger Travis Walton (played by D.B. Sweeney) from a forest in Arizona back in 1975. Walton and a bunch of co-workers were heading home one night when they came across a saucer blocking the road — Walton got out to take a look and was zapped for his trouble. His workmates panicked and drove away, coming back later to find Walton and the UFO gone. Travis stayed gone for nearly a week and in the meantime his fellows on the logging crew were accused of his murder. On his return, dumped 12 miles away from the site, Walton recounted his tale of alien abduction. The movie is a bit uninvolving, despite capable performances by Robert Patrick as Walton’s best buddy and James Garner as the investigating officer, starting off with the reaction of the townsfolk to Walton’s vanishing and the tidal wave of rumour that builds up against the innocent loggers.

Just as we begin to sympathise with Walton’s mates, he comes back and the movie changes tracks (and even producers) as his abduction is seen in flashback. Travis Walton himself even makes an appearance, as one of the concerned townspeople. Then the film ends, with no suspense, no explanation, no nothing. Realistic? Yes. But filmic? No. Fire In The Sky also neglects to mention a few things, like the Walton family’s reputation for practical jokes and Travis’ prior interest in UFOs, only touching on the possible untruthful aspects of the case in vague, blink-and-you-miss-it asides. The scenes on the UFO are quite engaging, if almost completely unlike Walton’s ‘actual’ experiences, and include some rather squirmy moments on an examination table. Clearly writer Tracey Torme (late of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Sliders and the risible alien abduction miniseries Intruders) exercised all his artistic licence here, not in the Earthbound sequences. Fire In The Sky rates a hardly scorching C.

Hangar 18 – Like Area 51, Dreamland, Gulf Breeze, Warminster and of course Roswell, Hangar 18 is one of the notorious pieces of saucer-infested real estate around the globe. In this 1980 B-flick, a duo of shuttle astronauts are blamed for a satellite explosion caused by a crashing UFO, and while the two search for the truth, the government men (Robert Vaughn and Darren McGavin in full “Deep Throat” mode) plot to hide the ship in the secret hangar. For your money you get a bit of Capricorn One, some Close Encounters, a dash of Flight Of The Navigator and mishmash of all those American Seventies post-Nixon conspiracy movies.

There are a couple of missed opportunities: although both the alien pilots are dead, we don’t get an autopsy, and we never really get to see much of the UFO aside from some flashy lights nicked from Glen A. Larson productions. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Hangar 18 is the slight debt owed it by 1996’s big budget alien invasion flick, Independence Day, which has a similar secret base, with a similar investigative team poking through a crashed ship…The only difference here is that the ID4 saucer crashed back in 1947, giving the movie a little Roswell riff as well. But as for Hangar 18, it’s a D.

Communion – Oh yeah. The Whitley Strieber movie-of-the-book. Now while this one has the always-watchable Christopher Walken playing the lead role, it’s a little tough for me to give Communion any kind of real credence. Strieber was and still is a highly selling horror fiction writer, and obviously the kind of guy with an eye for a story that will shift books; The fact that Communion shot up the book charts and was then followed by a couple of sequels (and let’s not forget this flick) makes me wonder just how “true” a story this is. One of Strieber’s post-Communion books was ‘Majestic’ (there’s that word again), and in it he allegedly quoted from another book published by a Victorian writer, whose writings conveyed his story of alien abduction. Strieber called it proof.

Actually, it was written in the 70’s by noted British SF humorist/columnist Dave Langford… Anyone who can miss a boner like that has a serious credibility gap. But about the film. The direction is somewhat loopy and meanders; Walken and a reasonable cast of co-stars (including the excellent Frances Sternhagen) try to keep things on an even keel. The numerous dream sequences (or whatever) degenerate into dumb rock-video imagery towards the end, and while there are a couple of disturbing instances, any imprint these leave is washed away by the later, more slack moments. Read the book; I’m told it’s better. D.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Spielberg’s classic UFO film from his pre-E.T. days in 1977, while still a good flick, has dated a tad. The effects seem a little rough around the edges now (no Industrial Light & Magic or CGI back then, remember), but yet can still wow you – who can forget that great moment when the mothership rises over Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (which is a real place, in case you were wondering), little Cary Guffey’s abduction (later pinched for Fox Mulder’s sister) or the subtle giant shadows and now-cliché blinding aerial spotlights that dog Richard Dreyfuss. My fave has to be that bit with the headlights in the rear-view mirror…But I digress.

To Steve’s credit, it’s a great-looking film and it proves that he had that magic touch back then; CE3K is a real crowd-pleaser, with drama, suspense, chase bits and some real spectacle, but is it a “real” UFO film? Spielberg will have us believe that the Greys are our ‘space brothers’, not the ones responsible for evil abductions (only good ones) and cattle mutilations. Back in the Seventies, that might have been believable for the populace, but now in the wake of post-X Files paranoia it seems dreadfully naive. Maybe Spielberg is right, and they are going to be our pals — but he’d have a much harder time proving it today. Nevertheless, despite its sentimentality and a fluffy and essentially vacuous core, CE3K is a visual treat and worth a second look, in either its normal or “Special Edition” versions. It’s also interesting to keep an eye open for all of Spielberg’s cinematic riffs that have become clichés or staples of UFO stories ever since. B+.

and all the rest… Of course, if you can’t find any of these, head down to your local video store and abduct the following works of “art” — but don’t pay real money for ‘em.. These are uniformly D-’s and worse…. The Return is a clunky CE3K remix with Cybill Shepherd, Jean-Michael Vincent and Martin Landau in something they all probably keep off their CV’s. There’s a mad prospector (actually a mad alien cattle and person mutilator) and lots of flashy lights and nice E.Ts — so-so UFO pabulum. Visitors Of The Night is a TV movie aimed at the middle-America mum market, with an angst-ridden housewife agonising over her rebellious daughter to her workaholic ex-hubby while ogling the hunky local sheriff…but it turns out mum’s an ex-abductee and her daughter is next in line, because the Greys want babies. All the aliens stuff is a metaphor for the break-up of the family (the rebellious and hateful daughter realises that mother is always right when the UFOs turn up), and there’s a timely triangular UFO as opposed to the more common saucer. The movie ends with them both being abducted — which means the audience don’t have to listen to them whine anymore. Don’t be fooled by the semi-clad babe on the video cover and the  hints that this is a skin-flick – it’s not.

If you want a real soft-core space porn movie, check out Erotic Encounters — there’s no Roswell connection, but it proves that the aliens don’t just probe folks anally and it invents a new kind of perversion: xenosexuality.  Elsewhere, we have Intruders – a duff TV miniseries about alien foetal hybrids and abduction, way too long and utterly yawnable – and the more recent Nineties miniseries remake of The Invaders, where Quantum Leap’s Scott Bakula struggles with a mind-implant and a meandering script. There’s a couple of nicely moody moments, and a cool tip-of-the-hat cameo by the show’s original star Roy Thinnes, but it’s hard going.

Of course, this listing only manages a handful of the saucer flicks you can find, so don’t be afraid to get in some beers, put on your tinfoil hat and seek out your own UFO gems; just don’t forget to keep watching the skies. Heck, if you don’t believe that’s enough of a connection to Hollywood, did you know that actress Demi Moore was born in Roswell? Draw what conclusions you will from that…

The spate of Roswell-alikes (many dating back to since before the arrival of Ray Santilli’s alien autopsy footage) and related UFOrama continues apace, and while many of these stories are high on the hoke scale, it’s still sad fun for dedicated (and demented) saucer buffs to note the classic props of the modern UFO myth as they appear in them; Watch out for, and tick off:

  • The Black Helicopter  
  • The Authority Figure In Search Of The Truth  
  • The Nasal Object  
  • The Cordoned-Off Crash-Site  
  • The ‘Majestic’ Group, MJ-12  
  • The Big Hidden Secret