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Close Encounters of the Cinematic Kind : Aliens Invade the Big Screen as Hollywood Sees Big Bucks in Outer Space

They’re coming! They’re coming! They’re . . . here!

For whatever the reason, Hollywood is abuzz about Outer Space Chic.

Alien invader movies--which blasted off in the ‘50s, slumped in the ‘60s, and enjoyed a brief revival during the Steven Spielberg Regime (1977-1982)--are back again. Something is definitely in the air:

Morton Downey Jr. recently revealed that he was once visited--perhaps even briefly abducted--by alien visitors (the New York Post headline: “Spaced Out With Mort!”).

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Nearly half the community of Gulf Breeze, Fla., watched unidentified objects swooping through the sky earlier this year (the National Enquirer snatched up photos from the encounter, but never ran them, saying they couldn’t be authenticated).

“Transformation,” Whitley Strieber’s nonfiction account of his encounters with “intelligent nonhumans,” has been on the New York Times best-seller list for the last two months. (His previous book, “Communion,” is being made into a feature film starring Christopher Walken and Lindsay Crouse.)

“I’ve seen tons of fake flying saucer footage,” says TV exec Richard Goldsmith. “But I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who’ve called me aside lately, obviously worried that I’d think they’re total kooks, and told me about their UFO encounters. It’s hard to believe they’re all making it up.”

One extraterrestrial buddy picture, “Alien Nation,” is now in the theaters--and already a modest hit. Nearly 15 more films are either due for release, in production or being developed at studios around town. Several more alien invader tales are on TV.

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Why are aliens a hot Hollywood topic again? “It’s the perfect entertainment concept because you’re dealing with something that is real--Earth--and something that may be possible or impossible--extraterrestrials--but which could affect our lives,” says Goldsmith, a LBS Entertainment programming exec who oversaw the recent “UFO Cover Up? Live” broadcast. “We also knew we had a controversy on our hands, which is important for our kind of reality-based programming. In fact, it makes for great television.”

Invader films often strike a deeper psychic chord as well. “They’re the myths of our modern day society,” says director John Carpenter. “In America, we don’t have legends and fairy tales anymore. No one reads ‘The Iliad’ or ‘The Odyssey’ and no one makes Westerns anymore. So these alien invaders, with their tremendous power for good and evil, have come to represent our new myths. It’s these rubbery creatures from outer space who symbolize both our hopes and our anxieties.”

Astonishing and unsettling at their best, gimmicky and cheesily implausible at their worst, alien-invader films are a strange hybrid of science fiction and horror. It’s no coincidence that the first spate of films arrived in the early 1950s, fueled by anxieties about the atom bomb, flying saucer scares and Communist subversion.

An extraordinary assortment of ‘50s films, ranging from “Invaders From Mars” to “It Came From Outer Space” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” focused on the horror of human life being subverted by cold, passionless alien invaders. Intellectually superior to humans (symbolized by their over-sized heads), the aliens often disguised themselves as folksy bumpkins so they could “take over” humans and transform them into passive, depersonalized slaves.

Looking back, it’s tempting to interpret these films as political allegories, perhaps inspired by Cold War paranoia or fears of technology. From alien comes alienation. And many films, led by Don Siegel’s “Body Snatchers,” sounded a warning cry against a conformist, grey-flannel-suit society.

As Susan Sontag described in a 1965 essay: “These films reflect powerful anxieties about the condition of the human psyche. . . . The planetary invaders are usually zombie-like, their movements either cool, mechanical or lumbering--blobby. And it’s this regime of emotionlessness--of regimentation--which they will impose on the Earth if they are successful.”

Aliens popped up occasionally during the ‘60s, sometimes as chilly urchins (“Village of the Damned”), most notably as a shadowy, primordial presence in Stanley Kubrick’s majestic, hallucinogenic fable, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” By the late 1970s, thanks to Steven Spielberg, they were back in force, spurred by the huge success of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Better still, many inventive film makers returned to the genre. Philip Kaufman did a 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Ridley Scott directed “Alien.” In 1982, John Carpenter surfaced with a remake of “The Thing,” following it up with “Starman.” Spielberg kept the momentum going with “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” (also in 1982), which was followed by Ron Howard’s “Cocoon” and John Sayles’ “Brother From Another Planet.”

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With the exception of “Alien,” the box-office hits all followed the Spielberg formula, which as critic Vivian Sobchack put it: “initiated a new iconography of beatific human wonder.” “Close Encounters’ ” multitiered spaceship, with its colored lights and enchanting music, has more in common with an outer space merry-go-round than a flying saucer. Technology, which once spawned future-shock, had become filmgoer friendly. Who could fear Space-Age gadgetry when the movies themselves relied on so much special-effects hardware?

Sex and violence were banished from the alien vocabulary. In fact, Spielberg’s invaders were beneficent creatures--cuddly, magic-show messiahs who offered awe-struck humans an irresistible surge of hope, faith and euphoria. It’s no wonder that these optimistic visions captured the popular imagination during a time of born-again religious revivals and tumultuous social upheaval.

“I think ‘Close Encounters’ was a really pivotal film in the genre,” said David Kirkpatrick, president of the motion picture division at the Weintraub Entertainment Group. “Since it and ‘E.T.’ came out,

audiences have found a new connection with alien films. Since they now offer a more sentimental, upbeat approach, they appeal to a broader audience--people don’t just associate them as being ‘50s B-movies.”

In fact, it’s tempting to see the malevolent, ‘50s invader pictures as Freudian films--playing on our repressed fears--while the dreamy, Spielberg-era pictures draw from Carl Jung, offering a collective sense of rapture and transcendence. Oddly enough, Jung was an UFO fancier late in life, speculating that flying saucers’ round design corresponded with the “mandala archetype,” a geometric design seen by many cultures as a symbol of unity and healing.

Perhaps that’s why alien films are back in vogue again. The film genre has finally been domesticated. Best of all, the new wave of good-natured extraterrestrial invaders fit neatly into today’s studio marketing machinery. Freed of their grim, malevolent intensity, they can be safely cast as comic characters, glamour gals, buddy-movie sidekicks or even tourists!

“Alien pictures have become part of the mainstream,” says Carpenter. “Someone recently did a survey and found that alien invader films have become just as accepted as romantic comedies. I mean, my gosh--now everyone has a visitor from outer space. And they’re cute! Just think--we’ve completely tamed the aliens. They’re just like cop shows.”

A Political Spin

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Why do we have such an abiding fascination with these strange invaders? Calendar talked to a variety of actors and writers, designers and directors, who offered an intriguing array of comments:

Director John Carpenter, no stranger to alien invaders (he did “Starman” and “The Thing”), gives the genre a wildly political spin with his new film, “They Live,” due out Nov. 11 from Universal Pictures. A broad satire starring Roddy Piper and Meg Foster, the movie paints the Reagan Revolution as a fiendish free-enterprise plot run by aliens from another galaxy.

“It’s an anti-yuppie movie where all the symbols of Reagan-era affluence--the foreign-made luxury cars, back-yard swimming pools, the high fashion--are just illusions,” said Carpenter. “They’re really the product of mass hypnosis by this alien culture which has used a hypnotic TV signal to drug everybody into submission. They’re actually exploiting the Earth as if it were a Third World country.”

The only way you can spot an alien is by donning a pair of special sunglasses. “Then you can see them,” Carpenter said. “They look awful, with bug eyes, weird skulls and flesh falling off all over the place.” He laughed. “To me, they look just like Republicans.”

Mandy Patinkin had seen hundreds of space invader films, but he based his “Alien Nation” character on someone much closer to his heart--his youngest son. “I wanted my character to have that openness and innocence that you see in young children,” he said. “Since the only thing that I could move at all were my eyes, I made my character an observer, someone who’s always looking at people, who’s curious about these extraordinary human creatures. I kept telling the make-up men to make me look as much like a baby as possible, because that innocence related so much to the aliens we had in the film.”

Patinkin found that--even in full alien make-up--he could easily blend into a crowd. “When we were shooting on Hollywood Boulevard I discovered that my pal Billy Crystal was just down the block, making ‘Memories of Me.’ So during a break, I walked down the block to say hello--and no one even turned their head. I’d get one look and then everyone would forget about me. After 30 seconds, they even forget that you’re from outer space!”

Patinkin finds it hard to believe that aliens don’t exist. “I think that belief is almost part of our subconscious. Maybe that’s why I was so enchanted by ‘Close Encounters.’ The day after I saw it, I bumped into Richard Dreyfuss, who’s a friend. And I was so sad to see him. It was so disappointing. I’d bought the fantasy--I really believed he’d gone off with the spaceship. And I didn’t want to see him till he’d had a chance to go up there and back. And here he was--he hadn’t even really left. It broke the spell!”

“The problem with designing aliens, spaceships or anything set in the future is that directors want something people have never seen before, yet it has to be supported by something you’d expect to see or you’ll lose the audience completely,” explained Syd Mead, a renowned designer who has taken the billing of “visual futurist” on such films as “Blade Runner,” “Aliens” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”

“In film, you’re always aiming for something new, but you need cliches, because they’re part of people’s visual vocabulary.”

Mead has even designed alien clothes--he calls them counter-cloaks. “The concept is that if we think true aliens look really weird--like strange insects or giant, gooey spiders--just imagine what they must think we look like. So for a meeting between us and them, I’ve come up with the counter-cloaks. They’d disguise all the strange shapes or oddly placed orifices, so we could have a meeting and not get put off by oozing pores or big noses.”

Mead is always aiming for a fresh visual perspective. Asked to design a flying saucer for a recent film, he proposed building a model of a ’58 Buick and spinning it so fast that its outline only registered as a blur. “You don’t need to invent everything. If you take a dust mite, blow it up so it’s 100 feet high--that will get you right out of the house. It’s the same creature you see every day, but if you give it a different size or perspective, it’ll look pretty nasty!”

For years, an apocryphal tale has made the rounds of the UFO enthusiast community. According to the anecdote, during the early years of his presidency, Ronald Reagan had a special White House screening of “E.T.” After the screening was over, Reagan--clearly struck by the warmth and beneficence of the film’s outer-space visitor--was introduced to director Steven Spielberg. “What an amazing story,” Reagan is said to have whispered into Spielberg’s ear. “And only a handful of us know how true the movie really is.”

As co-editor of UFO magazine, a publication which investigates UFO phenomena, Vicki Cooper has often puzzled over the relationship between alien-invader films and real-life flying saucer incidents. “UFO watchers have two schools of thought about these films,” said Cooper. “One theory is that the movies are being used to condition humanity to the presence of aliens on this planet--not as a fantasy, but as a reality. It would give people a vicarious experience which--through the power of film’s visual imagery--would help them accept the notion of outsiders landing here.”

Cooper says a rival theory contends that many invader films are the product of a massive disinformation campaign by the military intelligence community. “The hypothesis is simple--if you wanted to reach the largest amount of people in the shortest amount of time, why not use the movies?” she said. “If the government wanted to rally support for high-tech space defense systems like SDI, wouldn’t it make sense to persuade the public that an alien invasion might be imminent? Once you’ve rallied public sentiment, the technology could be used as a bargaining chip against the Russians or anyone. After all the wild stuff that came out of the Iran-Contra scandal, a lot of people wouldn’t find it hard to believe at all.”

Writer-producer Tracy Torme has never been abducted by extraterrestrials. But he can easily imagine it happening--and claims it’s not a pretty picture. “Most of the abduction encounters have been very unpleasant experiences,” said Torme, a creative consultant for the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

“They are very intense, dark and unsettling. It’s not like ‘E.T.’ at all. And when you hear so many accounts, all with so many exact things in common, it’s obvious something is going on--and all over the place.

“UFOs are the most misunderstood subject in the world. They’re a real phenomena, but there’s such a stigma attached to having encounters with aliens that the bogus cases get all the National Enquirer headlines while you never hear about the plausible ones. I’ve talked to scientists, military people, celebrities--big name ones--who’ve all had abduction encounters. It’s like a secret society, because no one will go public with it for fear of ridicule.”

However, Torme is going public with a movie project called “Fire in the Sky,” which is being produced by Wizan Film Properties. The script is based on a famous UFO abduction case involving Travis Walton, an Arizona man who says he spent five days in an alien spacecraft. What made Walton’s experience such a cause celebre in UFO enthusiast circles is that his disappearance was witnessed by five friends, who confirmed his account and were actually under suspicion of murdering Walton until he reappeared.

“That’s what I think makes these stories such a compelling topic for films,” said Torme. “An alien abduction is like having a ‘Twilight Zone’ experience--but no one believes you. It’s very much the dark side of ‘Close Encounters.’ Sometimes you wonder what’s worse--the trauma of being abducted or the trauma of how when you get back, nobody believes what happened to you.”

A Comic Fantasy

When at least four different writers show up in a film’s story and screenplay credits, you can bet the movie has been kicking around the studio system for years. That’s the story behind “My Stepmother Is an Alien,” which stars Kim Basinger as an extraterrestrial beauty who has a romantic close encounter with a dedicated scientist played by Dan Aykroyd.

“The script started making the rounds about seven years ago,” explained David Kirkpatrick of Weintraub Entertainment, which is releasing the film in December. “The first version of the script was called ‘They’re Coming.’ It was a very serious look at an invasion from outer space which was led by a woman. Later on, there was a completely different version, called ‘Two Kids,’ which focused on an invasion of a particular American household. By then it was more of a campy, John Waters-type comedy.”

According to Kirkpatrick, the project was first developed at Paramount, then later at Fox, where it eventually assumed its current title. However, neither studio was willing to make the film--not because of its alien theme, but because its key characters weren’t likable enough.

“The film just had too much way-out, midnight movie humor to it. It was funny, but it would only appeal to the ‘Rocky Horror’ type crowd. We wanted to turn it more into a ‘Goodbye Girl’ style film, with a more sweet, sentimental character.”

Kirkpatrick candidly admits: “We’re going straight for Middle America.” Still, it’s an intriguing commentary on today’s studio system that a script that apparently began life as a tale of an alien temptress will finally surface in the theaters as more of a romantic comedy.

“What intrigued me about ‘Stepmother’ was that its new twist on the fish-out-of-water theme,” he said. “But this time the ‘water’ is the Earth itself. In a way, Kim’s character is like ‘Ninotchka.’ For the first time, this woman gets to kiss, make love, make breakfast and feel a part of the American experience. It’s a real comic fantasy.”

What got John Carpenter hooked on invader films? “When I was growing up, alien movies were completely out of the mainstream,” he said. “They were part of an outlaw tradition, like rock ‘n’ roll. I loved seeing those old Roger Corman monster movies because it seemed like forbidden stuff.”

According to Carpenter, alien films can be divided into two distinct political categories--left wing and right wing. “The right-wing films say: ‘They’re out there. They’re coming to get us.’ The left-wing pictures say: ‘The evil is inside me. I’m both good and evil.’ So if you’re pessimistic about the future, alien films are a projection of our bad side. Whereas, if you’re more optimistic, they can represent our idealism and hope for the future.”

Either way, alien films tend to dramatize a fundamental ambivalence about technology and progress. “These movies have always shown a basic conflict about science,” Carpenter said. “We’ve transformed the world, but we’re not sure we like the results. When I grew up, there was something great and horrible about technology. And the films project these anxieties, whether it was the fear of the bomb and Communism in the ’50’s or worries about loss of identity and idealism in today’s era.”


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