Focus : What Happened in Roswell, N.M.? : SHOWTIME FILM RE-EXAMINES ACCOUNTS OF 1947 UFO LANDING

Bart Mills is a free-lance writer based in Southern California

When you're making a film about extraterrestrials visiting Earth, rule No. 1 is not to deny their existence--or the vehicles they arrived in.

So Kyle MacLachlan, starring in "Roswell," Showtime's drama about a possible UFO crash in 1947, is careful not to disrespect anyone's faith: "I personally have never seen a flying saucer," he says gravely. "There are people who have seen something. Obviously, something has moved them."

"Roswell," premiering Sunday, relates the true story of an incident near the town of Roswell, N.M., also known as the birthplace of Demi Moore. A sheep rancher found some strange debris and called the sheriff in Roswell, who called the Air Force base. Officers from the base talked to the people and checked out the debris. Lacking any other explanation, the base commander put out a press release saying a flying saucer had crashed. Immediately afterward the Pentagon declared the press release inoperative and clamped the lid down on further discussion.

In the film, the officer played by MacLachlan 30 years later decides to check into people's memories of what happened. Needless to say, he finds that their stories conflict. Was there a cover-up? Does the United States Air Force know all about extraterrestrials but won't tell us what it knows?

MacLachlan says he believes the question of the existence of UFOs "is incidental."

"Maybe the debris came from some hush-hush military experiment and that's why they removed all the traces of the crash. Maybe they withdrew the press release about finding a flying saucer so the military wouldn't be a laughing stock. It does strike me as odd that such an effort was made. There's no denying that those people saw something."

The man conveying these judicious thoughts appears to be a stooping, gray-haired retiree, but it's actually MacLachlan, 34, in makeup to play scenes set at an Air Force squadron reunion in 1977. The "Roswell" unit has finished shooting on the actual "UFO crash site" and is now filming at an airfield in Van Nuys, in the shadow of one of the few World War II B-29s still flyable.

Martin Sheen is also here, playing a man who crashes the reunion to stir up MacLachlan's inquiries about the long-buried Roswell incident. Sheen has his own way of discussing UFOs: "I wish it were true. I really do. I'd love there to be ETs--as long as they were better creatures than we are."

For many people, the questions surrounding ETs and UFOs were resolved by Steven Spielberg in his movies "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T. The Extraterrestrial." He showed that ETs and UFOs are no more than wonderful fantasies. For a few, however, the question is urgent and real.

One of these people is "Roswell" executive producer Paul Davids, who stands near the unit's makeup trailer, where a tabloid headline taped to the door alleges: "UFO Aliens Sold in Pet Shop--They're Mistaken for Hamsters."

Davids, a Princeton University graduate, says, "The story has been denied, and we include those official denials in the film. But there are many credible people in the military who believe that Roswell marked mankind's discovery of extraterrestrial life." With only the slightest encouragement, Davids will mention other strange UFO incidents. "There was the incident in Washington, D.C., in 1952. There were sightings all over the capital, confirmed by radar. Within a few days, everything was denied."

His Roswell, N.M., theory is that aliens were checking out the Earth's atomic potential. "Three bombs had recently been tested nearby, one just 70 miles away. If there was intelligent life watching, that blast could have been seen from Mars."

Speculation, though, is far from MacLachlan's mind. "The answer doesn't matter to me. I'm interested in this character, who makes an effort to rediscover something he had denied and lost. When he was told to forget about it, he did, and he didn't wake up for 30 years. Then he discovered that the government wasn't the benevolent institution he thought it was."

It's easy to make the parallel between MacLachlan's character in "Roswell" and his Agent Cooper character in the cult series "Twin Peaks." Agent Cooper investigated strange goings-on in the Northern woods, and this character investigates strange things in the Western desert.

"I do tend to play characters who go through experiences that cause them to have a transformation," he agrees. Why? "Because I'm available," he jokes. When he embarked on "Roswell," he had just returned from Prague, where he played Franz Kafka's Joseph K. in "The Trial," another story of a man seeking to penetrate a cosmic mystery.

"I said when I finished 'The Trial' that I've had it. ... Yet here I am. It's like Al Pacino, always being pulled back to play gangsters. If you do something well and the audience likes you doing it, when you want to move on, they don't allow you to."

"Roswell" premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.

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