No entertainment product has so tantalisingly explored notions of UFO secrecy as The X-Files, which originally ran from 1993 to 2002. The righteous pursuit of ‘UFO truth’ was embodied in the character of Fox Mulder, who was ever just one step away from unravelling his government’s UFO conspiracy and understanding the aliens’ ultimate agenda. This was at the heart of the series’ overarching narrative – the truth was “out there” to be discovered, and individual obsession to the point of religious devotion was key to its discovery.
With The X-Files back on our screens this year, let’s take a look at some more big-and-small-screen entertainment products that have cashed-in on the notion of a grand UFO conspiracy. Here are ten movies and TV shows worth your time in which clandestine agencies take a keen interest in extraterrestrial visitation…
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Spielberg’s UFO epic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was released in 1977. The movie depicted the USAF and NASA as permanently one step behind the UFO phenomenon, pursuing its rapidly accelerating manifestations around the world while attempting to guess its next move in the hopes of meeting the alien intelligences face-to-face, which ultimately they do, covertly. The public at large is kept in the dark throughout. In one scene, clearly modelled on televised UFO dismissals from Project Blue Book personnel in decades prior, a USAF representative addresses concerned citizens and reporters, assuring them that UFOs are non-existent. Holding up a convincing photograph of a UFO, the rep, Major Benchley, declares: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a flying saucer.” Then, picking up a silver pie plate, he continues, “It’s made of pewter, made in Japan, and thrown across the lawn by one of my children.”
Elaborate cover stories are also put in place, as when a compliant media falsely reports a chemical spill near Devils Tower, requiring total civilian evacuation of the area so no one can witness the government/alien contact.
In Spielberg’s movie, UFO disclosure is for the privileged few only, namely those in officialdom and a handful of contactees who have been compulsively drawn to the site of contact, much to the annoyance of the secret-keepers. What happens after Roy Neary departs on the mothership is never hinted at, but, given the secret nature of alien-human communion we have just witnessed, it is safe to assume that the lid will stay firmly shut on UFO reality in the wider world.
Project U.F.O. (1978–1979)
Almost a decade after it closed, Project Blue Book would get its very own unofficial TV show. Airing between 1978 and 1979, Project U.F.O. drew direct inspiration from real Blue Book files, which had recently been declassified. The episodes revolved around two UFO investigators from the Foreign Technology Division at Wright Patterson Air Force Base (played by William Jordan and William Caskey Swaim) who travel around the country seeking explanations for reported UFO sightings and encounters.
In reality, Blue Book officers went to great lengths to avoid exotic conclusions in their investigations. In the TV show, however, a number of cases examined are strongly suggestive of alien visitation. Boasting former Pentagon spokesman Col. William Coleman as a producer and technical advisor, the show can perhaps be read in hindsight as an unofficial (and thus politically safe) DoD endorsement of the extraterrestrial hypothesis. A few years earlier, Coleman had appeared in Robert Emenegger’s Pentagon-backed pro-UFO documentary, UFOs: Past Present and Future, in which he spoke open-mindedly about the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis. He would further subtly support the ETH the following decade in the broadcast of the controversial UFO Cover-Up?: Live! (1988).
This low-budget, little-seen movie concerns a UFO being shot down with a laser by the USAF and its friendly alien occupants being held captive at a top secret facility in the desert. There is even a scene in which a dead alien is autopsied by military doctors, which anticipated the infamous ‘Alien Autopsy’ footage widely released in 1995.
Wavelength was written and directed by Mike Gray, who had penned the screenplay for The China Syndrome (1979). UFO researcher David Sankey wrote to Gray in 2009 seeking a response to a rumor in the UFO community that his film had been produced in collaboration with the government and was inspired by an alleged incident in which the US military shot down a UFO in California in the early 1970s.
Sankey wrote to Gray:
Over the years in my role as researcher I have come across many references to statements by a variety of people that the basic storyline plot to Wavelength was actually based on a factual account or incident which took place at ‘Hunter Liggett’, 90 miles south-south-east of Monterey, California. With this in mind, I would like to be direct and ask if there is any truth in these statements and were you influenced in any way by other parties in preparation for the original Wavelength screenplay? By other parties I mean specifically governmental or military personal who may have approached you in an advisory capacity to see that specific details and information should be contained within the film structure.
Gray wrote back to Sankey that same day. His email read, in part:
It was totally my idea without any input from ex-government officials. I simply took the story of the Roswell incident and asked, “What if they were just tourists?” The whole thing was fiction from start to finish. On the other hand, I’ve always been convinced that the government was hiding something about Roswell.
Brother from Another Planet (1984)
Though not really a ‘conspiracy movie,’ John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet was the first movie ever to feature the Men in Black of UFO lore. In numerous accounts over the decades, mysterious black-suited men have been described as harassing UFO witnesses, often visiting them at their homes and demanding details of their saucer sightings. Sometimes the men attempt to silence the witnesses through intimidation. Sometimes they show official-looking ID badges for various government or military agencies. In many cases, however, the Men in Black seem barely human, having been described as almost alien in their actions and appearance, often speaking and moving robotically and appearing distinctly out of place in an Earthly environment.
While a number of UFO movies in previous decades had featured black-suited government spooks investigating saucer sightings, it was not until The Brother from Another Planet that the Men in Black were depicted precisely as described in the literature. Here, the MIB (played by John Sayles and David Strathairn) are gaunt, pale-faced figures clad entirely in black, whose behaviour is threatening, robotic, and bizarre, and with good reason – they’re alien bounty hunters in search of the Brother. In the film’s closing credits they are even listed as “Men in Black.”
Director John Sayles paid close attention to the bizarre physical motion of his MIB. In order to convey their otherworldliness, the he filmed their entrance and exit scenes entirely in reverse. The effect is subtle, but creepy.
Official Denial (1993)
Bryce Zabel’s TV movie, Official Denial, was an ambitious exploration of UFO conspiracy lore featuring all elements of the then-emergent UFO ‘core story,’ from MJ-12 and UFO crash-retrievals, to an alien in US government custody. It even anticipated reports to follow of military abductions of UFO experiencers (known in UFOlogy as ‘MILABs’). It was perhaps the most explicitly UFOlogical movie ever produced at that point. Unfortunately, its ambitions greatly exceeded its limited budget, and its special effects were severely dated even at the time of its broadcast. It was not widely seen and has yet to receive a DVD release.
Official Denial was a passion project for Zabel, and so its less-than-perfect onscreen realization disappointed him greatly. He told me:
The sadness of my life is that I didn’t sell the script to a large film studio who would have spent 30 or 40 million dollars making the perfect version of it. Instead it got sold to a small company, which sold it to the Sci-Fi Channel [now The SyFy Channel], which made it for around $2 million. The result was that I couldn’t even watch the finished product. It just wasn’t on film what it was in my mind.
Despite its flaws, Official Denial remains a fascinating and influential exploration of conspiratorial ideas still central to the UFO community.
This 1994 TV movie was the first in-depth Hollywood treatment of the Roswell Incident, and themes of time and memory were central to its story. For writer/producer Paul Davids, the purpose of the movie was not just to entertain, but to educate, to bring what many regard as the ultimate UFO cover-up to wider public attention as a powerful and comprehensible narrative.
Roswell is also noteworthy as being one of the first movies to feature a direct reference to Area 51. The secret base shows up fleetingly in a sequence in which a mysterious Falcon-style government leaker (played by Martin Sheen) describes to Roswell whistle-blower Jesse Marcel (Kyle MacLachlan) the events that unfolded in the months and years following the saucer crash.
I asked Davids if the word ‘Roswell’ would be so culturally resonant today had he not so memorably contextualized it in his 1994 movie. “Not as much,” he replied, although he acknowledged that The X-Files, which premiered a year before his movie, also played a major role. “But The X-Files wasn’t just about Roswell,” he stressed, “it was all over the place dealing with a lot of different things. Roswell was just a little part of it.”
Today, Davids considers the Roswell Incident to be a “national institution… massively engrained into the public consciousness, as much as any other story from the history of our country.” It is hard to argue with that statement, and it is harder still to underestimate the seminal role Davids’ movie played in that engraining process.
Dark Skies (1996–1997)
No Hollywood product has so actively sought to blur the boundaries between UFO fact and fantasy as the NBC TV show, Dark Skies, which ran from September 1996 to May 1997.
Created by Bryce Zabel and Brent Friedman, the series presented an alternate history of 20th Century America. Its tagline read: “History as we know it is a lie.” In this case, it was a lie sprung from, and built around, a secret extraterrestrial presence on Earth and the US government’s covert efforts to understand and control the alien threat.
The narrative begins with the Roswell Incident (here a deliberate military shoot-down of an alien craft) and the establishment of the top secret working group, Majestic, which, as in the literature, is tasked with overseeing the rapidly escalating UFO problem in the United States.
Zabel and Friedman pitched their series to networks in the form of a faux ‘Top Secret’ briefing file, modelled on the MJ-12 documents. The thick, ring-bound file, which they referred to as the ‘Dark Skies Bible,’ contained enough rich UFO lore intertwined with official history to comfortably fuel five full series of the prospective show, which had been the original plan. The file was fronted by a one-page letter ‘written by’ the show’s fictional hero, John Loengard, and was addressed to his real-world creators. It read:
Bryce and Brent,
The truth must be told. You have been chosen as instruments to achieve this objective.
The truth, however, must not be represented as truth. Too many people who are needed in the struggle will die.
The cover of fiction must be used to present this truth. Those who fear the light will not want to bring attention to you by allowing your death.
This is the only way.
Do not be afraid.
The fight for humanity demands your courage.
“Our show was really about blending the UFO phenomenon into documented, accepted world history,” Bryce told me. “Everything I had read in UFO literature ended up in Dark Skies, from Betty and Barney Hill to Majestic-12, you name it. I tried to weave it all in there.”
The inclusion of such intricate UFOlogical detail in Dark Skies apparently attracted the attention of real government UFO spooks, leading to a series of bizarre conversations with individuals claiming to be from US Naval Intelligence who seemed to have been monitoring the development of the TV show. For Zabel and Friedman, their ‘fiction’ had suddenly become all too real and the spooked producers thought it best to have no further contact with their mysterious observers.
Men in Black (1997)
Steven Spielberg’s big-budget production (based on the comic book by Lowell Cunningham) re-spun MIB-lore in favor of the Men in Black themselves and of government secrecy surrounding the UFO phenomenon. It was a message encapsulated by Will Smith’s Grammy Award-winning title rap for the movie’s soundtrack, which characterized the MIB as good guys acting covertly to protect humanity from the worst scum of the universe. If the MIB show at your door it’s for your own protection, the song assures us.
In the minds of the many unfamiliar with UFOlogy, Men in Black would now and forever be associated exclusively with a movie and a song of the same name. Moreover, MIB went from being sinister witness-harassers to heroic “galaxy-defenders.” Such is the power of entertainment.
The Men in Black franchise may not be movie propaganda in the traditional sense, in that it was not pushed into production by the state for political ends, but it serves the UFO-related interests of officialdom nonetheless in its presentation of a just cover-up of extraterrestrial visitation orchestrated by a shadowy, yet entirely righteous organization that, by necessity, operates without legal oversight for the good of all mankind.
If the time ever comes when the US President is called upon by his citizens to justify the historical UFO cover-up, he need not prepare an elaborate speech, but say, simply: “Go watch Men in Black.”
Super 8 (2011)
Spielberg returned again to UFO lore in 2011 as executive producer of Super 8, an affectionate pastiche of Spielbergian themes and imagery directed by J. J. Abrams. Set in 1979, the movie follows a group of young friends in a small Ohio town who witness a train-crash and become embroiled in the mystery that ensues. The train, it turns out, is owned by the USAF and is transporting a captive alien from Area 51 to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. When the train crashes, the monstrous alien escapes and wreaks havoc on the small town. We later learn it was acting out of fear and self-defense. It is not hostile at heart, but has become aggressive through decades of ill-treatment at the hands of the US military at Area 51.
2011 also saw the release of Paul, a comedy in which two British sci-fi geeks, Graham and Clive (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), embark upon a UFO road trip across America with the goal of hitting all the key tourist attractions, including Roswell and Area 51. While in the Nevada desert en route to the famous Area 51 perimeter, Graham and Clive stumble across a Gray alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) who has just escaped from the base, where he had been a “guest” (prisoner) since 1947.
This witty movie utilizes almost every element of modern UFO conspiracy lore to enrich its plot, from Roswell and aliens in US government custody, to aliens inspiring Earthly technological innovations, to Men in Black. It even draws conscious attention to the interplay between UFOs and Hollywood and makes light of the idea that pop-culture has been deliberately seeded with alien imagery in an effort to prepare the masses for open contact. At one point in the movie, Clive remarks of Paul’s archetypal appearance, “He looks too obvious!” Paul responds: “There’s a reason for that, Clive! Over the last 60 years, the human race has been drip-fed images of my face, on lunchboxes and T-shirts and shit. It’s in case our species do meet, you don’t have a fucking spaz attack!”
Later in the movie it is revealed that, while at Area 51, Paul worked closely with Hollywood creatives, inspiring iconic movie and TV characters, including Fox Mulder and Spielberg’s E.T. In a flashback scene set in 1980, we see Paul at Area 51 on the phone to Steven Spielberg (appearing as himself in voice form only), who is seeking Paul’s advice on a future movie about a friendly little alien. The conversation plays out as follows:
Paul: Okay Steven, how about cellular revivification?
Spielberg: I don’t know what that is.
Paul: Oh. Restoration of damaged tissue through telepathic manipulation of intrinsic field memory.
Spielberg: What’s that mean?
Paul: It means healing, Mr. Spielberg.
Spielberg: Yeah right, healing. Like by touch or something like that. Like maybe his finger lights up on the end when he reaches out and touches?
Paul: Maybe… You know, sometimes I find less is more.
Spielberg: Hey, trust me.
Robbie Graham is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies (White Crow Books, 2015). A leading authority on the cultural and political interplay between UFOs and Hollywood, Robbie has been interviewed for BBC Radio, Coast to Coast AM, Canal+ TV, and Vanity Fair, among others. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications including The Guardian, New Statesman, Filmfax, Fortean Times, and the peer-reviewed Journal of North American Studies, 49th Parallel. He holds a First Class Honors Degree in Film, Television, and Radio Studies from Staffordshire University, and a Masters Degree with Distinction in Cinema Studies from the University of Bristol.