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Ancient Astronauts at the Movies

Ancient Astronaut movies are those in which extraterrestrials visit our planet in its distant past, or at least prior to the post-1947 UFO era, interacting with our primitive inhabitants, influencing our beliefs, our technology, even our evolution.

Ancient Astronauts (AAs) have always done well at the box-office, and, with sequels to both Stargate and Prometheus now in the pipeline, they show no sign of extinction in our popular culture.

Here are ten AA movies in which UFOlogical ‘fact’ and fantasy notably overlap…

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Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

In 1967, a year before the publication of Erich von Däniken’s bestselling Chariots of the Gods?, Britain’s Hammer Studios released Quatermass and the Pit, a feature film based on the BBC TV serial of the same name. The plot concerns the discovery of an ancient Martian spacecraft and its deceased pilots below the streets of London. Our hero, Professor Quatermass, declares the craft and aliens to be around five million years old. Furthermore, suggests the professor, the Martians played a key role in shaping human evolution and intelligence.

Quatermass theorizes that the Martians came here because their own world was dying. When Earth proved inhospitable to their species, they decided to plant Martian memories deep in the subconscious of primitive Earthlings, preserving some vestige of their own civilization and jumpstarting intelligence on Earth in the process.

Ideas surrounding ancient Martian civilizations and their links to those on Earth have been explored by a number of filmmakers over the decades and have even found their way into conspiracy lore as woven by Richard Hoagland, for example, who contends that advanced civilizations once existed (and may still exist) on our Moon, Mars, and other planets in our solar system, and that NASA and other agencies of officialdom have long been engaged in a cover-up of these facts.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

While Chariots of the Gods? was flying off the shelves in 1968, director Stanley Kubrick was flirting with Ancient Astronauts in his seminal movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the plot for which concerns the discovery of ancient extraterrestrial artifacts and the notion that mankind is the product of a prehistoric alien experiment.

Essentially, 2001 is an evolutionary tale. It begins in humanity’s distant past when a tribe of early hominids is shocked by the sudden appearance of a glassy black monolith in their immediate territory. Through processes unknown, the monolith jumpstarts human evolution, eventually leading mankind into the final frontier of space.

It is well known that Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke had a joint ‘UFO’ sighting three years prior to the release of their epic movie. One night in 1965, while gazing into the night sky, Kubrick and Clarke spotted an unidentifiable object. After checking with some of his contacts at the local observatory, Clarke surmised they had likely witnessed a transit of the satellite Echo 1.

In 1968, the year of his movie’s release, Kubrick sat for an interview with Playboy magazine, in which he revealed his active interest in UFOs. The director spoke of Project Blue Book and the Condon Committee that ultimately ended the USAF’s UFO investigations. Kubrick told Playboy that he was “really fascinated” by UFOs and that the phenomenon was worthy of rigorous scientific investigation.

2001 is also of note for anticipating theoretical research avenues of the 21st Century. In 2011, renowned astrobiologist, Professor Paul Davies of Arizona State University, published a paper titled ‘Searching for Alien Artefacts on the Moon.’ In it, Davids and his co-author suggest that our moon should be scoured for ancient traces of intelligent extraterrestrial life, arguing that images of the lunar surface and other information collected by scientists could hold clues as yet unnoticed by casual eyes – a detailed computerized search of existing lunar imagery may yield startling discoveries.

In what seems like a case of life seeking to imitate art, Davids and co. suggest that an alien civilization may even have left a message on our moon intentionally, perhaps contained within a capsule at a lunar landmark, patiently awaiting discovery. In this context the scientists suggest we direct our attention toward the Tycho crater, the same location of the moon monolith in 2001. They further postulate that alien messages could be buried beneath the lunar rock and fitted with transmitters that could penetrate the surface, again, just as we saw in Kubrick’s classic movie.

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Hangar 18 (1980)

By far the most notable AA production of the 1980s was Hangar 18 – arguably Hollywood’s first UFO conspiracy movie and one that incorporated into its plot many aspects of the real-life UFO enigma.

Hangar 18 begins in Earth orbit as NASA is preparing to launch a satellite under the watchful eye of the US military. Just as the satellite is launched from the space shuttle, however, it collides with a UFO, killing a NASA astronaut in the launch bay. This is witnessed by the other crew in the shuttle, our heroes, Bancroft and Price, (played by Gary Collins and James Hampton). Upon their return to Earth the men seek answers but soon realise their government has instigated a cover-up, and that they, too, are being kept in the dark.

We learn that, following the collision in orbit, the UFO made a controlled landing in the Arizona desert, where it was captured by the US military. The craft is soon transported to the top secret ‘Hangar 18’ where it is studied by NASA scientists (lead by Darren McGavin). Onboard the craft, the scientists make a series of startling discoveries:

  • The alien pilots, although dead, are physically undamaged and are almost exactly human in appearance. The scientists conclude that the aliens visited Earth in ancient times, that they were seen as gods, and that they interbred with Earth women and ‘jumpstarted’ human life as we know it today.
  • A human woman is also onboard the craft in stasis. When removed by doctors, the woman awakens in a state of terror. We assume she is an abductee
  • In the ship’s data files, the scientists find glyphs similar to those used by ancient Earth civilizations. The scientists also discover extensive aerial surveillance footage of Earth’s power plants, military bases and major cities. The aliens, it seems, have been taking an active interest in our technological capabilities.

Meanwhile, Bancroft and Price are dogged in their pursuit of the truth and are targeted by the government for assassination. Unfortunately for the secret-keepers, the crusading astronauts survive; they blow the whistle, and bring about UFO Disclosure.

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Stargate (1994)

Roland Emmerich’s movie was one of the first of its decade to neatly package the core ingredients of America’s now vibrant UFO-conspiracy subculture: government secrecy, reverse engineering of alien technology, an evil alien from a dying world, and, crucially, Ancient Astronauts.

The plot concerns a 10,000 year old headstone discovered in Egypt in 1928 and now under lock-and-key in a US military installation (clearly modelled on NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain complex). Linguist Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is tasked by project leaders with deciphering the glyphs and symbols that adorn the artifact and deduces from them the existence of a “Stargate,” a device capable of forming a traversable wormhole for cosmic explorers.

The film’s screenplay is a not-so-subtle endorsement of America’s actions during the first Gulf War, pitching a despotic ‘foreign’ leader (the alien, Ra) against the US military (portrayed here as a liberating rather than invading force) in a battle for the hearts and minds of an oppressed desert people. The film sees the despot destroyed, and the desert folk freed and Americanized in the process, trying cigarettes and Hershey’s 5th Avenue chocolate bars along the way, before ending up clad in US military fatigues while proudly saluting Kurt Russell’s Colonel O’Neil.

As with almost every AA-themed entertainment product that preceded it, Stargate owed a heavy debt to Erich von Däniken. The Stargate Ultimate Edition DVD includes a featurette called Is There A Stargate?, which chronicles von Däniken’s life, from boyhood to AA authority. Although a box-office success upon its release, Stargate has yet to spawn a sequel. In 2014, though, MGM and Warner Bros. announced they are teaming-up with Director Roland Emmerich and Producer Dean Devlin for a ‘re-imagined trilogy’ based on the original movie.

The concept of Stargates has since taken root in UFO conspiracy theory, with some self-proclaimed ‘whistleblowers’ claiming firsthand knowledge of a real-life Stargate program operating secretly through the US black-budget.

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Steven Spielberg’s much-lamented fourth instalment of the classic franchise sees the iconic hero in pursuit of an ancient artifact of the fallen Mesoamerican Ugha civilization (modelled on the Mayan civilization). The crystal skull, we come to learn, is that of an interdimensional being, one of many who once were revered as gods by the people of the mystical city of Akator and who bestowed upon their subjects advanced knowledge and technology. In one scene, our hero interprets ancient pictographs inside the Temple of the Crystal Skull, which he estimates to be “as old as the pyramids,” depicting beings with enlarged craniums being worshipped by the masses: “Someone came and taught the Ugha farming, irrigation,” says Indy.

The film is explicitly UFOlogical. It features direct references to the Roswell Incident. There is even a scene set at a secret military base in the Nevada desert unmistakably modelled on Area 51, as well as a classic flying saucer, which, in the film’s finale, transports the interdimensional being, closely resembling a tall alien Gray, “not into space,” as Professor Oxley (John Hurt) tells Indy, “but to the space between spaces.” All of this was much to the annoyance of Indiana Jones fans, who felt that, while supernatural and religious MacGuffins were acceptable staples of the franchise, Ancient Aliens were a step too far.

Despite the fans’ disappointment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull went on to gross in excess of $700 million at the worldwide box-office, making it one of Spielberg’s most successful films to date.

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The Objective (2008)

This little-known, low-budget sci-fi horror was directed by Daniel Myrick, best known for co-helming the influential found-footage horror, The Blair Witch Project (1999). The Objective movie 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, most notably, the vimanas of ancient Sanskrit literature and AA lore.

Director Daniel Myrick described to me how he had grown up in the 1970s watching TV series and documentaries exploring Ancient Astronauts. Specifically, Myrick cited the 1977 BBC documentary The Case for Ancient Astronauts and In Search of Ancient Astronauts, narrated by Rod Serling. “Both had big influences on my imagination and world view about earth and the cosmos,” Myrick explained.

Curiously, The Objective’s screenplay was co-written by Wesley Clark Jr., son of the famous US General, Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in Europe and, in 2004, a candidate for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination. In October of that year, UFO researcher David Rudiak had the opportunity to speak with Clark directly in Reno, Nevada. “When you were in the military, were you ever briefed on the subject of UFOs?” Rudiak asked the General. According to Rudiak, “Clark looked down for a moment and shook his head somewhat chagrined looking like ‘Damn it, here it comes!’” Clark then answered: “I heard a bit. In fact, I am going to be in Roswell, New Mexico, tonight.” Rudiak followed up: “So, were you briefed?’” General Clark replied: “There are things going on. But we will have to work out our own mathematics.” With that, the General was gone.

With this information in mind I asked Myrick to what extent Clark Jr. was involved in scripting The Objective and what attracted him to the project in the first place. The director informed me that Clark Jr. had written the initial draft of the script based on Myrick’s own original story outline. “From there I revised and eventually produced the shooting version you see in the film,” Myrick explained. “My understanding is that Wesley liked the premise and the fact it was dealing with Special Forces operations.”

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Thor (2011)

In Marvel’s Thor, the eponymous crown prince of the alien realm of Asgard is exiled to Earth by his disapproving father. It is on our planet that Thor meets beautiful astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who helps him stop his brother Loki from seizing the crown of Asgard and waging war across the universal realms.

One of the film’s opening sequences depicts the Norse people of early Scandinavia at the mercy of alien beings (the frost giants). In a voice-over, Odin tells us: “Once, mankind accepted a simple truth – that they were not alone in this universe. Some worlds Man believed to be home to their gods; others they knew to fear…”

In the Marvel universe, Thor and other gods of old are aliens – or rather inter-dimensional beings. In the movie they travel between worlds (or “realms”) by way of wormhole technology known as a Bifrost Bridge, which references the Bifrost of Norse mythology – a burning rainbow bridge that reaches between Midgard (our world) and Asgard, the realm of the gods. Seeking to ground their fantasy in solid scientific theory, director Kenneth Brannagh and his screenwriters liaised with scientists from the Science & Entertainment Exchange, among them Kevin Hand, who, at a NASA panel discussion in 2014, predicted that extraterrestrial life would be found within the next 20 years. It was through discussion with the Exchange that wormholes came to feature as a major plot device in the movie, with the characters accurately recognizing the Bifrost as being an “Einstein–Rosen bridge.”

Thor was well received by critics and proved a hit at the box-office, raking in just shy of $450 million worldwide.

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Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Based on a graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the Spielberg-produced Cowboys & Aliens sees a generic 1870s frontier town besieged by monstrous extraterrestrials who are mining the regional gold and abducting humans in an effort to discover their weaknesses. The screenplay taps into UFOlogy with references to missing time, cattle mutilations, and, in the form of its gold-seeking aliens, the Anunnaki of AA-lore. “They want gold,” we are told by one of the characters, “it’s as rare to them as it is to you.”

Acknowledging the film’s debt to AA-lore, in the 2011 documentary Cowboys & Aliens: An Inside Look with Steven Spielberg, the movie mogual remarks: “A lot of people have come to believe that visitors from outer space have something to do with the pyramids, and so it just seemed that if the Egyptians had an [alien] interaction, couldn’t pioneers of the West?”

Perhaps they could. In January 1878, The Denison Daily newspaper of Texas reported that a local farmer, Mr. John Martin, had witnessed “a dark object high in the northern sky” of such unusual shape and velocity as to make him stop and stare. As he stared, the object grew considerably in size and moved in his direction until it was “almost overhead.” The object was reported as “going through space at a wonderful speed,” and, significantly, “was the size of a large saucer.”

Despite the huge talent involved in the production, and a huge budget ($163 million), Cowboys & Aliens somehow missed its mark, failing to connect with critics and returning a disappointing $176 million at the worldwide box-office.

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Prometheus (2012)

The Alien franchise was further expanded in 2012 when director Ridley Scott returned to the helm with Prometheus, the long awaited, much-hyped prequel to his 1979 classic.

In 2089, archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a starmap in remote Scotland that matches others from multiple unconnected ancient cultures across the globe. The starmap is interpreted as an invitation from humanity’s extraterrestrial creators, the “Engineers,” and a corporate funded mission to the distant moon LV-223 is soon underway aboard the spaceship Prometheus. This is a film in which humans quite literally meet their makers. Unfortunately for the crew, their makers are harsh masters, and humanity is revealed to be but one of many genetic experiments to have been conducted by the Engineers across the galaxy. The Engineers’ real area of interest is bio-weapons, and their greatest achievement is the Xenomorph of the Alien franchise – the ultimate biological killing machine.

In advance of the film’s release, Ridley Scott spoke repeatedly about the influence of Erich von Däniken, and of his own personal belief in the existence of intelligent alien life and visitation. Scott ‘outed’ himself as an AA proponent when he told Empire magazine:

In the ‘60s there was a guy called Erich von Däniken who did a very popular book called Chariots of the Gods?, and he proposed pre-visitation, which we all pooh-poohed. But the more we get into it, the more science accepts the fact that we’re not alone in this universe, and there’s every feasible chance that there’s more of us… living in other parts of this particular galaxy.

When asked by Empire if he personally believes Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials in its ancient past, Scott replied:

I think it’s entirely logical. The idea that we’ve been here three billion years and nothing happened until 75,000 years ago is absolute nonsense. If something happened here two billion years ago, if there was a civilization at least equal to ours, there would be nothing left after two billion years. It would be carbon. We talk about Atlantis and cities under water that have long gone, long submerged, but they’re in the relatively recent past. I’m talking about one-and-a-half-billion years ago – was this planet really empty? I don’t think so.

In addition to AA theory, Prometheus also makes an oblique, reference to abduction lore. In Ridley Scott’s 1979 movie, Alien, after the crew of the spaceship Nostromo has awakened from their hyper-sleep, the ship’s navigator, Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), states their location as “just short of Zeta II Reticuli.”

Zeta Reticuli, as any self-respecting UFO buff knows, is a binary star system in the constellation of Reticulum, located approximately 39 light-years from Earth. The UFO buff knows this because Zeta Reticuli is thought by many to be the home system of the so-called “Gray” aliens – an idea that has its roots in the 1961 Hill abduction incident in which Betty and Barney Hill were allegedly taken aboard an extraterrestrial spacecraft in rural New Hampshire and subjected to medical tests.

When the Hills underwent regression hypnosis several years after their abduction experience, Betty recalled being shown a starmap by the ETs, which she later sketched from memory at the urging of her psychiatrist. That starmap was interpreted by amateur astronomer Marjorie Fish as a depiction of the Zeta Reticuli star system and quickly entered UFO lore.

During the marketing campaign for Prometheus, Ridley Scott made explicit reference to Zeta II Reticuli. In a promotional featurette, the director said: “The planet where they [the crew of the Prometheus] go is called Zeta II Reticuli… This story kind of walks around the truth of what there may be out there… It presents some big questions.”

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Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Director J. J. Abrams breathed further life into his newly rebooted Star Trek movie franchise with this re-imagining of the 1982 classic, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The film’s opening sequence plunges us into the brilliant crimson forests of an alien world where Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Doctor Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) are fleeing a primitive humanoid tribe. The Starfleet officers are in disguise so as to prevent the tribespeople from seeing their human (i.e. alien) faces and shattering their embryonic philosophical and religious paradigm. Kirk and McCoy are, as any Trekkie will appreciate, seeking to uphold their prime directive: to avoid at all costs any overt interference with the internal development of an alien civilization – especially one that is “barely out of the stone age” and which views its own culture as the center of the universe.

This idea of non-interference between alien cultures is frequently discussed in the UFO and scientific communities. Some scientists consider it entirely plausible that any advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy would seek to avoid drawing the attention of inhabitants of more primitive worlds for fear of sparking civilizational collapse. Many in the UFO community insist this is why ET has not yet landed on the White House lawn.

Numerous alleged contactees have claimed that benevolent space folk have actually saved humanity from destruction on occasion throughout history by quietly preventing potentially catastrophic natural disasters. Star Trek into Darkness explores these UFOlogical concepts in its opening scenes when Kirk, McCoy, and Spock attempt to covertly prevent the eruption of a super volcano that would wipe-out the fledgling civilization. The Starship Enterprise is hidden from the aliens’ view beneath the ocean off the coastline as Kirk and McCoy attempt to blend in with the natives. Things don’t go according to plan, however, as not only are the two astronauts rumbled, but their starship is witnessed by the awe-struck tribespeople rising majestically from the ocean. We know in that moment that their civilizational path has been dramatically altered as, soon after, they begin drawing and worshipping a crude pictogram of the Enterprise. A religion is born.

As if these UFOlogical allusions weren’t sufficient, the fictional alien planet of our discussion is actually called ‘Nibiru,’ the name of the theoretical planet thought by Zecharia Sitchin to pass by Earth every 3,600 years, allowing its inhabitants, the Anunnaki, to interact with humanity. According to Sitchin, these beings were the first gods worshipped by Man.

These filmic nods to UFOlogy should come as small surprise when we consider that the screenwriters for Star Trek into Darkness are Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Damon Lindelof. Between them, these men have written and/or produced the likes of Transformers, Cowboys and Aliens, and Prometheus – all of which owe a heavy debt to UFO literature. Orci, for one, has made no secret of his personal interest in the UFO subject. In July 2011, the screenwriter was asked by The Wrap if he believed in aliens. He replied in the affirmative and added: “I think the evidence clearly indicates that the government’s lying about what the hell’s going on.”

Robbie Graham is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies (White Crow Books, 2015).