When an individual has an undeniable UFO encounter, the effects can be jarring – psychologically, physically, and spiritually. A close-up sighting of something that ‘shouldn’t be’ can trigger in the observer an existential crisis, this mundane world of ours having been instantly and irreversibly expanded to cosmic proportions. Suddenly, anything is possible, not in theory, but in reality. How does one slip back into the groove of everyday life in the wake of something so profound?
When we watch genre products like Independence Day or The X-Files, we do so with the expectation that flying saucers and aliens are on the cards. They’re the main attraction, usually featuring loudly in trailers we’ve seen months in advance. When UFOs show up in real life, however, they often do so without warning. For the would-be UFO witness, there are no gravelly voice-overs announcing, “THIS YEAR…”
The same is also occasionally true in Hollywood. Sometimes, UFOs show up in the movies and TV shows you’d least expect. Sometimes it’s just for laughs, but sometimes the UFOs are symbolic narrative devices, challenging the viewer to unravel their deeper meaning, just as the phenomenon in real life challenges the experiencer to question the nature of her own existential narrative.
Here are five examples of when UFOs have shown up in ‘non-UFO’ products in film and TV…
Life of Brian (1979)
This controversial comedy follows the life of a young Jewish man, Brian (Graham Chapman), who is mistaken for Jesus Christ after being born on the same day as, and next door to, the Messiah.
Life of Brian was released in 1979, just two years after Spielberg had thrust UFOs back into the popular consciousness in his epic flying saucer fantasy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. By this point, random UFO references in pop-cultural products needed almost no explanation. This was especially true in Life of Brian, a movie borne of the scattershot, surrealist imaginations of the Monty Python team. In their universe, anything goes, even ancient astronauts, as Brian discovers when he’s ‘abducted’ by cycloptic aliens and whisked off into outer space, only to come plummeting back down to Earth in what may be the world’s first UFO crash.
Stardust Memories (1980)
In which filmmaker, Sandy Bates (Woody Allen), contemplates love, life, and the human condition while attending a retrospective of his career. Allen had dabbled in sci-fi before in Sleeper (1973), one of his “earlier, funnier movies,” and fantasy sequences have always featured in the director’s work, but, as with Life of Brian, it was perhaps a sign of the times that the fantasy here came in the form of UFOs and aliens.
The Colbys (1987)
This Dynasty spin-off originally aired on ABC between 1985 and 1987. It revolves around a wealthy family, the Colbys, connected by marriage to the Carringtons of Dynasty. The Colbys had a massive budget for television, but, despite strong ratings early on, it survived just two seasons before cancellation.
The Colbys was a typical American soap opera. But, in its final episode, which aired March 26, 1987, it entered the Twilight Zone. The character of Fallon Colby finds herself lost and alone one night on a deserted road and is awestruck when a huge UFO appears in the sky above and lands in front of her. An alien appears and beckons her aboard. Mesmerised, Fallon enters the craft, which then exits the scene in spectacular fashion.
That was the end of The Colbys. However, although the show was cancelled, the UFO plotline was continued in Season Eight of Dynasty when Fallon’s husband, Jeff, finds his wife miles from her abandoned car and notices her boots are clean and un-scuffed, indicating that she might actually have been abducted. Eventually, Fallon tells Jeff what little she can remember of her experience, which amounts to little more than her entering the craft. The rest is a blur. Jeff is incredulous, and his disbelief creates a rift in their relationship, eventually leading to divorce.
It may have been a trashy soap, but its depiction of a UFO encounter shattering the life of the experiencer has all too many parallels in real word accounts.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Set in 1949, the Coen Brothers’ neo-noir crime story follows Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber who winds up murdering his wife’s boss and finding himself on death row. As with most Coen Brothers movies, its events and imagery lend themselves to broad interpretation. So, when Thornton’s character sees a flying saucer soon before the credits roll, the critics went into analytical overdrive.
Another Coen Brothers production, another UFO. Inspired by the Coens’ critically acclaimed black comedy movie of the same name, this impressive TV show expands the Fargo narrative through the intersecting lives and synchronicities of an entirely new cast of oddball characters. In the first episode of Season Two, set in Minnesota in 1979, a UFO makes a sudden and spectacular appearance immediately following a triple homicide. The object is witnessed by multiple characters, confirming it as ontologically real, and not merely the fantasy of one warped mind.
“So what's the deal?” asks Scott Meslow, entertainment critic for The Week. Meslow points to the UFO in the Coens’ earlier production of The Man Who Wasn’t There and seeks to ascribe it a deeper meaning in the context of Bill Bob Thornton’s closing monologue:
It's like pulling away from the maze. While you're in the maze, you go through willy-nilly, turning where you think you have to turn, and banging into the dead ends. One thing after another. But you get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns — why, they're the shape of your life. It's hard to explain, but seeing it whole gives you some peace.
The implication is that this random appearance of ‘the otherworldly’ has given Thorton’s murderous barber, Ed Crane, a new perspective on his life, and on his place in the universe. "I don't know what I'll find beyond the Earth and sky,” says Crane, “but I'm not afraid to go. Maybe the things I don't understand will be clearer there. Like when a fog blows away.”
Meslow suggests that “It's not really the UFO that matters. It's Thornton's reaction to the UFO. In that final scene, The Man Who Wasn't There conflates extraterrestrials and outer space with God and the afterlife. Thornton's character is a murderer, and after his close encounter, he's comfortable with the idea that there's no escaping the consequences for that.”
Meslow applies this religious interpretation to the UFO in Fargo:
The Fargo universe hinges on the same kind of cosmic morality that makes up the backbone of The Man Who Wasn't There… whichever you place more stock in [aliens or God], the end result is the same: Someone above is watching and judging, and no one who acts out can escape the consequences.
Meslow’s take on the Coens’ preoccupation with flying saucers is an interesting one, but perhaps he’s over-complicating the matter. Perhaps, quite simply, the Coens are interested in UFOs as a historically real phenomenon – perhaps they’re UFO witnesses themselves – and they get a kick out of dumbfounding their audiences in the same fashion as real UFO witnesses are dumbfounded by what they’ve seen.
A more astute reading of the Coens’ UFO scenes is presented by culture critic, Ryan Hollinger. In a video essay, Hollinger observes that “the UFO is in fact part of this real world [of Fargo]. Yes, without a doubt, the UFO is a physical entity and does undeniably exist… it isn’t a stylized metaphor or psychological in any way.” Fargo’s creator, Noah Hawley, even confirmed to reporters that the UFO is real within the world of the show, noting that it played well within “the conspiracy-minded 1979 era where it’s post-Watergate, you had Close Encounters and Star Wars.”
Hollinger then further discusses the paranoia that characterized American culture throughout the 1970s, and how the Fargo UFO was a reflection of this, and, more significantly, of the growing body of testimonies from the UFO subculture of alien encounters and abductions. It has even been suggested that the Fargo UFO scene was directly inspired by the real-life case of Val Johnson, a Minnesota Deputy Sherriff who, in 1979, claimed to have had a close encounter with a UFO while on patrol. This event occurred in the same location and same year as the events of Fargo Season Two.
“In actual history,” says Fargo creator Noah Hawley, “there’s a lot we understand, and there’s a lot of it we’ll never understand.” Ryan Hollinger echoes this sentiment in his video essay:
It’s a phenomenon. It doesn’t have to correlate with the story… We, as the audience, are so used to having all the answers that when we’re confronted by the reality that not everything in life will be explained to us, it leaves us in existential doubt and disillusionment… we’re not all going to go out knowing all the answers… closure doesn’t always exist.
Whatever the true intent behind random UFO appearances in movies and TV shows where aliens seemingly have no place, it’s fair to say that, for the sheer shock-value of these cosmic intrusions, they may be more realistic in essence than any iconic UFO encounters from Hollywood’s classic science fiction fare.
Robbie Graham is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood's UFO Movies (White Crow Books, 2015).