UFOs are naturally cinematic. They shimmer, they glow, they glide majestically. Though factual, UFOs are also the stuff of great science-fiction, so it is no surprise that they have always sold well at the box-office. Recent years have seen an explosion in the popularity of the UFO subgenre in film and TV (the latest addition being History Channel’s Project Blue Book series), and audiences now stand little chance against what amounts to a full-scale alien invasion of our popular culture. In my book, Silver Screen Saucers, I consider the effects of this invasion and ponder cinema’s transcendent power to both fictionalize and actualize its subject matter.
Several years ago, I was enjoying coffee with a friend. She had no particular interest in UFOs—no UFOlogical knowledge of which to speak. I asked her, “Have you heard of men in black?” I was referring to the factual historical accounts of UFO witnesses suffering intimidation by ominous black-clad mystery men in the days and weeks following their sightings. This very real phenomenon dates back to the late-1940s and has been the subject of many factual books over the decades. My friend replied immediately, “Of course, everyone’s seen Men in Black!” Naturally, she was referring to the 1997 sci-fi blockbuster. Decades of lived history had thus been consumed in its entirety by a 98 minute Will Smith movie. All my friend knew of men in black… was Men in Black. This is the power of cinema.
For my friend, a little-known reality had been fictionalized through its fantastical representation onscreen. And yet, cinema also has the power to actualize. Men in Black and other UFOlogical entertainment products have assumed permanent residency in the popular consciousness, and thus will always occupy at least some level of our perceived reality.
Whether or not they serve to fictionalize or actualize, what is clear is that movies of any genre inform our “understanding” of the world around us. This was beautifully observed by the great British filmmaker Ken Russell, who said that “Hollywood fills the gaps in our knowledge of the world.” This is a profoundly true statement, and, I would argue, more than a little disturbing.
A great deal of Hollywood’s UFO movie content has been informed directly by fact-based UFOlogical literature, events, and debate. I am particularly interested in how Hollywood engages with UFO lore in parasitic fashion—how industry creatives latch onto and suck-dry the rich veins of a ripe old subculture. It’s a perspective contrasts with the skeptical assumption that the UFO subculture feeds on, and thrives as a result of, images projected by the American entertainment industry (although this assumption is well-founded in certain cases).
With this in mind, I encourage the reader to ask: how has so much dense UFOlogical discourse—by its very nature fringe and subcultural—so successfully burrowed its way into Hollywood’s popular narratives? Many in the UFO research community point to a “Hollywood UFO conspiracy” designed to acclimate us to an alien reality (and to subtly disinform us along the way). It’s a scenario in which the US government exploits its close historical relationship with Hollywood by systematically seeding inside UFO information into entertainment media, slowly bringing us around to the truth of the phenomenon, or at least the truth as officialdom wishes us to perceive it. Others, meanwhile, suggest that Hollywood’s UFO movies are merely the result of a natural cultural process driven by generic trends and stemming from a simple recognition among studio executives that, when it comes to the box-office, aliens sell like hotcakes. The truth of matter may lie somewhere in between both of these theories.
My point is this: if you care about UFOs, you should care very much about UFO movies. Like it or not, they are the dominant cultural force shaping our perceptions of the phenomenon. A magical medium has distorted an underlying and mystifying truth. Cinema has moulded and simplified our expectations of how the phenomenon should manifest. And yet, at the same time, UFO movies have provided us with nuggets of truth—inspired as they are by a tangible conundrum sprung from our lived historical reality. The challenge is to separate the truth from the fiction, the fact from the fantasy. To accept the challenge is to actively, rather than passively, engage with Hollywood’s treatment of this multifaceted phenomenon. This is an essential task if ever we are to truly understand the particulars of our own UFO beliefs—beliefs which have been finely sculpted through both natural cultural process and deep political propaganda.
To thoughtfully engage with Hollywood’s UFO-themed products is to anticipate your future and to understand that truth is often far stranger than the wildest Hollywood fiction. The entertainment industry has shaped our perceptions of the phenomenon, often without conscious intent, but sometimes wilfully. UFOs show no sign of leaving our skies, or our screens. They are here to stay. With this in mind, when next we encounter a silver screen saucer, let us all take a moment to peer up from our popcorn, and to separate the fact from the fantasy. We can but try.