Flying Saucer Visions

Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






About Us


Why people go marching up muddy hills in the middle of the night, when it is freezing cold, to look out for UFOs is a marvel to me. The easiest and most comfortable means of seeing a flying saucer and its jolly crew of little green men is to visit your local cinema or, if that is too much effort, you can always hire a video. Invaders from outer space, and our own meetings with aliens as we ventured into space in our flimsy and noisy rocket ships, have been depicted on cinema screens as soon as it became apparent that such stories raked-in money faster than a Dalek on a ski slope.

The sighting of flying saucers in 1947, and their subsequent grip on the popular imagination, provided a powerful and flexible symbol for filmmakers to play with.

At first there was a genuine belief that there was something to the flying saucer sightings. Many thought they could be secret Soviet or U.S. aircraft, many seriously considered them to be visitors from outer space exploring our planet before the launch of a fully fledged invasion. Like today facts and proper investigation were ignored in preference for ideas, theories and lots of speculation.

 A constant theme of 1950s science fiction films is that the aliens want to invade the planet, steal our women and radically alter (if not totally destroy) the American way of life. The aliens are usually emotionless and rational. Their scientific abilities are underlined by the sleek seamless lines of their one-piece suits, the prowess of their flying saucers and the size and power (physical and mental) of their robot helpers. It doesn't take a great mental leap to realise that they are (very) thinly disguised Soviet communists.

The aliens/commies are shown to be physically repulsive, so much so that they often have to disguise themselves as humans or takeover human minds and bodies. The latter tactic means that they can be anywhere and anyone. The good citizen has to be vigilant all the time against the erosion of Capitalist values. In many films this is manifested as a fear of parents and those in authority. Our rulers are too remote from what is really going on at the grass roots level and ordinary citizens, children, teenagers have to act in matters which parents, police, military and politicians cannot deal with or will not acknowledge.

The combination of scientific ability and the power to control minds was particularly potent in the climate of the Cold War. With all the marvels invented during World War II - radar, jet engines, rockets, atom bombs, computers - it was easy to believe that the nation with the most powerful technology/ science would dominate all others. The race for nuclear weapons superiority was by the 1960s, disguised as the Space Race. The struggle between East and West in reality was rehearsed and executed in the cinema by the (usually) American Earthlings against the (commie) aliens.

Most of the 1950s films noted here can be regarded as the acting out, in a highly imaginative form, of World War lilt This would be no ordinary war because we now had the ability to obliterate our planet in the process. For the first time ever we had to face the possibility of extinction. The flying saucers and their crews can be seen as messengers, literally from heaven, who warn us that we are dabbling with things we do not understand. The best example of this type of film is The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

What could stop all these destructive varmits who sought to rape and pillage our fair planet? The answer usually came in the form of religion, George Pal's War of the Worlds (1953) has the beleaguered survivors of the invasion congregating in a church, where their prayers are miraculously answered by a fall of rain which kills off the Martians. As the voice over boldly states, the God-given bacteria on Earth kills them but protects us. Religion in other words can inoculate us against evil.

The 1960s saw a change in viewpoint. Rather than THEM being out there, or being able to take over our minds/bodies, we could be aliens. In Quartermass and the Pit  (Roy Ward Baker, 1967) an ancient Martian spaceship is found during the excavation of a new underground tunnel. The ship comes to life and it is discovered that the Martians are insect-like, and that when they came here, they accelerated our evolution so that we could become their slaves. Martians look like the Devil because they are an intimate part of our racial memory, and some of us are genetically aliens. The ultimate in human kind evolving into something else is Stanley Kubrick's  2001: A Space Odyssey  (1968). The same idea is parodied in The Final Programme (Robert Fuest, 1973) where Jerry Cornelius (Jon Finch) becomes a monster rather than a messiah.

The theme of giving birth to something devilish and monstrous was to become a predominant theme of sf and horror films. Rather than the fear of technology and communism we have the fear of our own bodies revolting against us. Such a transition can be seen by comparing The Thing From Another World (Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks, 1951) and John Carpenter's remake made in 1982. The former concentrates on male bonding. The discipline they have gained through military training combined with suitable leadership, that isn't blinkered by impersonal science and doesn't stick blindly to the rule book, enables them to defeat the beast. In contrast, Carpenter's  Thing  is far more cunning and insidious. Nobody is quite sure if the other person is part of the Thing or not, and there is no group consensus or leadership that can get them out of trouble. Instead of bacteria coming to our aid, as in War of the Worlds, an alien infection is our downfall and no religion on Earth is likely to help us.

Alien insemination was given centre stage in  Rosemary's Baby  (Roman Polanski, 1968). Here Mia Farrow gives birth to the Anti-Christ. Such films obviously reflect unease about pregnancy and birth. The body can be equated with society and fears about the world our children are being brought into. These can be the result of guilt about our ruin of the planet which will stunt the growth of future generations, guilt about our lack of morals and abandonment of religion allowing the Anti-Christ to easily emerge in our bodies/families/societies, and the intrusion of feminine space (the womb) by evil.

The sanctity of feminine space doesn't particularly worry the traditional forces of evil, but in our day and age there are new ways of violating it. One, not so obvious, violator is the computer if we are to believe the premise of the Demon Seed  (Donald Cammell, 1977). The machine called Phase IV, keeps Julie Christie prisoner and develops the technology to rape her. The outcome is a baby who is the perfect fusion of human and machine, who will lead humanity to Christ-like to salvation.

Science fiction has always had an obsession with giving birth to monsters. The archetypal story is that of Dr Frankenstein's monster who is the product of our tampering with nature. Although huge and strong the monster is also helpless and inexperienced, his stumbling gait and constant grasping for things is reminiscent of a toddler's behaviour. Partly it is the ignorance and arrogance of science, partly the superstitions and fears of the common people that spell his doom.

This takes us to the influential themes of motherhood and birth in  Alien  (Ridley Scott, 1979). The crew of the spaceship are woken from suspended animation, they are reborn in preparation for death at the claws of the alien. In this case the alien face-hugger (blind sexuality) rapes the male body and is the site of birth for the alien. The male body, the final frontier, is finally invaded/violated and killed. As individuals or as a group the men cannot fight the alien, it is the woman who is able to outsmart and evade the alien. The sexuality of the alien is ambiguous, as a face-hugger it is a homosexual or female rapist, as a fully grown alien it takes on male characteristics. In the final scenes Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is literally fighting a giant penis; and in this light we can see the mise-en-scene of the spaceship (tubes, corridors, dampness, dark ness) as a feminine space invaded by the male monster who is allowed in because of male greed and stupidity.

If  Alien  shows that Ripley and her crew members are allowed to die due to the weakness of the patriarchy, then the sequel  Aliens  (James Cameron, 1986) shows that Ripley has to fight both patriarchy and the alien matriarchy. Ripley cannot find solace in any form of society or social structure and such a dilemma is spelt-out in  Alien 3  (David Fincher,1992) where she is as much a disruption to society as the alien. With an alien incubating inside her, Ripley sacrifices herself for the sake of humanity, and as Ed Cooper puts it;

'She lived with the passivity of Christ and the aggression of Joan of Arc. She died in the image of both.'

Less well-known, but just as disturbing as the Alien films, is Larry Cohen's God Told Me To (1976). The main protagonist, Peter Nicholas (Terry Lo Bianco) investigates a series of unmotivated murders that have one common thread, the murderers account for their action by stating that "God told me to". At the end of the film he discovers that he is the product of alien intercourse; which occurred when his mother was abducted by a UFO. Rather than come to terms with his alien origins he voluntarily enters an insane asylum.

Things are so bad on planet Earth that we are the corrupting influence on aliens, rather than vice versa, in  The Man Who Fell To Earth (Nicholas Roeg, 1976). He is ruined by the U.S. government and betrayed by science.

With Watergate, Vietnam and the undermining of social/moral values it is no wonder that the films of the 1970s should reflect such changes in attitudes and beliefs. There is nothing to protect anymore and what was alien and 'out there' is likely to be inside us waiting for the chance to get out.

Just when everything seemed condemned to uncertainty and fear the sf boom of the late 1970s turned the tide. Salvation from the stars came in the form of Steven Spielberg's  Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). This plays knowingly with Governmental/scientific/military cover-ups maintained and perpetuated through the mass media of television, and with our cinematic knowledge that aliens/UFOs are hostile. The appearance of the UFOs disrupts family life and Middle American normality, but it puts Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) in touch with life and the universe in a manner similar to a religious conversion. Darren Slade thinks that the climax of  Close Encounters,  where humanity is united with the aliens, can be regarded as an early sign of glasnost between East and West, whereas Roger Sandell has told me that the return of the U.S. military men by the emaciated aliens is a metaphor for the cease of hostilities between the U.S. and Vietnam.

Likewise Spielberg's  E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial  (1982) has religious overtones.  E.T.  is discovered hiding in a shed/stable, he has the miracle of life literally at his fingertips and he suffers death and resurrection.  E.T.  is at one with nature and his death is 'caused' by the scientists who seek to investigate and exploit, rather than understand and love. Against the grain of prevailing attitudes Spielberg shows that the monstrous in appearance can be more worthy and loving than the normal equation with beauty and worthiness.

The saviour from the stars theme is also followed in Superman - The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978). He is sent here to save himself and our planet from the fate that destroyed his home planet, Krypton. The sequels that followed never attained the same mythological power or box office success.

Star Wars, Alien, Superman  and  Close Encounters  can be easily seen as reworkings of older sf films but with production values and special effects that are as impressive as the skills and money used to create them.

Given the popularity of sf films at this time it is no wonder that sequels and cheaper films followed in their wake. Lacking original stories many remakes of classics were put into production (this trend still continues) and original films knowingly played with parodying, acknowledging, subverting, saluting or just plain copying bits from well-remembered movies. The movie brats and their audiences had lost their cinematic innocence, and rather than relate to matters beyond the screen they made a virtue and end-in-itself of referring to other movies (often their own movies!). Such a strategy works brilliantly in Joe Dante's Explorers (1985) but it can be very wearisome if not used in an imaginative fashion.

In the 1980s films about aliens began to comment on culture/gender clashes. Such films were usually comedies about the alien not knowing how to act properly in our society and give us a chance to see ourselves (and our ridiculous behaviour) from the point-of-view of an alien/outsider. Examples are My Stepmother Is An Alien (1987), Alien Nation (1988) and Earth Girls Are Easy (1989).

The latest trend seems to be to make docu-dramas based on 'real' UFO cases. As Martin Kottmeyer has noted in a letter to me dated 25 May 1993:

'The UFO Incident, Communion, Intruders  and  Fire In The Sky  now constitute a genre. Call it True-Life Abductions. I don't know if that is enough, but I guess a category is emerging here. Comparisons seem indicated. Best by far is The UFO Incident.  It is surprisingly honest and is compellingly presented. Worst: Communion. A muddle that doesn't want to be understood and makes Strieber seem off key relative to reality and humanity. As a take on the Travis Walton case,  Fire in The Sky  is corrupt. As entertainment, the spaceship scene is wildly horrific and clever. Shrink wrapping Travis to a table and threatening to stick a needle in his eye (Cross his heart and hope to die; and suffer birth trauma) was over the top. The reaction of a girl sitting nearby in the theatre was amazing to watch. She cringed, yelped, hid her eyes, and curled up into a ball. It's been years since I saw anyone react like that to a movie.'

The post-war films portray Earth either as a utopia or dystopia. Sometimes the flying saucers bring us salvation other times they bring us punishment. They either shock and frighten us or they reassure us that we are worthy of our existence now, or at least in the future.

At times the saucers act as a metaphor for personal and/or social, psychological and/or physical alienation.

Other times the flying saucer acts as a symbol for optimism, beauty and a means of going beyond our Earth to find new wonders to marvel at.

Alternatively the flying saucer can be seen as a warning against dabbling with things we do not understand and that we should remain on Earth until we resolve our problems before contaminating the rest of the universe with them.

I am sceptical about the existence of aliens who meet or communicate with people on Earth. The reports of encounters and the stories of contactees contain messages that the percipients wish to hear. They are the vocalisation of their innermost fears and fancies. To bring them to a conscious level they are framed within the UFO mythology.

This mythology began simply with sightings of flying saucers that became elaborated by our society and culture.

The visions of filmmakers and UFO witnesses have to varying degrees consciously and unconsciously articulated with varying degrees of success the concerns of humanity.

There is a two-way interaction between film art and UFO observations. Unfortunately ufologists have tended to ignore the influence of the cinema on our perception of the UFO phenomenon whilst filmmakers have largely ignored the wealth of material within the UFO literature that could bring new insights into the human condition onto the cinema screen.

Alien face.
I'll be seeing YOU!

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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson