The sudden influx of heart-warming UFO movies in the 1980s prompted cinema theorist Vivian Sobchack to observe that aliens surprisingly had become “our friends, playmates, brothers, and lovers.”
In this excerpt from my forthcoming book Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies, I take a look at big screen imaginings of peaceful contact during the 1980s – scenarios in which aliens visit our planet or communicate with our species in a spirit of goodwill, or at least with non-hostile intent...
For Hollywood, the 1980s was gargantuan: a decade of blockbusters and movie merchandise, sequels and trilogies; of action, adventure, and science fiction thrills. Thanks to the huge success of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, cynical studio bigwigs had by now cottoned-on to the public’s enduring fascination with UFOs and had accepted that aliens needn’t always come as invaders – benevolent beings could generate big bucks too. And so Hollywood’s new sci-fi blueprint was drawn in the image of the alien saviour, of intergalactic missionaries and humanity’s ultimate cosmic salvation. It was perhaps inevitable that the most significant film of the decade to work from this blueprint would spring from the very imagination that conceived it: Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982) was an instant global phenomenon and reduced millions of hardened cinemagoers to tears with its tender tale of a lonely boy and his strand botanist buddy from beyond.
E.T.’s plot is as simple as they come: a friendly, physically vulnerable alien bestowed with powers of healing, telekinesis, and mental telepathy becomes stranded in suburban America only to be ‘adopted’ by a lonely boy named Elliot (Henry Thomas). They become the best of friends, connected by a deep psychic and spiritual bond. Meanwhile, government agents are in hot pursuit of E.T., intent on subjecting him to medical experimentation. At one point, E.T. dies at the hands of his government captors, but he returns to life in Christ-like fashion. Eventually, he is reunited with his own people and returns to his home planet, but not before assuring Elliot that the bond they share will span the stars forever.
Few would have believed prior to its release that a modest film about a diminutive alien could become the biggest film in the history of cinema, but it would remain at the peak of the box-office heap for eleven years until Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park finally toppled it in 1993. As Elliot bids an emotional farewell to his Christ-like friend, he tells him: “I’ll believe in you all my life, every day.” It was a sentiment many Americans seemed to share. When asked in a 1982 Gallup Poll ‘Do you believe life exists on other planets?’ 43% of respondents answered in the affirmative. Based on U.S. population figures for the year 1980, this percentage equated to some 97 million Americans believing in some form of extraterrestrial life. The poll was taken one month before the nationwide release of Spielberg’s film. It would have been interesting to have seen figures for one month after.
Bizarrely, E.T. was very nearly a nightmarish horror movie. In 2011, Spielberg told Entertainment Weekly: “It [E.T.] was going to be called Night Skies, based on a piece of UFO mythology... where a farm family reported little spindly grey [sic] aliens attacking their farm...This farm family basically huddled together for survival... It’s a story that’s well-known in the world of UFOlogy, and we based our script on that story.” Spielberg was, of course, referring to the Kelly-Hopkinsville farm siege of 1955. The director even went so far as to hire legendary effects designer Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London (1981)) to bring the impish Hopkinsville aliens to life for the big screen. It was only when Harrison Ford’s then-girlfriend Melissa Mathison came onboard to rewrite the screenplay that the movie became the one that audiences know and love today.
Romancing the alien
As the decade approached its mid-point UFOs were beginning to arrive in Hollywood en masse, planting their landing gear firmly into pop-culture. 1984 saw the release of John Carpenter’s Starman, an E.T. wannabe starring Jeff Bridges as the eponymous alien who crash-lands on earth, finding himself stranded. Romance ensues as fate brings him to an attractive but lonely widow and the pair set off on a cross-country adventure to a site designated by Starman’s people for his heart-rending return to the stars. Inoffensive, but ultimately uninspired, Carpenter’s film sought to capitalize on the popularity of the emerging image of the alien as savior, and, fittingly, his Starman performs all manner of ‘miracles’ during his time on earth, including seeding his infertile lover with a star child (who, we are told, will be a “teacher”), and twice bringing the dead back to life (though he stops just short of turning water into wine).
UFOlogical themes are identifiable in the movie; for example, Starman’s spacecraft is recovered by the US military, and his star child with Jenny brings to mind the stories of hybridization that would proliferate in UFO literature toward the end of the 1980s, throughout the 1990s, and beyond. It is important to note, however, that real-life stories of human-alien interbreeding comfortably pre-dated Starman, most notably in the case of Antonio Villas Boas, who, in 1957, claimed to have had sex with a human-like alien woman aboard a landed UFO near São Francisco de Sales in Brazil. When the deed was done, the alien smiled at Boas, rubbed her belly and gestured upwards: the child would live among the stars, Boas assumed.
The producers of Starman requested no support from any branch of the government. Unsurprising, since, as military historian Lawrence Suid notes, “the Pentagon would undoubtedly have looked unfavourably on a request for assistance because of [the negative] portrayal of the military leadership and of the alien spaceship as a flying saucer.” Suid is correct in essence, although Starman’s spaceship is not a flying saucer, per se, but rather a flying, highly-reflective sphere. The work of Close Encounters production designer Joe Alves, the Starman UFO was intended to break the flying saucer mould, which Alves felt was at risk of becoming stale. “It was a more simplistic design,” Alves told me of his Starman craft, “it was a counter thing to Close Encounters.”
Several months prior to the release of Starman, a 1984 reader survey for the American Psychology Magazine posed the question ‘Do you believe in UFOs?’, its implication being that UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin. 50% of respondents said yes – a strong indication of America’s growing conviction that we were not alone in the universe. The closing ceremony for the Olympic games in Los Angeles that year was a testament not only to how deeply UFOs and aliens had become engrained in the American psyche, but to the extent to which they had become inseparable from cinema. The highlight of the event was the staged landing of a giant ‘flying saucer’ and the subsequent emergence from within of a ‘space alien’ (friendly, of course) who then officially declared the games closed. In an awesome spectacle clearly inspired by the final scenes of Close Encounters, the Olympic saucer communicated with the awestruck crowd below through a series of elaborate lightshows, the orchestral music swelled to a crescendo, and the UFO descended to rapturous applause. It was a sight bizarre and magnificent to behold.
The healing touch
1984 saw the release of The Brother from Another Planet, a low-budget, independent social commentary piece from director John Sayles. In the movie, a UFO crashes near Ellis Island Immigration Centre and its human-looking, black-skinned occupant emerges dazed and confused into the strange and unwelcoming landscape of ‘80s New York City: just another lost soul trying to find his way in the world. We soon learn that The Brother has ESP abilities and, by touching any given object, he can ‘hear’ its history. He also has healing powers like so many other screen aliens of the 1980s. Healing powers have also been attributed to alien visitors in a number of contactee accounts. Take Jose Benedito Bogea, for example, a bespectacled Brazilian chicken farmer, who, after being rendered unconscious by a close encounter with a UFO near San Luis in July 1977, awoke the next morning to find that he had 20/20 vision and thus no further use for his glasses. Bogea would later recall being taken to an expansive alien environment populated by men and women “all looking very much alike; about 30 years old, five feet tall, slender, and nearly all dressed in grey and brown clothes...” Most of the people were “light skinned,” said Bogea, and “the women were pretty and had long blond hair.” Bogea further noted that the people seemed to be talking to each other, but he could hear no words. Presumably mental telepathy was at play.
Another fascinating case involving health benefits for a contactee is that of Paul Mayo, who now resides in Worcestershire, England. His testimony is documented here for the first time in print. Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, Mayo was afflicted by numerous physical ailments stemming first from his prolonged exposure as a young boy to thick mould concealed behind the walls of his bedroom, and later from organophosphate poisoning caused by a farming accident which saw him immersed in sheep dip. All throughout his youth Mayo suffered constant headaches and, by the ache of 22, he had developed chronic bronchitis. His doctor at the time told him bluntly that he may not live past the age of thirty, such was the dire condition of his immune and respiratory systems. Then, on a Saturday morning in November 1978, at the age of twenty-nine, Mayo had an experience that transformed him both mentally and physically. He was sat on the edge of his bed, dressing himself for the day ahead. His wife was downstairs making breakfast. It was around 7am. They had risen early as they had planned to drive into town that morning to do some grocery shopping. As Mayo sat there in his bedroom pulling on his socks the door began to open slowly and he was puzzled to see a “man” poke his head around the door. The man, who was five foot six in height and ordinary in appearance, entered the room silently and raised his palm in a waving gesture. It was at this point that Mayo realized he could not move. He was paralyzed where he sat at the edge of his bed. The stranger now began to “dissolve” before his eyes, leaving only an intricate outline of his nerves and blood vessels, which shone brilliantly, “like a million fibres of light.”
|A light being from the 2009 movie |
Knowing recalls the appearance
of an entity described by
contactee Paul Mayo.
Suddenly Mayo felt himself leaning backwards on his bed. The action was involuntary. His peripheral vision could now detect other men – as many as four – positioned either side of him; they were dressed in “tight-fitting silver clothes.” The last thing Mayo can consciously recall about this experience was being “ejected” from his bed and literally “floated” through his bedroom wall. Approximately three hours later, at around 10.15am, Mayo found himself back on his bed. He was so exhausted that he fell into a deep sleep for around an hour. When he awoke it was after 11am. He went downstairs to see his wife, who seemed not remotely curious as to why it had apparently taken her husband four hours to dress himself. Mayo asked her why she had not come upstairs to check on him – they had, after all, planned to go out earlier that morning for their grocery shopping. Mayo’s wife seemed confused – the thought to check in on her husband had literally never once occurred to her in those past four hours. She had eaten breakfast without him; his had gone to waste. They both agreed that this was most peculiar and Mayo’s wife was at a loss to explain her behaviour that morning. Mayo thought it best not to tell his wife of his experience for the time being; he was unsure even how to articulate it. One thing, however, was immediately clear to Mayo following his experience: for the first time since he could remember, he felt well; fit and healthy. In fact, he was “bouncing like a ball” for the remainder of the day. His many physical ailments – including his chronic bronchitis – seemed to have been cured. When Mayo saw his General Practitioner a few days later he was declared to be in perfect health, which the doctor said was nothing short of “miraculous.” Mayo’s experience also affected his diet as he thereafter found it completely impossible to ingest any kind of meat product. Mayo found that if he attempted to eat meat he would be prevented from doing so – the very act of bringing the meat to his mouth would make him feel instantly nauseous. It wasn’t until several years later that he discovered he could eat fish again, albeit only in small portions. Today Mayo is able to include meat in his diet, although only top-quality organic produce, and only in modest servings. Mayo, now in his mid-sixties, remains in excellent health, having suffered nothing more severe than a couple of minor head colds in the thirty-six years since his described experience.
The next three years in Tinseltown would see a flurry of ‘friendly alien’ movies released in close succession. In June of 1985 came Ron Howard’s Cocoon, in which, yet again, enlightened aliens arrived as saviours – this time to a bunch of crusty senior citizens in a Florida retirement community. The movie’s ETs are vaguely similar to the Greys in appearance, although they glow with an angelic radiance. Biblical themes are evoked when the beings grant their elderly friends eternal life and whisk them up to the heavens to an existence among their celestial peoples. Ancient Astronaut theory is hinted at in a subplot suggesting Atlantis was founded by extraterrestrials – a notion espoused by contactees such as Daniel Fry and Billy Meier in preceding decades. Both of these men alleged that certain alien races have their roots in the lost civilizations Earth, and that their resemblance to us – or rather us to them – is no coincidence.
Cocoon’s producers sought assistance from the USAF, but were denied, according to Lawrence Suid, “because the film portrayed the service unrealistically and posited the existence of UFOs, which ran contrary to Air Force policy.”
With July came Joe Dante’s Explorers, an underrated, highly imaginative children’s adventure about the exploits of three young boys (played by Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix, and Jason Presson) and their attempts to make contact with aliens after receiving a schematic via their dreams for an anti-gravity device. The trio use the schematic to build a small spacecraft and make a fantastic voyage to the stars where their alien friends await them.
The UFO literature is replete with examples contactees and abductees claiming to have received information from alien intelligences via remote mental download – images and information seemingly projected into the mind as if from nowhere. The British contactee Paul Mayo claims to have had an extraordinary boost in knowledge following his aforementioned experience in 1978. Specifically, he found he had an aptitude for science, despite having no qualifications in the subject and no prior understanding of it. Mayo’s newfound scientific knowledge was such that he would go on to work for several years as a high school physics teacher.
This ‘downloading’ theme would feature again in 1986 in Disney’s Flight of the Navigator, which saw a young boy’s brain ‘implanted’ with complex data from an alien source and which is later downloaded by NASA scientists. In other respects previously mentioned the film also recalled the story of 1950s contactee Daniel Fry. Additionally, it touched on the theme of alien abduction, including the phenomenon of ‘missing time’ (in this case eight years). Flight of the Navigator features a secret UFO retrieval (although no crash), and scenes of the spacecraft parked in a secret government hangar which anticipate the stories of Area 51 that would emerge three years later. Despite instigating a cover-up and taking a boy away from his family for experimentation, NASA ultimately comes off an essentially harmless organisation, much as it did in Spielberg’s E.T.
Paul Mayo considers Flight of the Navigator to be the most “accurate” UFO-themed movie he has ever seen. It should be noted that while Mayo’s 1978 encounter was his first of the otherworldly kind, it was not his last. He claims to have had further experiences with different alien species (all of whom were benevolent) in the early 1980s and again in the early ‘90s. All these encounters were experienced in ‘real-time’ and were consciously recalled. In short, Mayo claims to have been onboard spacecraft on multiple occasions and that some of the beings he encountered expressed to him a grave concern for the future of our planet. “Whenever Flight of the Navigator comes on the TV I have to watch it,” Mayo told me. “I’m not a person to watch any film twice, but when that comes on I’m riveted. A lot of the things in it are the things I encountered myself.” When I asked for details, Mayo drew particular attention to the Navigator UFO being extremely similar to craft he claims to have been inside. He was especially struck by the sparse but functional interior of the Navigator UFO. The spacecraft Mayo claims to have experienced were essentially a series of empty rooms, and yet he had a clear sense that they were highly functional and that their technological apparatus was ingeniously concealed from view, as is the case in the Disney movie.
The following year, Steven Spielberg would again don his alien cap as he executive-produced Batteries Not Included (1987). Here, the aliens came in the form of tiny, living (and procreating) flying saucers that devote themselves to bettering the troubled lives of the tenants of a rundown New York apartment block, with typically heart-warming results.
Perhaps the most serious alien saviour film of the decade came in 1989 with the release of James Cameron’s aquatic Cold War epic, The Abyss. The film follows the blue-collar crew of a submersible oil rig in its fateful discovery of USOs and a Non-Terrestrial Intelligence located in the depths of a cavernous trench. Back on dry land, as the Cold War approaches boiling point, the aliens (or N.T.I.s as they are referred to in Cameron’s script) reveal their presence in spectacular fashion and deliver, à la The Day the Earth Stood Still, a message and an ultimatum to our warlike people, the gist of which: ‘grow up and live in peace or we’ll destroy you all.’ Unsurprisingly, humanity complies.
Researcher Ivan T. Sanderson explored the UFO-USO connection in his 1970 book Invisible Residents, and its influence on Cameron’s movie is plain to see. Throughout the 1990s, UFO researchers would document numerous USO encounters involving militaries worldwide, as well as persistent rumours that a number of undersea alien bases were dotted around the globe.
“Friends, playmates, brothers, and lovers”
The sudden influx of heart-warming UFO movies in the 1980s prompted cinema theorist Vivian Sobchack to observe that aliens surprisingly had become “our friends, playmates, brothers, and lovers.” In her 1987 book Screening Space, Sobchack noted that “in quite a transformation of earlier generic representations, most of the new SF films do no not represent alien-ness as inherently hostile and Other.” True enough, although the genre was not without its fair share of malevolent ET beasties either. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) was a deeply unsettling throwback to the paranoid invasion flicks of the 1950s. However, despite being arguably the best movie of Carpenter’s career thus far, it tanked at the box-office. Released hot on the heels of the warm and fuzzy E.T., critics and audiences alike were repelled by the horrific imagery of Carpenter’s ice cold creation, and its failure was regarded within the industry as a death knell for the ‘alien invader’ archetype of old. Three years later, director Tobe Hooper felt Carpenter’s pain when his 1985 ‘space vampires’ movie Life Force suffered a spectacular defeat in a head-to-head box-office battle with Ron Howard’s Cocoon.
The invaders would continue to rear their ugly heads – albeit sporadically – throughout the remainder of the decade. James Cameron’s 1986 sci-fi-action sequel, Aliens, filled seats (and pants) around the world with its intense and gritty rendering of humanity’s first organised battle against the terrifying Xenamorph species of Ridley Scott’s original Alien outing, and its muscular, techno-fetishistic approach to extraterrestrial combat would act as a major influence on the 1987 Schwarzenegger vehicle, Predator. Three months after the release of the latter, in September 1987, President Ronald Reagan would politicize earth’s potential alien threat in his now famous speech at the UN. Indeed, one wonders if the ex-B-movie star’s personal obsession with a space-based missile defence system (fittingly referred to as ‘Star Wars’) was fuelled, at least in part, by his own extraterrestrial concerns so frequently articulated. Within the Reagan Administration space increasingly was being discussed as a potentially hostile arena – a notion that would re-emerge post-9/11 and assume tangible form in the Bush Administration’s large-scale militarization of the final frontier. The films of the 1990s and beyond would serve to reinforce the political perception of space as a U.S. National Security concern.