June 17, 2021

Time-release Capsule Reviews, Part Two: Unidentified Flying Horrors

Forget Covid-19. Forget the latest mud-slinging in Washington, D.C. Forget the NBA and NHL playoffs. I’ll tell you what’s really on people’s minds these days: UFOs.

After Luis Elizondo, former head of a Defense Intelligence Agency program to study unidentified aerial phenomena, released videos of the Navy’s encounters with the strange Tic-Tac UFOs (or should I say UAPs) in 2017, the topic went mainstream in a hurry.

It certainly helped that, after some dithering, the Pentagon confirmed the videos as authentic. Suddenly, such sober, authoritative media outlets as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were treating UFOs seriously instead of poking fun at the credulous rubes. And interviews with rock-solid military pilots who had witnessed the incredible flying whatsits were popping up all over the news.

The dam has broken, and it seems like we’re being treated to a near-constant flood of new videos and images, witness testimonies and Pentagon acknowledgements that there may really be something to this UFO thing after all (but whatever it is, it’s not our secret stuff). 

Still, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951
"Mr. President, the aliens are here and they're wondering if they can
get a copy of the UAP Task Force Report."

Just recently, 60 Minutes, the soberest, most sclerotic mainstream news program of them all, devoted its first ever segment to UFOs, including a very serious interview with Luis Elizondo. And there’s potentially another big shoe to be dropped with the release of the UAP Task Force report to Congress this summer.

As all the revelations have been piling up, I’ve had my own interesting encounters -- not with aliens, but with regular, down-to-earth people who are intrigued by the serious attention UFOs are getting. My go-to ball cap for protecting my balding head from the sun features a classic grey alien whose bulbous forehead is stitched like a baseball -- one of the logos of the now defunct minor league baseball team the Las Vegas 51s (named of course after southern Nevada’s notorious Area 51).

When I first started wearing the cap, no one, except for the occasional baseball fan, noticed the damned thing. But as more and more UFO stories hit the mainstream news, my cap became a wonderful conversation starter. Now, it’s almost routine when I’m out in public for perfect strangers to spot it and start talking about aliens and government cover-ups and the possibility that not only are we not alone, they’re actually here!

Photo - Las Vegas 51s ballcap
According to my sources, there is no truth to the rumor that aliens use
Spider Tack to get a better grip on their abductees. 

So, in honor of all those curious, somewhat freaked out people and the ongoing UFO/UAP revolution, I’m devoting this installment of capsule reviews to a triptych of “up close and personal” film encounters with aliens and UFOs, from the 1990s to the not-quite present.

The films below are not about epic alien invasions. Invasion flicks are a lot of fun too, and I plan to do a post or two on that subgenre in the near future. So stay tuned, and in the meantime, keep watching the skies!

The alleged alien abduction of forest worker Travis Walton in eastern Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest on November 5, 1975 is one of the most celebrated and controversial accounts in all of UFO lore.

Supposedly, Walton and six other workers were heading home from a hard day of forest thinning when they spotted a saucer-shaped craft hovering near the road. When Walton got out to get a better look, he was enveloped in a bright light and knocked to the ground, unconscious. The rest of the panicked crew hightailed it out of there. After extensive searches, Walton showed up five days later in a nearby town, with a story that he had been abducted and examined by two different species of aliens.

Believers point to the fact that Walton and his co-workers passed polygraph examinations, and have stood by the story for 45+ years (although recently crew chief Mike Rogers has wavered somewhat). Skeptics point out that the polygraph tests, sponsored by The National Enquirer (not the Sheriff’s office as depicted in the movie), were poorly administered, and that Walton and several family members and friends had previously been infatuated with UFOs. 

Whatever your take on it, watching Fire in the Sky will enthrall you and possibly make you a believer, if only for an hour or two. This is not so much Travis Walton’s movie (played by D.B. Sweeney) as it is friend and fellow forester Mike Rogers’ (Robert Patrick). After the shaken crew returns to town without Travis and tells its incredible story to the sheriff, tensions run high for days afterwards as most of the townspeople have concluded that Rogers and the others are hiding something, quite possibly Travis’ murder.

Even Travis’ reappearance and the vindication of the polygraph exams can’t redeem Rogers, who gets divorced and, at the end of the movie, has become a recluse who hasn’t seen his daughters or former friend Travis in years. Patrick is very good as a flawed, but nonetheless stand-up guy who lives constantly on the edge, taking seasonal forestry work to keep the bill collectors at bay and his rusty old truck running. He passionately stands his ground, even in the face of withering skepticism from his family, neighbors, and hotshot criminal investigator Frank Watters (James Garner).

And then there’s the justifiably famous sequence with Walton aboard the alien craft. The film’s IMDb trivia page relates that studio execs found the real Walton’s abduction account too mundane, and had screenwriter Tracy Tormé (son of jazz singer Mel Tormé) jazz it up (pun intended). He and director Robert Lieberman succeeded spectacularly.

I watched Fire in the Sky with some friends a few years after its video release. Two of them reported not being able to sleep that night. I am (ahem) made of somewhat sterner stuff, but there’s no doubt that Fire in the Sky’s depiction of Walton’s close encounter remains to this day the wildest and scariest ever committed to film.



Night Skies
(2007)

Night Skies is a typical representative of the subgenre of alien siege movies involving small groups of travelers, vacationers and/or locals who, while trying to commune with nature, end up being stalked by scary aliens bent on abducting or dissecting them. (For other examples, see Alien Abduction or Extraterrestrial, both released in 2014).

The movie strains credulity at the outset by asking us to believe that a group of oversexed twenty-somethings on their way to Las Vegas in a humongous rattletrap RV are lost because one of them wanted to take the scenic route... at night.

Rattling down a bumpy sideroad, the driver (Matt, played by George Stults) is distracted by weird lights in the sky, sideswipes a broken down truck in the middle of the road, and careens into a tree. Matt is the movie’s requisite hothead, and deals with the situation by punching the owner of the truck, ex-soldier Richard (Jason Connery) in the mouth.

A bad move, since Matt’s friend Joe (Joseph Sikora) has ended up with a kitchen knife in his back as a result of the crash, and Richard is the only one of the group with medical training (courtesy of the Army). Of course, neither vehicle is in shape to drive, and there’s no cell signal. Unfortunately for the stranded group, Joe’s injuries are just a precursor of what’s to come, as it soon becomes evident that they are not alone in the dark woods.

To its credit, Night Skies tries to add depth to its characters with various backstories: Matt’s girlfriend Lilly (A.J. Cook) is reluctant to tell him she’s pregnant (at least in part because he’s an immature dolt); Richard confides to Matt’s sister Molly (Ashley Peldon) that he was tortured by the Iraqis as a POW in Desert Storm, and his life has been on hold ever since.

The problem is that some of the backstory development slows things at crucial junctures and doesn’t really add anything substantive or explain why the characters act the way they do. However, patient viewers will be rewarded with some effective jump scares, a couple of good effects on what I assume was a shoestring budget (especially the fate of an old cabin), and aliens that won’t scare anybody, but that are pretty well-designed. (The score and the sound design are particularly outstanding, with the subtle, ominous music underscoring the aliens’ skittering and trilling as they pursue their prey.)

Night Skies’ climactic pièce de résistance is a scene that, to be charitable, is very reminiscent of Travis Walton’s abduction experience in Fire in the Sky (some might say it’s a blatant rip-off). The original scene is uniquely terrifying, and those who haven't seen Fire in the Sky may be impressed by Night Skies’ version. But the Night Skies people might have been better advised to come up with something more original.



This strange film goes all out in pretending to be a documentary drama, to the point that at the beginning, it presents lead actress Milla Jovovich as herself, grimly intoning, Dragnet style, that the following story is true and only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. And before the end credits, It throws up blurbs about what happened to the principal characters after the events of the movie transpired.

The title refers to one of the categories of UFO encounters that researcher J. Allen Hynek developed in the early ‘70s, famously popularized by Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Actually, Hynek only described 3 types of close encounters; UFO researchers have since expanded the list to seven. A close encounter of the fourth kind is abduction by aliens.) 

Jovovich plays Dr. Abbey Tyler, a clinical psychologist and mother of two young children, whose husband was recently murdered in a horrific home invasion. In the course of counseling patients in the remote town of Nome, Alaska, she is intrigued and baffled when a number of them independently tell her the same story of being awakened night after night by an owl that sits outside the bedroom window and stares at them.

When she decides to hypnotize one of her patients to try to figure out what the strange owl is all about, the session reveals a terrifying underlying reality, and unleashes a series of bizarre events that sweeps up Tyler herself and threatens her children. (Believe it or not, the owl-alien connection is a real thing in UFO circles; read all about it: “The Owl-UFO Connection Continues,” Nick Redfern, Mysterious Universe.)

As Tyler delves more deeply into the mystery and conducts more hypnosis sessions, the film frequently employs a split screen to show the supposed “actual” taped footage side by side with the “recreated” scenes involving Jovovich and her fellow actors. Interspersed throughout are segments from an interview conducted years after the events in Nome, in which the “real” Dr. Tyler (played by Charlotte Milchard) defends her interpretation of what happened.

It’s all very meta, but surprisingly effective. For a film about alien abduction that neither shows an alien or a UFO, it still manages to generate a good deal of suspense and dread, especially in the hypnosis scenes. It even manages to insert such concepts as ancient astronauts and Sumerian demons at various points without completely blowing the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

Milla Jovovich took a break from being an action heroine in the Resident Evil movies to emote as the “recreated” Dr. Tyler, and she’s very good -- including the ability to let loose with a very creditable scream when the scene calls for it.

Perusing the IMDb user reviews, the residents of Nome, Alaska aren’t happy with the way The Fourth Kind depicted their town, but if you can get past that and the film’s cheesy “this is a true story, wink, wink” set-up, there are some legitimate thrills in store for you.

4 comments:

  1. Very enjoyable article about the alien abduction sub-genre, Brian! You've certainly piqued my interest. I saw Fire in the Sky at the drive-in (not long before that particular drive-in was leveled to build a multiplex), and my memories are pretty vague. I need to give that one a re-watch. Sounds like The Fourth Kind might be worth a look as well.

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    1. Thanks so much Barry! Fire in the Sky is well worth another watch, as IMHO it succeeds both as the scariest depiction of an alien abduction ever, and a sobering account of the social implications of being a UFO witness "nutcase." Since watching these three, I can't stop binging on UFO movies-- next stop, Communion with Christopher Walken. :)

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  2. I'm looking forward to more UFO movie reviews. Keep 'em coming.

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