Do aliens really hover in our skies, waiting to kidnap us for their own unfathomable ends? Ever since the case of US couple Betty and Barney Hill became widely publicised in the mid-60s, hundreds of people have come forward with similar claims of extraterrestrial abduction, missing time, strange medical examinations and grey-skinned extraterrestrials
And while psychologists and ufologists disagree on the reality of such claims, the theme of alien abduction has been revisited several times by filmmakers since the late 70s. And as this list demonstrates, the results of such films can be decidedly mixed…
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
Following the financial success of Jaws, director Steven Spielberg took the risky step of remaking Firelight, a small low-budget movie he’d directed when he was just 16. The resulting movie, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, approached the subject of UFOs and alien abductions with a seriousness and sense of artistry that hasn’t been seen since.
Displaying echoes of Betty and Barney Hill’s experiences, the aliens in Close Encounters quietly abduct humans from all walks of life, including World War II fighter pilots (whose planes are later found abandoned in the Sonoran Desert) and a three-year-old boy (Cary Guffey).
Richard Dreyfuss stars as an electrical engineer who develops an unhealthy obsession with lights in the sky, and his sculpting of an oddly shaped mountain from mashed potato has been lampooned repeatedly since.
Slowly building to a climax of almost religious proportions, Close Encounters features some stunning special effects courtesy of Douglas Trumbull (with Carlo Rambaldi on alien construction duties), and an unforgettable score by John Williams.
Spielberg’s aliens, despite their repeated, sinister kidnappings, are later revealed to be benign and oddly childlike, and the movie concludes with the abductees returned to Earth and Dreyfuss boarding a cathedral-like mothership, no doubt destined for adventures somewhere in a galaxy far, far away.
Flight Of The Navigator (1986)
A kind of junior Close Encounters, Flight Of The Navigator was Disney’s family-friendly rendering of an alien abduction story. 12-year-old David (Joey Cramer) is knocked unconscious and wakes up to discover that eight years have passed. A quick brain scan reveals that his brain is crammed full of star maps, placed there by his alien abductors, and that his lost eight years were the result of a faster than light journey to the distant planet, Phaelon.
This being a Disney film, Flight Of The Navigator is high on cute aliens and low on disturbing experiments, and the latter half of the movie is essentially an excuse for its young hero to go for a joyride in a shiny alien spacecraft (which, incidentally, bears more than a passing resemblance to the ship in Hammer’s classic 1969 movie Quatermass And The Pit).
Memorable for its once groundbreaking CG depiction of a shiny flying ship, Flight Of The Navigator is a fun sci-fi romp (particularly if you were a nine-year-old boy in the 80s), despite the fact that its breezy second half can’t match up to the intriguing set-up of the first.
Christopher Walken turns in an extraordinary, bizarre performance as author Whitley Strieber, in this adaptation of the writer’s apparently real account of extraterrestrial visitation.
Returning from a weekend stay at his woodland cabin, Strieber is haunted by memories of strange lights and grey faces in windows. Seeking the help of a psychiatrist, he recalls, while under hypnosis, his abduction at the pale hands of aliens.
Communion is an odd, often surreal film, and the nature of Strieber’s encounters are frequently ambiguous. Do the dreadful puppet effects serve to underline the delusional nature of the author’s apparent recollections, or are they merely a reflection of the film’s low production values? Rubbery aliens notwithstanding, Communion has occasional moments of genuine unease, and if nothing else, the film underlines how frightening such encounters must be to those who experience them.
While critics treated Communion with disdain in the late 80s, it’s nevertheless worth watching for Walken’s eccentric, semi-improvised acting. He spends much of the film wearing weird hats, mumbling to himself and complaining about paintings that “attack without provocation.” It’s surprising, in fact, that aliens would choose such a terrifying man to abduct.
Fire In The Sky (1993)
Where Communion treated its character’s experiences ambiguously, allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions, director Robert Lieberman’s Fire In The Sky treats its events as absolute fact.
Based on the experiences of Arizona logger Travis Walton (played here by D. B. Sweeney), Fire In The Sky opens in November 1975, with Walton and his fellow workers (who include Robert Patrick and Hancock director Peter Berg) returning home from a day’s work in the forest.
When Walton steps out of his truck to take a closer look at a UFO, he’s struck by a blinding beam of light. His co-workers, rather selfishly, drive off and leave him. Walton is found five days later, traumatised and naked. Questioned by a suspicious local Lieutenant (James Garner), Walton gradually remembers disturbing events that apparently occurred aboard the UFO.
A quiet, slow-paced film, Fire In The Sky is more interested in the emotional effects of Walton’s experiences than the details of his abduction. In interviews, Walton’s colleagues describe their guilt at leaving their friend behind, and details of the characters’ personal lives are related at frustrating length.
But when the film does finally delve into what happened to Walton, it’s surprisingly effective. Indeed, its depiction of what an alien craft might look like, based on abductees’ accounts, is one of the most memorable in 90s sci-fi cinema, and this nine minute sequence, where Walton is dragged around the ship’s interior and subjected to weird experiments, is remarkably disquieting.
Independence Day (1996)
Included here for the sake of completeness, Independence Day is, of course, more interested in blowing up famous landmarks than the psychological effects of alien abduction, but Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster uses numerous elements from UFO lore to tell its story, including references to Area 51 and the 1947 Roswell incident.
There’s also a plot strand in which crop duster Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) claims to have been kidnapped by extraterrestrials, and his experiences are the frequent source of jokes in his local pub.
Unlike most abductees, Casse is given the opportunity to avenge himself at the film’s conclusion, and with a final, defiant “Up yours!” brings down an alien destroyer in a moment of fiery self-sacrifice.
A typically irreverent, daft movie from Brian Yuzna, the producer of Re-Animator and director of the brilliantly icky Society, Progeny is the polar opposite of films like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind or Fire In The Sky.
An alien abductee (Jillian McWhirter) discovers that she has fallen mysteriously pregnant, and that the baby inside her isn’t entirely human.
A great cast, including Arnold Vosloo, The Thing‘s Wilford Brimley and Brad Dourif, all tackle the hokey, exploitative premise with admirably straight faces, and Progeny‘s full of moments that, unintentionally, or not, are absolutely hilarious, including lots of floating, naked bodies, rubbery alien effects (including plenty of rubbery tentacles) and Vosloo shouting “Nooo!” a lot.
Writer and director of The Blair Witch Project, Eduardo Sánchez, directed this low-budget but surprisingly well made sci-fi horror thriller. Like Independence Day‘s Russell Casse, Altered’s characters have all suffered an unpleasant alien abduction, and all have a lust for revenge.
Armed to the teeth, the trio of abductees reconvene several years later, and in an interesting reversal of Blair Witch, head to the woods to hunt down a xenomorph. Predictably, their weapons are no match for the alien’s strong jaws and sheer cunning, and Altered degenerates into a gritty, grim horror.
Mysteriously overlooked by Hollywood distributors in 2006, Altered deserves to be rediscovered on DVD. The film concentrates more on the cat and mouse hunt between humans and aliens than abduction, but it’s well written and shot, and contains an extraordinary moment of visceral tug o’ war straight out of Day Of The Dead.
Night Skies (2007)
Another low-budget oddity, director Roy Knyrim’s Night Skies is rather less successful in its attempt to marry UFO-based sci-fi and horror than Altered was the year before.
Partially inspired by a real-life mass UFO sighting that occurred in Arizona ten years earlier, the film introduces a group of travelling friends (headed up by Jason Connery) who encounter strange lights in the sky and then an altogether closer encounter of the extraterrestrial kind.
Playing out like a far gorier, more sensationalistic Fire In The Sky, Night Skies takes too long to click into gear, and falls into the earlier film’s trap of opening the film with lengthy scenes of dialogue.
And when the abduction finally takes place, it’s neither as artfully staged or chilling as Fire In The Sky‘s (the interior of the ship looks like it’s made of tripe), and despite a few surprising moments, is neither as memorable nor as well made as Sánchez’s Altered.
The Fourth Kind (2009)
Milla Jovovich stars in this most recent tale of alien abduction, a film that, like Spielberg’s classic, takes its title from legendary ufologist J. Alan Hynek’s classification of extraterrestrial encounters.
Apparently based on actual events, The Fourth Kind mixes dramatised sequences with ‘real’ footage (actually shot as part of the film) of abductees undergoing hypnosis.
Jovovich plays Doctor Abbey Tyler, a psychologist based in Alaska whose patients recount their experiences of abduction under hypnosis.
As a fake documentary (which it essentially is), The Fourth Kind is far less effective than similar films such as Paranormal Activity, and its attempt to evoke the same scares from alien abduction as the latter did for poltergeists fails for the most part.
The film’s docudrama status also means that aliens are notable by their absence. Unlike every other film mentioned here, The Fourth Kind is the only entry where extraterrestrials are barely even glimpsed. Instead, we’re treated to lengthy sequences of people lying on beds or couches and screaming, or perhaps yelling, “It’s not an owl!”
Still, the movie made a reasonable return on its $10 million budget, though it’s debatable whether there’s much mileage in a cash-in sequel. There are only so many times audiences will pay to see people lying on couches, after all…
It’s interesting to note, looking back over the nine films we’ve covered here, how the alien abduction movie has apparently shifted in tone. That Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is the biggest budget, and most visually sumptuous movie of its type is indicative not only of the clout Spielberg enjoyed at that moment in his career, but also just how interested the movie going public was in the topic of extraterrestrials in the late 70s.
Communion and Fire In The Sky were perhaps the last films to cover the topic with any kind of seriousness (though even Fire In The Sky embroidered on the facts of Travis Walton’s case somewhat), and alien abduction has become the stuff of schlock horror in the years since, culminating in the cod-documentary scares of The Fourth Kind.
On the subject of schlock, there’s perhaps nothing more schlocky than the extraordinary 1989 abduction movie, Alien Seed. Starring CHIPs‘ Erik Estrada, it boasts one of the finest trailers I’ve seen since Grindhouse. On the strength of this, I’m desperate to track down a copy. Viewer discretion advised!