Whenever you see a film that opens with the words “based on real events”, you can be sure of two things. One, you’re going to have a good time. Two, that this film will probably contain about as much factual material as I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! contains butter.
But we don’t care!
We’re not just talking about biopics or historical films here, we’re talking about crime movies like Pain & Gain, Catch Me If You Can, romances like It Could Happen to You, and crime romances like I Love You Phillip Morris. And of course the horror genre absolutely loves a “Based On A True Story” title card and poster slogan. The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and all The Conjuring movies have one (making the last the first ever Based On A True Cinematic Universe).
So the question is, then, where are the Based On A True science fiction stories? Of course, that’s a question with two pretty big follow-up questions, one of which is “What is science fiction” and the other is “what counts as ‘based on a true story?’”
The genre is hampered by its own definition. Apollo 13 is a dramatic space survival thriller every bit as incredible as The Martian; Oppenheimer is the classic Frankenstein tale—an egotistical scientist creates a device of near-infinite destructive power, then loses control of it. But most definitions of science fiction narrow-mindedly insist on the story being about technologies and scientific discoveries that haven’t happened yet. So we are forced to delve into murkier waters—where the science or the events are not yet confirmed, or where metaphor has been used as a blanket for other real-world horrors.
Safety Not Guaranteed
“Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 322 Oakview, CA 93022. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.”
This advert appeared in the September/October 1997 issue of Backwoods Home magazine and Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed imagines who might have submitted such an advert through a road movie starring Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson where time travel might be involved. It sounds silly, but using this as a thought-starter gave Trevorrow indie cred and paved the way for him helming Jurassic World.
But was it really a true story? Not in this timeline. It was a joke advert added by the magazine’s editor, although many people took it as real.
In the film debut of both Drew Barrymore and William Hurt, psychopathologist Edward Jessup (Hurt) is researching schizophrenia and comes to believe that other states of consciousness are every bit as real as our waking reality. That belief leads him on a journey through indigenous tribal vision quests, sensory deprivation experiments, and, naturally, lots of and lots of hallucinogenic drugs until, eventually, he takes so many narcotics it starts messing with his DNA, de-evolving him into a Neanderthal state.
But was it really a true story? I mean, who hasn’t had a Friday night like that? The film is based on a novel by Paddy Chayefsky, who also wrote the script for the film and disliked it so much that he had his name removed from the credits. His novel, however, was inspired partially by the research of psychonaut John C. Lilly, who carried out many experiments with isolation tanks and substances such as mescaline, ketamine, and LSD. However, if he ever did physically transform into an ape man and break into the local zoo, it was left out of the peer-reviewed papers.
Fire in the Sky
Driving home from work, some loggers witness a UFO. When one of their number, Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney), steps out of the vehicle to investigate, they are struck by some kind of energy beam which sends them flying. When his co-workers rush to their aid, they find Walton has vanished. At first, the police suspect Walton’s coworkers (they didn’t get on) until Walton turns up five days later, dehydrated and naked at a gas station nearby. Soon after, he starts getting flashbacks to being on an alien spaceship…
But was it really based on a true story? In as much as it is based on a book by Travis Walton, who did disappear for five days in 1975 after his coworkers saw him knocked out by a beam of light from a flying saucer. Cynical people might point out that this happened two weeks after a made-for-TV movie was aired based on another alien abduction story. Also contrary to what the film says, Walton has publicly been seen to fail a polygraph test when asked if he was abducted by aliens. However, since polygraph tests are roughly as scientific as alien abductions, you are free to draw your own conclusions.
Alien Autopsy (2006)
British Saturday Night entertainment duo, Ant & Dec, previously known as Byker Grove rap duo PJ & Duncan, make their movie career debuts in this story about the alien autopsy, a 17-minute long black and white film that supposedly depicts the autopsy by U.S. military personnel of the iconic big-headed black-eyed alien corpse. Originally broadcast in 1995 and presented by none other than Jonathan Frakes himself, the tape is supposedly from the aftermath of the famous Roswell crash.
Inconveniently for our Based On A True Story film, Ray Santilli, the person who “found” the film, admitted it was a forgery in 2006—the year this movie came out. But there’s a catch! He says there was a real film, but it deteriorated beyond use, so he made a remake of the real alien autopsy. This film is about the making of the forgery that is based on the real film.
But was it really based on a true story? Well, Santilli did make a fake alien autopsy film, so I guess that makes this based on a true story?
The Philadelphia Experiment (1984)
When this one opens in 1943, the U.S. Navy is conducting an experiment in Philadelphia to make the destroyer escort USS Eldridge invisible to radar. When the experiment goes wrong, two of the sailors on board find themselves transported to 1984 where they discover a continuation of the experiment is at risk of destroying the Earth.
But was it really based on a true story? There are several accounts of a “Philadelphia Experiment” in 1943, where the USS Eldridge was apparently made to disappear and reappear moments later, with many of the crew suffering severe burns (or insanity, or even intangibility). However, given the USS Eldridge was never in Philadelphia in 1943 (it was actually in the Bahamas), the experiment can be considered an urban legend, a hoax, or possibly a huge success.
Godzilla (1998) is a movie about a giant dinosaur attacking New York. Godzilla (2014) is about an even bigger dinosaur waking up in Japan, swimming across to the United States, and trashing San Francisco before fighting another giant monster.
Godzilla (1954), however, is a film about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If your familiarity with Godzilla is entirely through the American interpretations of the franchise, the original Godzilla comes as a real shock. The portrayals of ordinary people’s fear of Godzilla are raw and genuine in a way that seems a million miles away from modern monster movies. The debate over the “Oxygen Destroyer” weapons might seem corny, but are also fuelled by genuine anxiety in a way that Oppenheimer wishes it could manage.
But was it really based on a true story? Obviously, Godzilla isn’t real, but the sort of destruction he reaps in this film was only too familiar to the people who made it.
District 9 (2009)
When an alien ship arrives in the skies above South Africa, the aliens are not here to invade; they’re refugees. This gritty, low-fi film sees one of the officers charged with guarding the aliens’ refugee district find himself suddenly on the wrong side of the fence, giving him a short, sharp lesson in empathy.
But was it really based on a true story? As with Godzilla, District 9 is not a movie about aliens. It is a story about South Africa’s far-too-recent history in the apartheid and post-apartheid eras. The film’s title alludes to District Six, an area of inner-city Cape Town that the government declared “whites only” in 1966, forcibly relocating 60,000 people to 25 km away.
The treatment of the “prawns” in the film also references the evictions and forced removals to suburban ghettos that have still taken place in post-apartheid South Africa, including the forced evictions that took place in the shack settlement of Chiawelo, where District 9 was filmed.
The Blob (1988)
The Blob is about a blob. A meteorite lands near a small town in Pennsylvania, and soon enough a substance like a giant lump of used chewing gum escapes from it and starts growing bigger, threatening to devour the entire town—or the entire world! When all our weapons fail, eventually the Blob is frozen and shipped out to the Arctic where it will be safe so long as “the Arctic remains cold,” which must have seemed like more of a dead certainty back then.
But was it really based on a true story? Weirdly, yes. On Sept. 27, 1950, two patrolmen saw a “flying saucer” float down to the ground. When they investigated the landing site, one of the patrolmen touched the saucer and it “dissolved into a sticky residue” (he was lucky, the guy who touched the Blob in The Blob met an even stickier fate). There have been numerous accounts of similar incidents, explained away as everything from slime moulds to animal vomit. None of them have devoured the Earth.
Of course, what we really want is a science fiction movie based on A True Story, the satirical account written by Lucian of Samosata in the second century BC, which is the first known work of fiction to portray outer space travel, alien lifeforms, and interplanetary warfare. Get on it, Hollywood.