Historical Short Form Example — Alien and UFO Movies: Pearls from The Fringe
Even though movies featuring aliens have a long pedigree dating back to the 1950s (Earth vs The Flying Saucers, This Island Earth, It Came From Outer Space, etc), only in the last decade or so alien movies have become truer to alien/UFO real-life lore, with narratives that take inspiration from real-life accounts of alien and UFO phenomena.
There is a big non-fiction bulk of alien literature from which many movies take their inspiration, but I dare say that, for the first thirty years of alien and UFO movies, the tales were original and the movies’ stories and visuals were larger-than-life takes on the subject.
The 1950s: Threat of An Atomic Holocaust
One of the first, if not the first, non-fiction books on aliens and UFO, was Donal E Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucers Are Real, published in 1950.
It’s interesting to note how, while there exist precedents — A Trip to the Moon (Méliès, 1902) for instance — the genre really took off in the fifties, at the same time that non-fiction literature on the subject did.
In the visuals of the aliens and UFOs movies of the 1950s, there are hints of a strong influence from Donald Keyhoe’s book, in the sense that most of them include the military as a crucial player in this kind of narratives.
There are many alien and UFO staples from the 50s. Aside from the three I named in the introduction, musters from the decade one shouldn’t let pass are War of The Worlds, The Day The Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet.
The 1960s: The End of The Golden Age
The 60s are probably the decade in which less UFO and alien movies came out. But at the same time, it’s the decade that gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey.
When I began watching this kind of movies, the first movie I felt I needed to watch was 2001. I might have been biased back then, because of memories of having read the book in childhood and loving it. But I think 2001: A Space Odyssey was a great way to start assimilating this sub-genre of science fiction.
I personally liked it a lot, but reflecting on how I felt when I watched it I can’t say that I’d like it now like I did then. It’s a movie that takes its time to build up the story, and once interesting things start to happen, the story — albeit greatly photographed — 2001 is just an okay rendition of hard science fiction.
Other movies worth of mention from this decade are, Day of The Triffids, Barbarella, and Quatermass and The Pit.
The 1970s: Augmented Originality
The seventies is when things start to get tricky. For the sake of narrowing the chronology of musters I want to make in this article, I won’t write about space opera movies that feature aliens in them like Star Wars since they don’t relate to the genre’s conventions.
As I see it, the 70s were a return to the enthusiasm of the fifties, but with much higher production values. Moreover, the plots of the seventies did thick a lot (e.g., Close Encounters of The Third Kind) and started to deliver not only more astonishing visuals but quite substantial stories of the kind that let you thinking afterward.
Clear examples are Alien and The Andromeda Strain, what if a microscopic alien organism in a crashed satellite spread, replicated and colonized the earth? What if it was a life-form with acid for blood, that needed a human body to gestate? What if the alien menace was an invisible being channeling itself through a piece of technology left behind that fell into the wrong human hands, like in Laserblast?
The 1980s: Visual Overload
In the eighties, fans of this sub-genre of science fiction festered on the most well done special effects to date. I think that if the 80s weren’t the peak in grandeur for UFO and alien movies, they were at least a synthesis of all the best elements seen in the previous two decades.
The eighties had campy and controversial features like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and Repo Man, the masterpieces Cocoon and The Abyss, disturbing takes on the alien problem, like Xtro, social commentary masterfully executed, like They Live or new takes on alien movie narratives that came before, like Lifeforce, a movie that I see as a crossover between Alien and The Andromeda Strain of the previous decade.
The 1990s: World Domination
The nineties were the decade when the sub-genre became a masses phenomena on a global scale. The X Files and the Alien Autopsy mockumentary are two that come to mind as global phenomena beyond the dedication of science fiction fans and UFO buffs.
It was the turn for UFO and alien movies to become the darling of the Hollywood blockbuster format. Millions saw the box office hits Independence Day, Mars Attacks, Stargate and Men in Black.
Sagas from previous decades, like Alien and Predator, returned, and new ones, like Species, ran their course.
A movie that went over the top was Incident in Lake County. This movie did what Blair Witch Project did, but one year before. Yet, it’s not given the merit it deserves. I guess that to watch Incident in Lake County when it came out, and not knowing about found footage movies, could have been really frightening.
The special mention of this decade should go to Fire In The Sky, an awesome movie which is based on what happened to Travis Walton when he was allegedly abducted by aliens in Arizona, in 1975.
The 2000s: Modest Progress
For the most part, I see the 2000s as the decade when alien movies started to diverge and incorporate elements of other genres, like Altered and Night Skies (horror), District 9 and The Fourth Kind (documentary), and Doom (video game).
I believe that the 2000s were a time in which originality and interest in this sub-genre of science fiction appeared to wane. This sub-genre didn’t receive the attention that it capitalized on previous decades, I guess this has to do with The Matrix and the rebirth of cyberpunk as post-cyberpunk.
One movie from which I expected a lot, from this decade, was The Mothman Prophecies, but it disappointed me. I thought it was going to be like the book of the same name, but it practically doesn’t touch the subject of evil men in black like the book does, it only uses the storyline of the Mothman creature.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie, but I see it as a Close Encounters movie with the Mothman instead of alien sightings as the fantastic central event of the movie.
I think of the legends about the 1966-67 Point Pleasant Mothman sightings as a kind of material capable of serving as the source for a way more detailed and in-depth story than what The Mothman Prophecies was.
The Fourth Kind shouldn’t be overlooked. That movie eases down the audiences to what will come the following decade, the 2010s, when film industry decidedly coopted the alien and UFO narratives of the printed word.
The 2010s and the Future
At present we are getting tales based on alleged true facts, or clearly inspired by them. That gives them an exciting air of disclosure. Beside that we had nice surprises like Apollo 18, Battle of Los Angeles, Cowboys and Aliens and Area 51. All these are top-notch fare, but I hope the best of the decade is yet to come.
Photo credit: Ryan Lowery