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By the mid-1970s, UFOs and the surrounding subculture had not lost their momentum as a popular distraction; even President Jimmy Carter, elected in 1976, claimed to have seen a UFO. In 1977, Columbia Pictures released Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with a massive advertising push touting the movie’s tagline: "Watch the Skies." Based on The UFO Experience by Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the scientific adviser to three UFO studies conducted by the U.S. Air Force, the film depicts many aspects of actual UFO incidents reported to Hynek, though many details and circumstances were manipulated for maximum dramatic effect.
Set in the present day, the movie opens with the arrival of a French scientist, Lacombe, in the Mexican desert, where strange sightings and sounds have been reported to have come from the sky. The team later investigates similar occurrences in Malaysia and India, eventually piecing together a system for communicating with the UFOs and learning the coordinates of their next landing. Meanwhile, in Indiana, electrical repairman Roy Neary meets Jillian and her young son, Barry, when all three come into contact with the same brilliant flying objects. Barry is abducted by cosmic visitors, while Jillian and Neary become obsessed with the same mysterious shape, a pyramid-like form with a flat top. When they see news reports of a mass evacuation of the area around Devil’s Tower in Wyoming--an evacuation that the Army achieved by faking reports of a poisonous gas leak--both recognize the peak as the strange shape they have been envisioning. Once they arrive, they realize a number of other people around the country have had the same vision; all of them have experienced a "close encounter." Neary and Jillian escape the Army’s supervision and are able to witness the climactic spectacle: the first human contact made with the UFOs and their occupants.
Some conspiracy-minded ufologists viewed Close Encounters as a concerted effort masterminded by the U.S. government to introduce the public to the concept of friendly aliens. The aliens depicted in the film are decidedly more benign than any previous incarnations: child-size, with large heads and protruding bellies, they have largely featureless faces with deep-set eyes. They return their human captives, including Barry, unharmed. At the end, after Lacombe makes the hand signals he has devised to communicate, the lead alien actually seems to smile before heading back onto his ship, taking Neary back with him as an ambassador from Earth.
The success of Spielberg’s film made an immediate and international impact: when a United Nations meeting was convened in late 1977 to discuss UFOs, delegates were shown Close Encounters as a talking point. In January 1979, the British House of Lords even held a three-hour-long debate on the subject of UFOs and a motion (eventually defeated) that the British government should make public what it knew about them.
80s and 90s
The vision of aliens as friendly, even cuddly beings was further enhanced in movies like Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Ron Howard’s Cocoon (1985). It was a far different vision, however, that would inform the next generation of UFO-themed movies a decade later. The biggest of these, Independence Day, arrived in July 1996 amid a frenzy of anticipation. In the movie, the scientist David Levinson joins forces with Steve Hiller, a U.S. Marine Corps pilot, to spearhead the defeat of a menacing army of aliens in flying crafts that are targeting Earth’s major cities. When the alien ships turn out to be satellites sent by a massive mother ship hovering above Earth, Hiller and Levinson are sent to plant a nuclear device on the mother ship to destroy it, while President Bill Whitmore commands an attack by U.S. fighter jets on the alien satellite ships near the classified Area 51, in Roswell, New Mexico.
A blockbuster hit dismissed by many critics as a poorly written, special effects-laden knock-off of The War of the Worlds, Independence Day marked a return of the view of aliens as hostile invaders seeking to destroy the Earth. In a moment of pointed humor, it portrays a group of giddy ufologists who gather under the alien’s ship ready to celebrate the arrival of Close Encounter-style friendly aliens, only to be massacred. Independence Day also reflected the continuing public fascination with the idea of an alien invasion, and specifically with the mystery surrounding the Roswell site in New Mexico, long believed to be the center of all the information that the government and military are hiding about UFOs. This fascination was also a central focus of the popular TV series The X-Files (1993-2002) and other hit movies, such as Men In Black (1997).
In 2005, Steven Spielberg--the creator of E.T., decidedly film's cutest and friendliest alien--declared that the time was ripe for his updated version of the ultimate hostile-alien-invader movie, The War of the Worlds. The film, starring Tom Cruise, is not a faithful remake of the 1953 version, or of Wells's novel, but its central plotline and message remain consistent--a race of intelligent, merciless extra-terrestrials are invading the Earth, and must be defeated to avoid the destruction of the human race.
The shadowy nature of the enemy in Spielberg's War of the Worlds--the aliens are "tripods," and not specifically Martians--suggests the changed nature of the threats facing Western society today. Compared with a nation (Nazi Germany, in the case of the Orson Welles broadcast in 1938, or the Soviet Union, in the case of the 1953 film), the lurking enemy of today--terrorism--is shadowy, evasive and indistinct. But the threat is still there--and so is the public's fascination with the idea of UFOs and alien invaders, six decades after Kenneth Arnold's sighting turned peoples' eyes to the skies. If history is any guide, it is a fascination Hollywood will continue to reflect--and exploit--for years to come.
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