Hollywood and the Discourse on Disclosure
Robbie Graham, AfterDisclosure.com
Many a UFO skeptic will tell you that UFOlogy (and, nowadays, exopolitics) feeds on and thrives largely as a result of images projected by the American entertainment industry: it is Hollywood, they’ll insist, that fuels the UFO mythos. The art historian, John Moffitt, for example, views UFOs and extraterrestrials purely as “hyperreal” constructs – which is to say that they are “real” in a cultural sense, but have no grounding in our lived historical reality.
Moffitt suggests that, as far as UFOs are concerned, there never was a “real” to begin with – the UFO phenomenon is entirely psychosocial, a complex simulacrum sustained in large part by mass-media images and audience culture. Moffitt notes that “American films and television have now become the major vehicles for propagating in a postmodernist, transglobal “visual culture” the popular imagery of lurking ETs and their high-tech UFO vehicles.”[i] In Moffitt’s view, “the extraterrestrials only persist as recognisable visual phenomena due to zealous attention paid to them by their audience culture. No audience culture: no attention.”[ii]
The suggestion inherent in this “audience culture” theory is that Hollywood “creatives” simply bring forth from their fertile imaginations entirely original UFOlogical ideas and design concepts which are then projected to and absorbed by an (assumed) passive audience, provoking continual reports of UFOs and aliens, certain details from which, in turn, feed back into the entertainment industry to fuel the endless hyperreal cycle that is the modern UFO phenomenon. The psychologist Susan Blackmore, propounding this same idea within the framework of memetics, suggests that UFOs and aliens are “a memeplex consisting of the idea of four-foot high, skinny, large-headed creatures with big black eyes, an image of the ships they come in… and all the other details we are fed through the media.”[iii]
But the psychosocial theories proffered by the likes of Moffitt and Blackmore to account for the enduring popular fascination with UFOs are lacking. By and large, it is not Hollywood that fuels UFOlogy, but UFOlogy that fuels Hollywood. Whether fact or fantasy, UFO eyewitness reports and testimonies constitute the enduring foundation on which all other elements the modern UFO obsession are built; this is supported by the fact that eyewitness reports of UFOs in the United States comfortably precede any televisual or cinematic representations of such phenomena (Kenneth Arnold’s famous sighting in 1947 came some three years before the release of Hollywood’s first UFO movie – The Flying Saucer (1950) – and reports of “Foo Fighters” preceded Arnold’s sighting by half-a-decade). “Creatives” in the entertainment industry are not nearly as creative as the psychosocial theory assumes and demands; indeed, truly original ideas – or at least original takes on existing ideas – in the UFO subgenre (or in any genre, for that matter) are rare in American cinema. Inevitably, then, in the new millennium, as ever, Hollywood has been forced to rely on UFOlogical literature for its inspiration. For this short essay, I’ve selected just five Hollywood UFO movies from the past decade which – even at the cursory glance I here afford them – clearly illustrate Hollywood’s continuing parasitic reliance upon established UFOlogical discourse.
Robbie Graham is a full-time doctoral candidate at the University of Bristol for a PhD examining Hollywood’s historical representations of UFOs and extraterrestrial visitation. Robbie has broadcast on BBC Radio, Coast to Coast AM and Canal+ TV and his articles have featured in a variety of publications including The Guardian, New Statesman, Filmfax, Fortean Times, and the peer-reviewed journal 49th Parallel. He can be contacted through his blog, Silver Screen Saucers:
The Discourse of Disclosure
The impact of the Disclosure movement – and particularly Steven Greer’s hugely influential Disclosure Project – on Hollywood’s millennial UFO movies is striking. Although the “Disclosure” term itself has yet to find its way noticeably into Hollywood’s UFO narratives as a genre-defining buzz-word, specialised military and intelligence terminology brought to the fore through Disclosure Project testimonies has indeed been incorporated into the UFO subgenre, and Hollywood’s UFO-related output since 2001 has been generally reflective of the picture painted by Greer’s witnesses.
Down to Earth: Dreamcatcher
In the 2003 film Dreamcatcher (adapted from the Steven King novel), an elite UFO crash/retrieval unit codenamed “Blue Boy” has been operating secretly for decades to secure and capture downed alien spacecraft around the world. Most cinema-goers likely will be oblivious to the fact that the film’s fictional project “Blue Boy” is actually inspired by its one-time real life equivalents, Blue Fly and Moon Dust – Air Force intelligence projects whose personnel were employed “on a quick reaction basis to recover or perform field exploitation of Unidentified Flying Objects.”[iv] Beyond this vague description, however, and outside of a handful of declassified USAF documents which mention Moon Dust and Blue Fly in the context of historical efforts to retrieve downed celestial objects around the world, little information is available publicly concerning these mysterious Air Force units, and it was mainly through Sgt. Clifford Stone that projects Blue Fly and Moon Dust entered the UFO debate. In September 2000, Stone told Steven Greer what he would repeat in essence to the world’s news media the following year during the Disclosure Project press conference at the National Press Club in Washington D.C.:
In short, under Moon Dust and under Blue Fly, we have recovered alien debris not of this Earth… we saw living and dead bodies of entities that were not born on this planet. We have contact with aliens not originating from some foreign country but from some other solar system. And I have been a party to that.[v]
Transformers: UFOs in Disguise
Despite being about giant transforming robots, Transformers’ version of history is remarkably faithful to the meta-narrative of UFO lore, particularly as emergent over the past 30 years. The film’s quasi-governmental UFO agency, “Sector 7,” is a clear nod to Majestic–12, the alleged Top Secret UFO working group established by President Truman in 1947. Sector 7’s secret alien research base beneath Hoover Dam unmistakably is modelled on Area 51, and the Transformers themselves are referred to continually by Sector 7 agents not as robots but as “aliens” and “non-biological extraterrestrials” or, more specifically, “NBEs” – a variation on the “EBE” acronym that appears in the Majestic documents and which has become synonymous with the iconic “Grey” aliens prevalent in abduction accounts. Megatron is even designated by Sector 7 agents as “NBE1,” just as the Majestic documents refer to the Roswell aliens as EBE1, EBE 2, etc., and, along with the film’s MacGuffin – the “AllSpark” – is kept in cold storage in Sector 7’s secret base, just as the alien bodies and debris allegedly recovered from the Roswell Incident are said to have been kept on ice at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
An even more acute reference to UFO lore can be noted in a scene in which Sector 7 agents describe to the Secretary of Defense how Megatron’s technology secretly has been seeded into modern industry resulting in human technological breakthroughs and innovations: “Fact is you’re looking at the source of the modern age. The microchip, lasers, spaceflight, cars, all reverse-engineered by studying him – NBE1, that’s what we call it.”
This version of events is lifted directly from the controversial 1997 non-fiction book The Day after Roswell, written by Philip J. Corso, a Lieutenant Colonel who formerly was chief of the Pentagon’s Foreign Technology desk. In his book, Corso details his alleged involvement in the hidden history of post-war America – a history that he claims was shaped by the Roswell Incident of June 1947 and the covert efforts of a select few within the government and military to understand the recovered alien technology and to quietly seed it into the production lines of corporate giants such as IBM, Hughes Aircraft, Bell Labs, and Dow Corning, among others. According to Corso, the alleged reverse engineering programme led to the development of lasers, fiber optics, integrated circuit chips and even Kevlar.[vi]
Transformers’ most highly specialised reference to modern UFO-lore, though, is its inclusion of the term “Special Access Projects,” cited by Sector 7 personnel as being crucial to the maintenance of their cover-up of alien visitations. Special Access Programs (as opposed to “Projects”) do, in fact, exist and constitute collectively the most enigmatic element of America’s National Security State. The secrecy surrounding “SAPs” was best summed up by undersecretary for defence, James R. Clapper, who told the Washington Post, “There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs – that’s God.”[vii]
Discussion of SAPs – and more specifically USAPs (Unacknowledged Special Access Projects) – was brought seriously into the UFO debate in 2000 by Steven Greer. Based on dozens of Disclosure Project whistleblower testimonies from former corporate, military and intelligence officials, Greer described the alleged ‘UFO control group’ as:
A quasi-governmental, USAPs related, quasi-private entity operating internationally/transnationally. The majority of operations are centered in private industrial ‘work for others’ contract projects related to the understanding and application of advanced extraterrestrial technologies. Related compartmentalized units… are involved in disinformation, public deception… and specialized liaison groups (for example to media, political leaders, the scientific community, the corporate world, etc). Think of this entity as a hybrid between government USAPs and private industry.[viii]
Race to Witch Mountain: “UFO 101”
Concerning the arrival on Earth of two blonde-haired, blue-eyed, human-looking extraterrestrials (UFOlogy’s “Nordics”) and their plan to save their own dying planet from total atmospheric degradation, Disney’s Race to Witch Mountain opens with a dramatic, rapid montage of real UFO-related newspaper reports, as well as famous UFO footage and photographs. Set to the strains of an ominous score, we hear selected words from TV news reports: “Gulf Breeze… Phoenix… Area 51…”; we see real footage of President Reagan’s 1987 address to the United Nations General Assembly in which he intones: “We were facing an alien threat from outside this world”; we see President Clinton at a speech in 1995 in which he bemoans his lack of access to sensitive UFO information; we hear a TV news anchor quoting Congressman Dennis Kucinich in 2007 regarding his much publicised sighting in 1982 of a UFO at close range from which he claimed to have received “directions in his mind”; we see a real newspaper report highlighting a 2007 statement by former Governor of Arizona and UFO witness Fife Symington: “Former Gov. Symington: ‘UFOs are Real’.”
Soon after this montage we are introduced to the story’s primary antagonist – Henry Burke (Ciaran Hinds) – a specialist in UFO crash/retrieval scenarios who carries with him a thick ring-bound document displaying, in bold lettering, the words: “PROJECT MOON DUST: CLASSIFIED.” Project Moon Dust appealed to the film’s director, Andy Fickman, because “It was coming new to the [UFO] mythology.” “It’s fun for me to talk to you,” Fickman told me in 2010, “because you’re somebody who gets when he [the character] is carrying that [Project Moon Dust] folder you can really appreciate that there’s some historical truth to that, or at the very least some historical reporting of it, whereas to a lot of people it was just a prop.” Such minute attention to detail was a bid on Fickman’s part to “engage the UFO community.” When he first received the script from Disney it had been “more of a comedy,” but Fickman felt the material should be treated seriously and wanted to make use of events, debates and terminology featured in recent UFO literature: “I’m willing to do this movie,” the director told his bosses at Disney, “but I want to ground it in as much reality as I possibly can.” To this end, Fickman personally schooled his cast – including Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino – in UFO history: “I would spend time with my actors literally just going through ‘UFO 101 – we’d watch every DVD that was out there, every documentary; I would give them book, upon book, upon book.” Fickman noted that:
In UFO mythology – in terms of literature, in terms of research – there begins to become a language; people in the UFO movement would easily speak of Roswell and have very clear ideas of what that means, what an ‘EBE’ means – all of this terminology we were kind of slipping in… even the wormhole theory of travel and how someone could visit us from so many light years away – that was all stuff that we were repositioning for our own mythology and storytelling, but all based on previous research.[ix]
Ancient Aliens: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
In 2008, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull saw the eponymous hero in pursuit of an ancient artefact of the fallen Mesoamerican Ugha civilization (clearly based on the Mayan civilization). The crystal skull, we come to learn, is that of an interdimensional being – one of many who once were revered as gods by the people of the mystical city of Akator and who had bestowed upon their subjects advanced knowledge and technology. In one scene, Indy interprets ancient pictographs inside the Temple of the Crystal Skull which he estimates to be “as old as the pyramids” depicting beings with enlarged craniums being worshipped by the masses: “Someone came and taught the Ugha farming, irrigation,” says Indy.
This narrative (as well those of many other productions, including, most notably, the Stargate film (1994) and TV franchise (1997 – )) clearly is based on that constructed over the past four decades by Erich Von Daniken[x] and Zecharia Sitchin[xi] and which has become the foundation for the popular “ancient astronaut” theory – a distinct strand of modern UFOlogy. The film also features direct references to the historically real Roswell Incident (as do numerous other UFO-themed productions) and a scene set at a secret military base in the Nevada desert, clearly modelled on the equally real Area 51. Instead of relying on its own rather limited creative juices for narrative inspiration, then, here once again Hollywood elected simply to lift its ideas directly from popular UFOlogical literature and debate.
Monsters vs. Aliens: A UFOlogical Pastiche
DreamWorks Animation’s Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) lampooned 1950s B-movies with monsters squaring off as heroes against an alien invasion force led by the comically diabolical Gallaxhar (voiced by Rainn Wilson), and the film’s writers relied heavily on existing UFO-lore for inspiration. In the film, the US government has for decades – and behind a thick wall of secrecy – maintained its own “monster” agency. However, it is immediately apparent to anyone broadly versed in UFO conspiracy lore that this “monster” agency is actually a thinly veiled UFO agency; its history as told by the character of General W.R. Monger (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) exactly mirroring the UFO cover-up narrative central to UFO-lore. Monger explains: “In 1950 it was decided that Jane and Joe Public could not handle the truth about monsters and should focus on more important things like paying taxes. So the government convinced the world monsters were the stuff of myth and legend and then locked them away in this here facility… This place is an X-file, wrapped in a cover-up and deep fried in a paranoid conspiracy.”
The “facility” to which Monger refers is – perhaps somewhat predictably by now – based on Area 51. Indeed, in one scene – set in the government’s War Room – the facility is described as “so secret that the very mention of its name is a federal offence.” At this point, a military officer leans into another and asks: “Is he referring to Area 5…?” But the man is rendered unconscious by a dart to the back of the neck before finishing his sentence.
As Gallaxhar’s ship arrives in the skies of San Francisco, a TV news reporter (voiced by Ed Helms) announces that: “Once again, a UFO has landed in America – the only country UFOs ever seem to land in,” both acknowledging and propagating the meme that UFOs are a uniquely American obsession and are witnessed only by simple country folk on dusty back roads in the dead of night (a meme that possibly has its roots in two of the most famous abduction cases on record: The Hill abduction of 1961[xii] and the Walton abduction of 1975[xiii] – cases, it should be noted, which preceded by decades the large-scale popularisation of the alien abduction meta-narrative that began in 1993 with The X-Files TV series [itself heavily beholden on UFO literature]).
Allegorical Aliens, or Just Aliens?
Discussing the idea of allegory in alien invasion movies of the 1950s, the film journalist Peter Biskind notes that “critics of popular culture have always been quick to point out that the Other is always other than itself, which is to say, the pods and blobs are “symbols” standing for something else.” Because the Other in films of this period frequently was linked to radiation (as in Them! (1954)), or to mind control and loss of identity (as in Invaders from Mars (1953)), it has been customary in film studies to equate aliens with the dangers associated with atomic power or communism. But Biskind argues that critics often give science fiction B-movies of the 1950s too much credit; that many of these films were not allegories at all, but literal reflections of cultural preoccupations, suggesting that, for the preferred reading of many of these films, “all we have to do is look at what’s before our very eyes.”[xiv] When asked how to account for the tremendous appeal in the 1950s of the science fiction genre (dominated at the time by the UFO movie), actor Billy Gray (who played the character of Bobby Benson in the original The Day the Earth Stood Still) was unequivocal: “It correlated with reports of UFOs. At the time it was just rampant – every other person had seen something mysterious in the sky. I think that’s what made science fiction popular at this time.”[xv]
In the case of most (though by no means all) UFO movies past and present, Biskind’s contention about literal meanings rings true: America, quite simply, is obsessed with the possibility of extraterrestrial visitation; an obsession fuelled by an objectively real UFO phenomenon and made manifest in a cinematic subgenre to which America itself inevitably gave birth – the UFO movie.
Conclusion: Art Imitates Life
The film theorist Vivian Sobchack has suggested that one of the defining features of the science fiction genre is its historical struggle to “exceed the anthropomorphic limits of the human imagination while still attempting to remain comprehensible.”[xvi] Yet, just as was the case with the earliest films of the UFO subgenre, Hollywood’s millennial UFO movies do not so much attempt to exceed our imaginations as to reflect historical testimonies and developments in UFOlogy – even if those reflections are frequently heavily distorted and, at times, rather belated.
Of the approximately two-dozen UFO movies to have achieved wide theatrical release in the past ten years (which are listed chronologically on my blog: Silver Screen Saucers) almost all dealt with topics long established in UFOlogy, the majority of these having already been tried and tested by Hollywood in previous decades. In terms of plot, most of the seemingly fresh ideas that Hollywood did have again were plundered from UFO literature, as with the UFO crash/retrieval units in Dreamcatcher and Race to Witch Mountain, and the elaborate quasi-governmental reverse-engineering project involving alien technology and “special Access Projects” in Transformers. Indeed, Hollywood’s parasitism in relation to UFOlogy shows no sign of abating. The marketing campaign for the 2011 movie Battle: Los Angeles, for example, effectively blurred UFOlogical fact and fantasy in its prominent use of a real photograph of a saucer-shaped UFO that hovered silently for several hours over Los Angeles in 1942 and which drew heavy artillery fire from the US Army to no apparent effect. The incident resulted in the deaths of six civilians and has long been known to UFO researchers as “The Battle of Los Angeles.” Ongoing debates about the possible existence of a UFO-related “black ops” space program – triggered by Disclosure Project testimonies but fuelled more recently by the claims of computer “hacker” Gary McKinnon (himself directly inspired by The Disclosure Project) – also are currently being exploited by Hollywood in forthcoming movies such as Apollo 18 (2011), Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon (2011) and Dark Moon (2012).
By and large, developments in UFO cinema occur only when developments in UFOlogy do. In the case of Hollywood’s UFO movies, art imitates life. If the opposite were true and the psychosocial “audience culture” theory for UFOs were valid, then following the release in 2009 of James Cameron’s Avatar – the highest grossing film of all time featuring what are popularly regarded as the most seamlessly convincing celluloid extraterrestrials to date – one might reasonably have expected thousands of people to have begun reporting ten-foot-tall blue aliens. This did not happen; just as Hollywood’s forceful projection of the “little green men” meme has failed to result in mass sightings of little green men, despite recent offerings like Aliens in the Attic (2009) and Planet 51 (2009). When it comes to UFOs, Hollywood produces representations – albeit not entirely faithful ones – of what people actually report; of events that have actually transpired; and of projects and locales that actually exist, or once existed. So, Hollywood didn’t create Project Moondust or Area 51, the US military did. Hollywood didn’t dream up the notion of a government UFO conspiracy, it merely adopted an idea that has been discussed publicly by numerous top-tier military and intelligence personnel, as well as by high-profile scientists and politicians dating back to the infancy of the phenomenon.
This idea of art imitating life in the UFO subgenre poses something of a conundrum to critics of popular culture – a conundrum that arises from the assumption that UFOs are intangible psychosocial projections whose existence is reliant upon audience culture. Sceptics such as Susan Blackmore, who consider the UFO phenomenon to be a memeplex with finite appeal, will today likely be bemused at the fact that, some 64 years after people first began reporting them en masse, UFOs show absolutely no sign of evaporating from the popular consciousness. In 1999, referring to the public’s continuing obsession with UFOs, Blackmore stated confidently: “This particular memeplex, although successful, has a limited life,”[xvii] In 2005, Blackmore referred to the UFO phenomenon in the past tense as “a craze, a bit like Sudoku. UFOs were just a rather long-lived version.” Blackmore stated that “crazes thrive on novelty, and eventually that dies out. It’s taken a long time, but it’s good that the UFO era is over.”[xviii] Despite Blackmore’s declaration of the death of the UFO, hundreds-of-thousands of people worldwide continue to report genuinely inexplicable objects in our skies. So long as these sightings continue, Hollywood will continue to draw inspiration from the finer points of UFOlogical discourse and to pour hundreds-of-millions of dollars annually into the thriving UFO subgenre.
[i] John F., Moffitt, Picturing Extraterrestrials: Alien Images in Modern Mass Culture (New York: Prometheus, 2003), 29.
[ii] Ibid, 26.
[iii] Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine (Oxford University Press, 1999), 176.
[iv] Richard M. Dolan, UFOs and the National Security State: Chronology of a Cover-up, 1941 – 1973 (Virginia: Hampton Roads, 2002), 257-258.
[v] Steven M. Greer, Disclosure: Military and Government Witnesses Reveal the Greatest Secrets in Modern History (Virginia: Crossing Point, 2001), 327-330.
[vi] Philip, J. Corso and William, J. Birnes, The Day After Roswell (New York: Pocket Books, 1997), 84-
[vii] Dana Priest, and William M. Arkin, “Top Secret America, Part 1: A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control.” The Washington Post, 19 July. Available at: http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/articles/a-hidden-world-growing-beyond-control/
[viii] Steven M. Greer, Disclosure: Military and Government Witnesses Reveal the Greatest Secrets in Modern History (Virginia: Crossing Point, 2001), 27.
[ix] Andy Fickman, telephone interview with Robbie Graham, 02 Sept., 2010.
[xii] For the best known accounting of the Hill case, see: John G. Fuller, The Interrupted Journey: Two Lost Hours Aboard A Flying Saucer (London: Souvenir Press, 1980).
[xiii] See: Travis Walton, Fire in the Sky: The Walton Experience (New York: Marlowe & Company, 1996).
[xiv] Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing: Or How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the 50s (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 107.
[xv] Christine Cornea, Science Fiction Cinema: Between Fantasy and Reality (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 70.
[xvi] Vivian Sobchack, Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, (Rutgers University Press, 2004), 91.
[xvii] Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine (Oxford University Press, 1999), 178.
[xviii] Stephen Moss, “The Martians aren’t Coming.” The Guardian, 11 August. 2005. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2005/aug/11/spaceexploration.g2