Extraterrestrials as far as the eye can see!

Writing about The Fourth Kind, one critic said one feature of found-footage films is that because they’re supposedly real, they justify a lot of boring mundane moments — it’s not bad filmmaking, that’s just what was found on the camera. I think the same is true of alien abduction/UFO encounter based-on-truth films — the long stretches of mundane everyday life are justified because they supposedly ground the movie in the real world.  Perhaps that’s why NIGHT SKIES (2007) is so incredibly dull. It’s 1998, four twentysomething friends crash their van outside Flagstaff and one of them is seriously injured. Eventually they become involved in a real-world UFO encounter but only after two thirds of the movie has passed. Unlike Fourth Kind there’s little insight I can derivce for Alien Visitors here.

I can’t say much more about VIRUS (1999), which has a tramp steamer crewed by Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland stumble across a drifting Russian derelict that looks like a fortune in salvage. Then sole survivor Joanna Pacula reveals that an electronic blast from space has infested the ship’s computers, using the equipment to assemble robots or turn humans into cyborg slaves all with a goal of exterminating homo sapiens (“You are the virus!”). Minor. “My father was an admiral.”

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971) is a much superior film, directed by Robert Wise from Michael Crichton’s career-making novel. The opening assures us this, too, is a based-on-truth story, taken from classified government files; cut to a small town in the southwest where a satellite has crashed to Earth and everyone is dead. No, wait, there’s a small baby and a senior alcoholic who are still breathing, but what could they have in common?

Faced with the possibility of a pandemic, researcher Arthur Hill puts together a team that includes cynic David Wayne and middle-aged Kate Reid (a stark and welcome contrast to the usual hotness of female film scientists). Locked away in an isolated research lab, can they figure out what’s happening before the disease spreads? While the discussion of how cool the tech is could have been trimmed (a problem I have with a lot of Crichton’s books) this still works as an effective thriller. Casting four non-name actors as the research team gives it a more realistic feel than if they’d been, say, Paul Newman and the scientific stuff is handled quite realistically. Holds up well, even all these years later. “Rash statements like that are why the president doesn’t trust scientists?”

When I started watching WITHOUT WARNING (1994) I thought it was the wrong movie — it appears to be a “jeop” with Loni Anderson — but then newscasters break in with alarmed coverage of an asteroid crashing down near Grover’s Mill, Wyoming. Yep, it’s the same trick Orson Welles pulled in his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast (Grover’s Mill NJ is where the Martians in Welles’ adaptation landed), faking a real news story (despite a This Is Fiction chyron across the bottom of the screen when first broadcast, people still freaked out).

It soon becomes obvious something hinky is going on. Three asteroids hit the Earth spaced at freakishly regular intervals around the world. More are coming from space. The government seems to be hiding something. Is there any truth to the claims that these asteroids are actually space ships? If so, are they coming in peace or to conquer? Is the government blowing up the next wave of asteroids actually destroying more ships — nah, that’d be crazy, wouldn’t it?

When I wrote my first book, Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan, I confined this one to the appendix, with other “asteroid/meteor hits earth” films. I didn’t realize there was more to it. Now that I’ve seen it, I really regret it — this works enough of a variation on other alien invasion movies I found it interesting. Like Day the Earth Caught Fire, focusing on the reporters is a good decision: they have a better perspective than the ordinary citizens watching this unfold, but they don’t know as much as the government and the military do, which keeps the mystery going. And I like that for once the aliens came in peace, and our government apparently botched the first contact.

On the downside, the mystery element feels like it’s covering up the holes in the plot. Why do the aliens smash their ships into the Earth if they’re coming in peace, for instance? What’s the government’s agenda? Still, this was enjoyable; with Harley Kaczmarak and John deLancie as reporters and Arthur C. Clarke as himself. “If you can show me aliens on those triangles, I’ll give you the second gunman on the grassy knoll.”

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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