Tag Archives: Alien visitors

Another productive week without craziness

—So a good week, but not terribly exciting to write about. Next week I have a root canal and an unrelated doctor’s appointment so that may change.

I wrapped up my Leaf writing for July on Monday.

To my pleasant surprise I finished the last chapter and the afterword of Undead Sexist Cliches. In my head, I’m tentatively setting a publication date in early November, which allows me to think about publicity and promotion and stuff (more on this later). Of course, I have a shit-ton to do on Alien Visitors which has a firm deadline at the end of October, so I still wonder if it’s possible. But if I commit, I’ll have to deliver.

Speaking of Alien Visitors, I did a thorough rewrite on the introduction and a good second draft of the chapter on alien invaders (focus: the George Pal and Spielberg War of the Worlds). Being able to look at them and say that yes, people will actually find this interesting, is a huge booster. Much to do yet, though.

And of course, I watched movies and TV for the book. Memorably, but not pleasurably the Day the Earth Stood Still knockoff Cosmic Man (1959) –— which is still more watchable than the Keanu Reaves remake of Day. And then Atomic Submarine (1960)I suffer for my art.

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The shape of Things to come

For my ET monster chapter, I think I’m going to go with 1951’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING (1982) and the 2011 prequel that mashes them both together.

The seed of them all, of course, is John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” This opens with a crew of scientists at an Antarctic research base debating whether to defrost an alien body they’ve found in the ice (Alec Nevala-Lee later unearthed an earlier draft that starts with the discovery of the ship). They’re confident the alien can’t still be alive, but they’re wrong. Now they have a shapeshifting creature lurking among them, able to kill and replace any of their sled dogs or themselves. If it escapes, it can populate the world with itself, much as Jack Finney’s pod people). Can they find the duplicates first?

This is part of a long print tradition pitting humans against a superhuman alien threat. It was a nail-biting thriller the first time I read it and would probably be again if I wasn’t thinking critically foremost. I can’t help noticing its very heavy on dialog, much more than action or even movement — like the recap of the opening discovery, it’s more people talking about what’s happening than it actually happening. It has a larger cast than the movie adaptations, but there’s logic to that; more people means Campbell can have a high body count and lots of takeovers and still end up in a better place than the end of the 1982 film. The story is also an excellent example of the Othering I’ve noticed in alien invasion movies. There’s no suggestion the alien might be reasoned with or negotiated with. Just looking at its face convinces most of the scientists it’s innately evil. All of that said, let’s move on to the movies —

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is an alien invasion movie, a horror film (it will probably go in my Monsters chapter) and a story of tough guys fighting alone and under pressure, a staple set-up for producer Howard Hawks (while Christian Nyby got the director credit, multiple accounts credit Hawks as the guiding hand). There’s constant banter and crackling dialog (I disagree with Nevala-Lee that the film is mostly “a series of images“), and a woman, Nicky (Margaret Sheridan) who can hold her own with the men. She isn’t the screamer of the poster though she doesn’t get much to do in the struggle.

USAF Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew fly up from Anchorage to help out Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) whose science team have discovered a flying saucer that recently crashed in the Arctic ice. Attempting to melt the ice with thermite destroys the metal of the ship, but it turns out the pilot ejected before the crash. Trapped in a block of ice, he gets taken into the lab — and due to an error, the ice melts. The creature is loose. Can Hendry and his men stop it? Can he and Nicky get over their really disastrous first date?

Rather than a shapeshifter, the monster is just a Frankensteinian-looking James Arness. He’s an intelligent plant (“You sound like you’re describing a super-carrot.”) who feeds on mammal blood. His plan is apparently (he never actually talks) to use blood of living creatures to grow seeds and colonize Earth. He shows little concern for humans; as Carrington puts it, he’s no more interested in a dialogue with us than we’d have a discussion with a cabbage.

Despite that insight, Carrington comes off a nasty piece of work. Like Zellerbee in Village of the Damned, he respects the alien’s superior intellect and doesn’t want it harmed. Unlike Zellerbee and similar movie scientists, he actively undercuts the fight, interfering with some of the men’s efforts and providing blood to grow new seedling Things. He’s often been interpreted as Communist figure (ruthless, emotionless, threatening the good people of the world). However, as Keep Watching the Skies points out, the military high brass take the same view that Hendry should avoid hurting the alien. The cluelessness of military higher-ups is a running gag; it’s the people on the front lines who see things clearly (a right-wing film by Peter Biskind’s standards). The film is tense, scary and deserves its rep as a classic  (I’m amazed the best DVD I could find isn’t full of special features). “I doubt the thing can die as we understand dying.”

JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING (1982) harks back to Campbell’s original by making the monster a shapeshifter. We open with a husky fleeing a Norwegian Antarctic base, a Norwegian following, trying to kill it from a chopper, only to crash and die. By the time the American base — where staff include Kurt Russell, Donald Moffatt and Wilford Bromley — realize what they’re dealing with its too late: any one of them could have been infected and transformed. Who’s who? Can they figure it out before the monster gets away and infects civilization?

This got a resounding critical slapdown when it first appeared: gory and graphic (the transformation scenes, probably influenced by Alien, are pretty gross), the men’s casual drug use, the fact it’s an all-male cast. Forty years later, it’s become a classic; as Nevala-Lee says, it’s probably better known than the Campbell story. While I prefer the Hawks, the 1982 movie is a solid horror film though it suffers the common logic gaps of the genre. There’s no real attempt to watch each other and ensure they’re not turned, nor do they try grilling each other for memory gaps (maybe the Thing duplicates memories, but they don’t even try). That said, I think Carpenter, a big fan of the original, did a good job. “The chameleon strikes in the dark.”

THE THING (2011) is an attempt to hybridize the two films by remaking the Hawks version and setting it up as a prequel to the Carpenter. Scientist Mary Elizabeth Winstead travels to the Norwegian base where they’ve discovered a ship in the ice, and the ice-preserved body of the pilot. Once again it thaws out; once again a scientist suggests they keep it alive, even as it’s killing them, but now there’s the added possibility it could be any one of them.

This one didn’t work for me at all. It has none of the wit and rough humor of the Hawks version, nor the horror of the Carpenter, even with louder, more graphic F/X. It doesn’t help that we know how it’s going to end, but they fudge even that — Winstead survives almost to the end but we never actually see the Thing take her down. My biggest take away is how determined Hollywood is to keep mining its intellectual property over and over (pre-pandemic, there was talk of remaking the Carpenter version). As I mentioned five years ago, it’s true Hollywood has always been into remakes, and it’s also been into series, but it’s much worse now. Strip-mining old movies is both safe (they’re a known property) and economical (why buy something new when you already have the rights to something old?). Of course the box-office flop of this film shows remakes/prequels/reboots aren’t a sure thing, but I doubt that will shatter the paradigm.  “This may be the first and only time Earth has been visited by an alien life form.”

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Battleships, Area 51 and flying saucers! Movies viewed

Much as I hated Alex Garland’s pretentious Devs, I might have liked ANNIHILATION (2018) if I weren’t watching it for Alien Visitors (which puts me in a different headspace). A team of talented female actors (notably including Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson) penetrate the Shimmer, a warped reality on the U.S. coast that’s ominously expanding to xenoform more territory. Then again, while the acting and personal drama are good the concept of an alien reality on Earth isn’t new and this version doesn’t rise much above a My Greatest Adventure story from the 1960s.“As a psychologist I’d say you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction.”

Much to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed BATTLESHIP (2012), in which humanity broadcasting a message to an Earthlike alien world gets an answer. Unfortunately the ET response is an unstoppable, ginormous warship that crashes off Pearl Harbor — the location was intentional — and when the Navy reacts, goes into attack mode, sealing off the area behind a force-field and blasting the ships in the area. As a result, slacker Naval officer Taylor Hirsch discovers he’s now the vessel’s acting captain (“You’re the ranking officer alive.”) with the help of Rihanna as another officer; outside the force-field Admiral Liam Neeson seethes in frustration while female lead Brooklyn Decker and real-life paraplegic vet Gregory D. Gadsen struggle to stop the aliens from calling home (to presumably summon more forces).

Like Battle Los Angeles this has the military win just by fighting tougher than the enemy (as opposed to the Giant Claw approach of finding a weakness); while it has one callback to the game (Rihanna having to target the enemy underwater while most of her instruments are blind), it also justifies the name by bringing the SS Missouri (a floating museum) back into action, with a WW II veteran crew plus some Japanese Naval officers who were part of the exercise (which given Pearl Harbor has symbolism of its own). Like a number of more recent movies, there’s not even an attempt to explain the ETs — unlike Earth vs. the Flying Saucers or Invisible Invaders, they just attack. One supporting character suggests just attempting to contact ETs made an attack inevitable, as if the Native Americans had invited Columbus (which seems a little unfair to the latter — for all the wrongs he did, Columbus didn’t set out as a military expedition).. “ET wants to phone home — that would be very bad.”

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) deserved closer attention than I had time to give it, even though it doesn’t qualify for my book (there’s an alien element but it’s minor). The film has Mary Elizabeth Wing wake up after a car crash to discover John Goodman has rescued her, then locked her away in an underground bunker to save her from the nuclear war raging outside. He’s creepy and abusive, but is he telling the truth? Unrelated to Cloverfield except in name, but good, though very dark. “Some people just don’t realize what’s good for them.”

After a woman witnesses someone commit suicide outside her door, she becomes obsessed with conspiracy theories and decides for no discernible reason the answer lies in Area 51 NEVADA (2018). This sets up a tedious, talky film with much discussion of conspiracy theories (“You really think the moon landing was faked?”) and UFOlogy before a confusing climax that would qualify for the appendix of Now and Then We Time Travel. “Dude, that’s some M. Night Shyamalan twisted shit.”

SHOWDOWN AT AREA 51 (2007) was, if anything, worse, a low-budget direct-to-DVD tale about a renegade federal agent and brainy girlfriend Gigi Edgley helping a good alien stop an evil alien from activating a doomsday McGuffin — but which ET is really the villain? Z-grade stuff.

AREA Q (2011) is an equally dull story about a journalist grieving the death of his son when he’s sent to investigate UFO abductions in Brazil. Every brain cell I used to pay attention to this one was wasted.

THE FLYING SAUCER (1950) assumes a)there’s only one such craft and b)it’s of human origin, which is even scarier given it can outfly anything on Earth (“How would you feel if tomorrow a flying saucer dropped an atomic bomb on every key city of the United States.”). The government recruits a playboy adventurer (or so he’s described — he comes off more like a longshoreman) to find the ship and its inventor before the Reds locate him. The result is a generic and unremarkable spy film. “Instead of furthering the imperialistic designs of America, Russia will employ it for the good of the entire human race.”

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“I’m making too much money” is a funny complaint

Okay, that’s not actually my complaint. It’s just that I made a big push to get more Leaf articles in and that squeezed out work on pretty much anything else. I started Sunday worked through Monday, then ran into Tuesday because I was too darn slow turning ’em out. Plus Thursday we had the housekeepers in; that’s usually distracting so I took the time to get various house stuff done.

Wednesday I did watch some movies for Alien Visitors and today I mixed more movies with getting some actual writing done. That felt good even if one of them was Killdozer.However when I reached my quota of Leafs for the week — I have some more to do on Monday — I stopped, rather than squeeze out the chance to make a little more money. I lose too much time for other projects if I don’t at some point say “I’ve earned sufficient. Stop now.”

Next week, the Leaf work should be light, so hopefully more will be done on the book. Time’s running out and I gotta move faste.r

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No, an imminent alien invasion is a GOOD thing!

Remember Ozymandias’ plan in Watchmen? Solve Earth’s problems by faking an alien attack (Dr. Manhattan in the movie). The world’s nations will set aside their differences and unite to battle the alien threat, eliminating the risk of nuclear war and massive military overspending to stay even with each other.

This has a long history in SF. The earliest I’m aware of is Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “Unite and Conquer”; later we had an Outer Limits episode, “The Architects of Fear.” And Watchmen (in the movies they switched the unifying threat to Dr. Manhattan). And a plot in Roy Thomas’s All-Star Squadron. There’s also a British TV series, Object Z, in which the US, USSR and the UK must unite to stop a looming asteroid that turns out to be a fake.

It’s also an element in my Atoms for Peace story collection. After repeated attacks (the War of the Worlds Martians, the Living Colossus, the Growing Men, the rogue weather-control computer “General Winter”) they realize it’s no longer capitalism vs Marxism, it’s human vs. ET. After launching Sputnik early, using repurposed alien tech, the USSR offers to share the tech with the U.S. Eisenhower says “sure!” The potential for going into space, eventually fighting back against the ETs wins over our distrust (this is mostly behind-the-scenes stuff). By the time of “Not in Our Stars But In Ourselves,” we’re prepping to send a joint US/Soviet team of cosmonauts o make the first moon landing. If I ever write the sequel novel, set in 1959, Gagarin One will be a flourishing lunar colony, and we’ll have an orbiting space station further out.

I was surprised to see the completely unnecessary and uninteresting sequel INDEPENDENCE DAY: Resurgence (2016) invoke the same idea. In the aftermath of the all-out alien attack from the first film, the world has united in peace, remaining vigilant against future threats. Thanks to the alien technology we scavenged, we have cooler weapons and a moonbase (I don’t recall any sign of peaceful uses of the technology). Twenty years after the first invasion, the aliens’ hive mother shows up to finish destroying us — can the old guard (Pullman, Goldblum, Hirsh and Spiner all return from the first film) working with some punk kids save the day?

I’m not a huge fan of the first film, but second time was not the charm. This has  some of the same sexism as its predecessor (despite female fighter pilots and Sela Ward as the president), too many characters and plot threads, and some really silly bits, like having the Queen chase after a convenient school bus full of helpless kids (we’re all going to die, why should she care?). But from my perspective studying the genre, the optimism about peace made it worthwhile watching. It’s unusual for the movies: 1959’s Invisible Invaders (review coming soon) concludes with a reminder that the world can come together, but no guarantees it’ll take.

I think this is just as unrealistic as alien-immigrant films assuming the arrival of ETS would erase regular racism. Enemies can unite against a common foe, as happened in World War II. It doesn’t last. The US and the USSR were at each other’s throats in the Cold War almost as soon as WW II ended. Contrary to Ozymandias, there’s not going to be a peace dividend when we’re spending to prepare for/hunt for evil alien invaders (Fritz Leiber made that point in his short story “Peacemonger.”).

I get into some of this in Atoms for Peace. There’s a Soviet hardline group in one story that’s convinced the USSR will survive fine if the USA goes under. The John Birch Society in the US is just as opposed to the alliance. The novel will show that even among the allied nations, there’s a far amount of jockeying for power and dominance. Object Z has a schemer trying to exploit the crisis.

This is not a dealbreaker for me with Resurgence (0r for that matter Watchmen). It’s not a particularly good film (and the lackluster box office killed plans for a sequel) but I didn’t go into it expecting well developed sociopolitical analysis. Which is probably just as well.

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Childhood’s End, the book and the miniseries

Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel CHILDHOOD’S END was still a big-name SF novel when I read it in the early 1970s — the kind that stands out for being about big, cosmic ideas. After watching the SyFy miniseries for Alien Visitors, I figured I’d read the book for comparison.

The book opens in the 1970s, as a rocket expert contemplates how close we’re coming to putting a man into space. Clark reminds us in the intro that this was published four years before Sputnik launched and nobody imagined we’d have a man in space by 1961. Then spaceships descend into Earth’s atmosphere and the scientist realizes his dreams are dead: alien first contact makes all our efforts to develop space flight obsolete.

Working through the UN, the Overlord Karellen (the most fun character in the book, with a pronounced sense of humor) eliminates hunger, disease and want, stops wars and smoothly takes over administration of all the world’s nations. Nation states fade away; crime dies out, as everyone’s needs are now met. The small resistance movement against the Overlords goes down easily. Earth enters into a golden age of peace and plenty, but with a lotus-eating quality to it. Lots of amateur scientists but nobody doing groundbreaking research (I wonder if Raymond Jones’ “The Unlearned” was a counter-argument to this book); lots of amateur artists but nobody with the drive to create great works. Jan, a black scientist, contrives to visit the Overlord home planet and makes the depressing discovery that space is too overwhelming, too vast for human beings. We have no place there.

Finally we learn the real reason the Overlords came. The next generation of human children are born psionic, developing a hive mind like The Midwich Cuckoos. They ultimately destroy the Earth — Jan, the last normal human, stays to record events for the Overlords — and move on, ultimately to join the Overmind. This is the cosmic intellect that commands the Overlords; it has uplifted countless races this way and brought them into its greater hive mind. Humanity is dead and our offspring have gone far beyond us. It is truly … childhood’s end.

All I remembered of the book from first reading was the fate of humanity and the shock when Karellen reveals himself: Overlords look like Satan so they hold back from the big reveal until their control is secure. I can see why that’s all that stuck with me. This is primarily a setting story, a look at the last years of Earth. There are few standout characters — Karellan, Jan and Stormgren, the UN Secretary General who serves as central character for the first part (most of his scenes are quite engaging). There’s no real plot or conflict; everything’s very sedate. And there’s way too much exposition about how the Overlords run Earth, the nature of the Overmind, Jan’s trip into space (we don’t see it, we get it recapped later).

The exposition also skims over a lot of stuff that’s worth telling. At the time, maybe it was plausible that if something like this happened, nations wouldn’t put up too much of a fight; I’ve read other stories from that era that assumed the UN was just the first step to some sort of United Earth. As Fred Clark points out writing about the Left Behind books (which assume the UN Secretary General has some kind of dictatorial power), people don’t let go of their old ways that easily. Karellen does discuss his methods for dealing with resistance at one point; showing that in action would have helped.

The age of the book shows in some of its politics too. Karellen describes himself as a benevolent colonial administrator, something that probably sounded acceptable back when the British Empire was still a going concern. Not so much today. At one point Clarke mentions that with racial hatred faded (another hand-wave I’m unconvinced by), people casually use the n-word for blacks without any racial intent. I presume Clarke meant this as an unsettling demonstration how different this future is but I’d rather he just didn’t say it.

The 2015 SyFy Channel miniseries makes a variety of changes. Stormgren (Mike Vogel) is now a Midwestern farmer, picked as alien envoy for no discernible reason (I’m guessing it’s because so many right-wingers think the UN is some kind of global tyranny — though I don’t know they’d be watching this anyway). Karellan is much more humorless, and doesn’t look that Satanic to me (in fairness, trying to make him plausible and Satanic is a challenge — it was much easier when my imagination did the work).

There’s a lot of added material, such as a subplot in which Stormgren and his wife learn Karellen sterilized them so their hearts wouldn’t be broken by what’s going to happen to the children. I could have done without it.

Overall, it was a solid adaptation, but it suffers from some of the same flaws as the book — the takeover’s just too easy, presumably the reason for the added drama. A bigger problem is that this just isn’t as fresh as it was in 1953 — 2001 covered some of the same themes, for instance.

Still, I’ll give SyFy credit for bringing a major classic of the genre to the screen.

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The movies’ first alien invader!

In 1945, Republic gave us the movies’ first alien invader, as far as I know, in the serial THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES. It stars Dennis Moore as the two-fisted hero, Linda Stirling as his girlfriend (regrettably not getting the kind of heroic role she did in Manhunt of Mystery Island or The Tiger Woman), Roy Barcroft as the purple-clad Martian invader and James Craven as a human scientist he murders and replaces. The scientist has invented a jet plane that should be capable of travel to Mars (it shows the era that it’s always called a plane, not a rocket); that’s a vast improvement over the Martians’ own technology (Barcroft traveles inside a meteor, possibly a hat-tip to War of the Worlds. Stealing the plans, the Martian recruits a criminal mob and sets out to build the plane, then return with the plans to Mars.

The results are competent, as Republic always was, but they don’t rise above the usual formula (villain tries to eliminate heroes; heroes try to stop villain acquiring McGuffins). Part of the problem is that given the set-up it’s not SF enough, though a female Martian (Marcia the Martian — yes, they went there) does counter that for a couple of chapters. I know it’s fantastic — but that’s just the word to describe the Purple Monster.”

INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957) is very far from art, or even quality, but it’s still more interesting than some of the films I viewed this week (most will be held over to a later post). A couple of fast-buck operators, two necking teens and a grumpy farmer become caught up in the eponymous attack of Little Green Men (I believe it may be the first time that particular cliché appeared on screen) — though we never learn for sure if they’re actually attacking or just stranded and trying to survive on a hostile world. Then again, their ability to frame someone for a hit-and-run accident implies they’ve been watching us for a while … What really makes this interesting is that it foreshadows the full-on paranoia of The X-Files. An Air Force team coves up all evidence of the UFO, then the leader comments that they’re the only ones who know what’s really going on. Do they, his aide asks? Are they sure other teams aren’t covering up other stuff and leaving them in the dark? “You know how savages blame the rain god for every storm?”

NOT OF THIS EARTH (1957) was Roger Corman’s surprisingly effective SF vampire story. A mysterious man wearing dark glasses arrives in a small town to see if Earth’s “subhumans” will make good livestock for his blood-drinking race. He hypnotizes the town doctor into doing some hematology research, hires nurse Beverly Garland to provide him with transfusions and then begins sending human specimens home. I don’t find the character as sympathetic or tragic as some do, but the film does show how good a low budget movie maker Roger Corman was. This was remade three times. “Independent action is on the increase on a 73 degree tangent.”

INVISIBLE INVADERS (1959) is to zombies what the preceding film was to vampires. Invisible aliens animate the corpse of John Carradine to deliver a surrender or be destroyed message to the world. It turns out that their advanced technology doesn’t work on Earth, so they resurrect an army of corpses — all white, all male, mostly wearing suit and tie and none of them too decayed — to commit acts of sabotage until the world kneels. Can a handful of people in an underground bunker find their weakness? I remembered this as So Bad Its Good but that’s probably because I’m mixing memories of Plan Nine From Outer Space in with it; in reality it’s so bad it’s blandly dull. John Agar, a talentless actor with an uncanny eye for a mediocre film to be mediocre in, doesn’t help (he plays the military ramrod hero). “All I know is, we’re just 24 hours away from destruction.”

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Strangely enough, the guest puppies made me more productive, sort of

With Lily and Tito visiting, and TYG having her own stuff to deal with, I really couldn’t go anywhere last weekend other than the grocery store and the library. So I watched lots of movies for Alien Visitors. I did more of that the first couple of days this week, then settled in to writing on the book. The result was that I ended up with like nine hours of overtime. Which I still track even though I almost never run under-time. Still, knowing I’m not sitting on my butt gives me a certain peace of mind.

After the dogs left I set to work on writing the book. I did some great work on the introduction but as usual didn’t get as far as I liked. Dog care, lack of sleep, occasional errands, in short the usual distractions.

I squeezed in a bunch of Leafs the end of the week and I started the rewrite of Chapter Nine of Undead Sexist Cliches. This chapter deals with the concept of the sexual marketplace — specifically the idea women are selling sex (whether for cash, love, gifts or marriage), men are buying and that women “giving it away” undercuts the rightful order of things.

And that’s pretty much it. As I’m working on so few projects these days, these posts just get shorter and shorter. But that’s better than having some long catastrophe I have to explain, right?

For visuals, here’s a shot I took from inside the Plush One’s cage, up next to the built-in cupboard. We finally took the cage down today.

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“There is nothing wrong with your television …” Outer Limits, Season One

After finishing my rewatch of the original Twilight Zone, I figured I’d rewatch the 1960s Outer Limits eventually. As it has several episodes involving alien visitors on Earth, I thought rewatching while I was working on Alien Visitors would be the perfect time. The show comes off better than the last time I caught any of it, but definitely no match for the Twilight Zone.

The brainchild of Joseph Stefano, Outer Limits was conceived as SF where TZ skewed more to fantasy. Like so much that shows up on TV, it was compromised child: ABC was dubious a serious SF anthology would fly so Stefano committed to providing a monster in every show. That worked fine when there was an alien but in The Human Factor it’s one character’s hallucination about a frozen corpse (he’s cracking in the belief he was responsible for the man’s death). Well, it worked sort of fine when there was an alien: in giving them nonhuman faces the show routinely wound up with what looked like grotesque masks, with no ability to move or show expressions other than eyes and lips. Vulcans looked a lot more convincing.

What does leap out at me rewatching is that they managed a wide variety of stories within the given range. We have political thriller (The Hundred Days of the Dragon), a grim story of POW torture (Nightmare, the source of the above photo — if anything it feels more believable these days), the paranoid of O.B.I.T. (even more relevant as surveillance has almost caught up with the show), comedy (Controlled Experiment), human drama (The Bellero Shield and the excellent Feasibility Study), and the weirdly poetical, arty tales of Don’t Open Till Doomsday, The Guests and The Form of Things Unknown (an unsuccessful backdoor pilot).

Outer Limits also suffers from a sense of how serious they are — not kid stuff like Tom Corbett Space Cadet, they’re doing high drama in an SF format! Despite which the best episodes are really good. Fun and Games has a bored alien race kidnap two humans — a runaway wife and a weaselly gambler — to compete against a couple from a barbarian planet (this looks like an unacknowledged swipe of Fredric Brown’s Arena). The reason? The aliens will have fun. The incentive: if the humans lose, or refuse to play, Earth dies within five years. It works as both an adventure and a character story. A Feasibility Study has aliens abduct a small town as a test case to see how easily we can be enslaved; if the humans resist, they’ll be infected by a monstrous, deforming disease. In the end, the town chooses infection to show the aliens we can’t be broken. It’s intensely moving.

Some episodes that aren’t great still have great performances. In The Mice, convict Henry Silva is part of an experimental exchange with an alien planet, via teleporter. Silva’s turn as a guy constantly figuring the angles makes the whole episode worthwhile.

The season has a number of clunkers though. The pop-eyed evil mutant of The Mutant, the easily defeated flowers of Specimen: Unknown, the hamfisted throw-lots-of-stuff-in-the-blender plot of Tourist Attraction. Some episodes have an interesting concept that isn’t developed enough: In Zanti Misfits, the Zanti ship their convicts to Earth, confident we’ll be intolerant enough to do their dirty work and kill the prisoners; too much gets handwaved to really work.

That’s one of several episodes I may reference in Alien Visitors. As I mentioned in my post on ET Pied Pipers, The Special One has an alien scheming to use human children against humanity, but it’s uninspired. Fun and Games is an example of an abduction by aliens that doesn’t fit what we now think of as a “UFO abduction.”

I’ll tackle the second season, which is conveniently only half the length of S1, soon enough.

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The Fourth Kind (or) why I watch more Alien Visitor movies than planned

Back last year, I decided that I was only reviewing one or two movies per chapter for Alien Visitors — one alien invasion movie, one aliens-and-kids film, one alien-pregnancy film — I wouldn’t have to watch as many as I have for my past books. As you’ve noticed if you read this blog, I’ve been watching quite a few.

The trouble is, I can’t place a movie in its subgenre without some sense of the genre, and simply going by memory isn’t enough. For example, watching Independence Day shows me alien invader movies still use the “look, they’re coming in peace … oops” trope as War of the Worlds  (Mars Attacks! did the same). And it showed me how modern F/X makes it possible to create nonhuman aliens — but also to add tentacles and protuberances for no other reason than “we can do it!” (the sequel, Resurgence, was really bad about this.

So to do a good job, I have to watch a lot more movies; as I don’t know which ones will give me insight (not all do), I watch more on top of that. As I can’t watch every single ET on Earth film, I have to set limits but it’s hard to know where to draw the line. In the end, I’ll have to go by instinct and hope I’m right.

THE FOURTH KIND (2009) is a good example of why it’s tricky. It’s a mediocre movie that I only watched on impulse but it turns out to embody many elements I think are key to the alien abduction film.

We open with Mila Jovovich, who plays Nome Alaska psychologist Abigail Tyler, assuring us the story we’re about to see is true — only the names have been changed. And we’ll even see real footage of Dr. Tyler (interviewed by the filmmaker) and some of her patients. It’s a combination of based-on-truth and found footage films!

We learn Tyler is grieving the death of her husband several years earlier, at the hands of an intruder who might have been an alien. Sheriff August (Will Patton) thinks not, but can’t convince her. Then some of Tyler’s patients start reporting how something creepy but unexplained has happened to them after seeing an owl at the window. Turns out that as Twin Peaks said, the owls are not what they seem. Hypnosis reveals Nome is dealing with a close encounter of the fourth kind — abduction (astronomer Allen Hynek’s 1972 encounter scale did not go above three, in case you were wondering).

Where Dark Skies is UFO Abduction as Poltergeist, Fourth Kind knocks off The Exorcist. The aliens implant something inside victims that in the found footage is able to levitate them above their beds, or twist their necks around (unlike Blair, this snaps their necks lethally). The alien entity claims to be God, but there are indication its a Sumerian demon — and did you know the Sumerians drew carvings exactly like the Apollo space capsules? What about the fact (as Jovovich reminds us at the end) that Nome receives more FBI visits than any other town in Alaska? OMG, what does it all mean?

Well, don’t look for the film to answer. Like many other alien abduction films, we never learn what’s really going on. That’s part of the illusion of based-on-truth paranormal films — it’s real life, not something we can tie up and resolve neatly. August eventually forces Tyler to admit that her husband wasn’t killed by an intruder or an ET, he took his own life. She’s just blocked it out. In some movies, that might prove everything’s her imagination; here, it excuses August disbelieving her but should we?

If this makes the film sound interesting, it’s not. It’s a muddled, murky mess. But from the POV of someone writing a book on this topic, it helps me understand the genre a lot better. “When something boasts 11 million witnesses, that could win any court case in the world.”

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