Article: Close Encounters of the Cinematic Kind - The Best and Worst of Alien Abduction

Andrew breaks down SOME of the best and worst movies that feature alien abduction. Are you scared?

Ever since H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds solidified itself into pop cultural consciousness, science fiction enthusiasts have been fascinated with the notion of extraterrestrial life existing in the far reaches of the Universe.  Could intelligent life be scouring the galaxy for other worlds and dimensions?  Could they visit us?  And if so, what would happen if we met one of them?  The common fear and theory is that the hairless grey aliens would promptly suck us up inside their ornate spacecraft to subject us to a litany of bizarre medical experiments, projecting our own fears of torture at the hands of man onto an entity beyond our realm of understanding.  With this list, let us kick off this focus on six textbook examples of the science fiction subgenre that try to stress time and time again that we are not alone in this vast interstellar cosmos.

"You wanna see something
really scary?!!!"
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 – written and directed by Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is without a doubt the quintessential alien abduction and UFO film.  A massive blockbuster years ahead of its time, Close Encounters remains the most artistically, commercially and critically successful UFO film ever made.  Much like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film is an experience full of awe and wonder as it reaches for the Heavens and onward.  Spielberg’s second hit and collaboration with actor Richard Dreyfuss concerns Roy Neary, a family man with a blue collar job whose brief encounter with a UFO forever turns his life upside down and alters his course for the stars.  Roy Neary’s breakdown from stable husband and father to self-destructive UFO obsessive represents the most realistic attempt at the incomprehensible impact of an alien encounter has on human beings.  Full of astonishing vistas courtesy of visual effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (2001; Blade Runner) and a gifted performance by Dreyfuss, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a timeless masterpiece which the United States Library of Congress deemed essential to the National Film Registry.  In other words, “This means something!  This is important!”.

"Your face looks funny. Like, haha
freaky funny."
Fire in the Sky (1993 – directed by Robert Lieberman)

Undoubtedly the scariest alien abduction film ever made, Fire in the Sky loosely recounts the true story of abductee Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) and his 5 co-loggers who witnessed his abduction.  On November 5, 1975, in Northeastern Arizona, Travis and crew are returning home from a long day of felling trees on a government contract when they happen upon a strange object hovering deep within the woods.  Curious about the sight, Travis exits the truck to take a closer look and is blasted by an unearthly beam of light emanating from the object, which hurls him several feet into the air and knocks him out cold.  Fearing he was killed, the observing crew fees the scene only to return later to find both Travis and the object missing.  Suspected of a murder cover-up, the film is largely about the hardships endured by the crew from the local townsfolk believing Travis’ disappearance to be the result of foul play.  However, all those theories are squelched five days later when Travis mysteriously reappears naked, bruised and afraid.  It is here we, the audience, are allowed in flashback a glimpse at the horrors Travis experienced inside the alien spacecraft.  Although the story was changed drastically for dramatic effect from Travis’ original story, to call these flashbacks utterly horrifying would be too modest a description.  They’re the stuff of unmitigated nightmares, evoking the same claustrophobic terror as the medical examination scenes in The Exorcist.  This is one of the few films I saw as a child where I actually wanted to get up and leave the theater.  Though Fire in the Sky is something of a misguided film that isn’t entirely sure how it wants to assess the situation, as a piece of science fiction horror, it hits hard and will leave all who encounter it in a state of shock.

"We are the Lollipop Guild.
Give us your children."
Communion (1989 – directed by Philippe Mora)

Another allegedly true story of alien abduction (based on the autobiographical account by Whitley Strieber), only this one stars Christopher Walken in the titular role!  Communion concerns the author in question and his family as they reside on vacation within their distant cabin in the wilderness.  Night after night, the family is visited upon by extraterrestrial beings and Whitley is abducted.  The family’s life is thrown in disarray as wife, son and relatives try to make sense of their father’s bizarre behavior and paranoia.  Undergoing hypnosis, Whitley recalls a strange collective of black-eyed grey aliens and even stranger dwarf like creatures.  What makes Communion linger with viewers is how completely strange the whole thing is.  As Whitley and hypnotherapist attempt to purvey the blocked memories, we see some truly bizarre recollections which are either real, imagined, or simply altered by the extraterrestrials working to cover up their ruse.  Scenes of Whitley receiving an anal probe will no doubt stick in viewers’ minds and perhaps even elicit unintentional laughter, but other scenes of Whitley talking to his alien doppleganger and a grey who removes a face mask to reveal an elephant-like trunk for a snout are too out there for words.  Sporting a score by Eric Clapton (an unusual choice for film composition) and an unhinged Walken (much to the real Strieber’s dismay) Communion truly is one of the weirdest films you’ll ever see!

"I'm not guessing who it is and I'm
not turning around to see who it is.
Okay? I'm just really freaked out."
Dark Skies (2013 – written and directed by Scott Stewart)

Touted by adverts as being from the same producers as Paranormal Activity and Insidious, Dark Skies is unfortunately among the more run-of-the-mill titles in the alien abduction subgenre.  The film concerns a dysfunctional family and two young boys, Jesse and Sammy, who share horror stories about the “Sandman” to distract themselves from their parents’ feuding.  Out of nowhere, food is strewn across the kitchen floor, which Sammy promptly blames on the Sandman.  As the disturbances grow more intense, the family begins to experience lost time and the mother spots a dark figure looming over Sammy’s bed one night, prompting the installation of security cameras.  Soon marks begin to appear on the sons’ bodies and the figures start showing up on the security cameras.  More or less a cheap knockoff of Signs with the framework of Insidious, Dark Skies bears that unwanted distinction of being thrown together.  While the aliens themselves manage to creep out hardened science fiction fans with their silent movements through the household and lanky figure, there really isn’t any effort to try and do something new here.  We’ve seen it all before in infinitely better thrillers, including the flawed but somewhat effective Insidious.  The stock characterizations, family dynamics and clairvoyant children can’t help but tread the same ground fans of the genre have walked time and time again. 

"Taco Bell......noooooo!!!!""""
The Fourth Kind (2009 – written and directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi)

The Fourth Kind is not merely a bad science fiction thriller, it’s one of the absolute worst films ever released to mainstream movie theaters.  Purporting to be based on real events which occurred in Nome, Alaska in the year 2000, The Fourth Kind is that rare beast of awfulness that manages to self-terminate within the opening scenes.  Seen in both the trailer and film itself, Milla Jovovich approaches the camera, announces herself as an actress and that she’ll be playing the fictional Dr. Abigail Tyler.  With tons of random dates and locations thrown onscreen, the director, Olatunde Osunsanmi, proceeds to insert himself into the picture by interviewing the “real” Dr. Abigail Tyler.  As every character appears onscreen, subtitles appear indicating both the actor we’re seeing and the character they’re playing.  If that’s not enough to take you right out of whatever narrative this film is trying to accomplish, the director includes split-screen shots juxtaposing both the “real” footage of Abigail Tyler beside the re-enacted footage of Jovavich’s Abigail Tyler.  What’s the purpose?  Which heads at Universal Studios took a look at this approach and deemed it passable for theatrical distribution?  

Soon the split screens start moving around without reason, actors’ dialogue in the re-enacted scenes sync up with the “real” footage, scenes are played twice both ways, and whatever money shots people paid to see are obscured by the reliable low-budget tactic of tape distortion so we can’t see what’s happening.  And then there’s the exploitative misuse of real life tragedies associated with Nome, Alaska to try and sell the idea to gullible moviegoers that the region is dogged with alien abductions.  If Olatunde Osunsanmi’s intention was to make THE Dada-Art movie to end them all, he brilliantly succeeded.  As it stands, The Fourth Kind is an intolerable creation whose only conceivable reason for garnering a Blu-ray release is to educate people on how not to make a film.

Alien Abduction (2014 – directed by Matty Beckerman)

"Aliens told me I can't play
Minecraft anymore."
Matty Beckerman's Alien Abduction is another entry in the seemingly endless found-footage genre, or to put it more precisely, a long form version of Jason Eisener's short segment Slumber Party Alien Abduction from the anthology horror film V/H/S 2.  Not unlike Andrew from the found-footage masterwork Chronicle, we're given the point of view of an autistic boy using his hand held camera to broach the outside world as his vacationing family purveys the countryside. As expected, we get the shaky camera as well as the glitches in audio and video whenever an alien attack is near. For the most part it's well directed and the characters aren't insufferable imbeciles deserving of death but a real family with problems and quickness to self-sacrifice. The sound design mixes deafening ship roars with blinding lights to terrifying effect, although the aliens sound like they walked off the set of M. Night Shyamalan's Signs with their chirping and clicking noises. Save for an effects heavy finale, Alien Abduction exploits the notion of less amounting to more as far as it can go, opting for implication and jump cut glimpses rather than anything clearly visible.  While overtly a B-movie, those keen on alien abduction movies should check it out as soon as possible. Not a film that aims high for greatness, but of the kind of mindless thriller entertainment it aims to be, it's a lot of fun. As a found footage film, yes it suffers from the cliches found within the genre, notably the video distortion which occurs on the camera, signaling whenever an alien attack is on the horizon. That said, it's a popcorn horror flick that proved to be exactly as I expected it to be.

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-Andrew Kotwicki