Science Fiction, Ufology and Hollywood
By Nick Pope
The relationship between science fiction, ufology and the film industry is an extremely complicated one. In this article I’m going to explore this relationship by doing two main things. Firstly, I’ll examine the extent to which ufology is influenced by science fiction – though my conclusions here may not be what you expect and may upset skeptics and believers alike. Secondly, I’ll take a critical look at the increasingly popular conspiracy theory that the film industry (and Hollywood in particular) is part of an official government campaign to acclimatise people to an extraterrestrial reality by constantly exposing the public to movies featuring aliens, and to indoctrinate them into believing certain things about extraterrestrials by pushing certain key themes in sci-fi films.
I write this article with three separate hats on: firstly, my Ministry of Defence background (mainly in relation to my time on the UFO project, but incorporating my more general knowledge of how government works); secondly, my position as a sci-fi author and someone who regularly commentates on the genre in the media; and thirdly, as someone who works with various PR agencies and film companies as what the film industry calls a ‘paid spokesperson’ or ‘celebrity spokesperson’, promoting sci-fi movies both at the theatrical release date and at the time of the DVD/Blu-ray release.
Science Fiction Influencing Ufology
Skeptical ufologists have sometimes proclaimed that sci-fi is a huge influencing factor on ufology. At best, they say, it encourages people to believe that any strange light in the sky is an alien spacecraft – the MoD received more UFO reports in 1978 (the year that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released in the UK) than in any other year. At worst, they suggest that sci-fi encourages people to make bogus claims of UFO sightings and alien abductions, inspired by the sorts of alien spacecraft and extraterrestrials that they see in various sci-fi films and TV series. Do either of these theories stand up to scrutiny? Yes and no.
Taking the Close Encounters of the Third Kind anecdote, this could simply be coincidence, but the fact of the matter is that it’s impossible to tell whether there’s any meaningful connection between the movie and the number of UFO sightings reported to MoD in the year of its UK release. How, short of re-interviewing every witness and probing their reasons for making a report, could you tell? Does a sci-fi movie cause people to see a UFO? No. Might it make someone more inclined to think an unidentified light or object in the sky has a non-prosaic explanation? It’s a possibility, but there’s no realistic way in which this could be measured in a proper, scientific way.
A more likely explanation is that a UFO-related sci-fi film will inspire various TV programmes, radio shows, newspapers, magazines and websites to run more general stories and features about the UFO phenomenon. Indeed, such features are sometimes deliberately placed by film companies as part of a marketing campaign. I’ve seen (and indeed written) numerous stories and features that begin with an introduction along the lines of “In the week in which X is released, we look into the UK’s best-known real-life alien encounters”. The interesting thing is that people seeing these features are often unaware that they’re part of a marketing campaign – the information is real enough, but the feature is only running because the TV programme, radio show, etc, has been approached by a PR agency and has agreed to run a feature as a tie-in to the movie release. Everyone wins: the media get a genuinely interesting feature, often with a celebrity spokesperson, while the PR agency/film company get their product plug. There are rules for this, of course (e.g. it’s usually only one mention of the product on the BBC), but less is often more, as the saying goes, and the most effective campaign is often a subtle one where the product plug isn’t too blatant.
There’s another factor at work too. Often, particularly in local newspapers, a UFO story will end with an appeal along the following lines: “Did you see the UFO? Have you had a sighting? Call our news desk and tell us your story”. What this does is create a more receptive environment than would normally be the case, making it more likely that someone who’s had a sighting will make a report (UFO sightings are notoriously and massively under-reported, either because witnesses fear that they’ll be ridiculed or disbelieved, or simply because they don’t know who to contact) as opposed to staying silent.
To briefly summarise a complex and inter-related set of circumstances, sci-fi movies lead to more media coverage about UFOs and aliens - sometimes because a reporter thinks that a sci-fi film makes the subject ‘hot’, other times because it’s a deliberately planted tie-in feature that’s part of the marketing campaign. This in turn may lead to a higher proportion of UFO sightings being reported than would otherwise have been the case.
Notwithstanding the above, measurement of any of this would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. To measure the effect of a sci-fi movie, one would need to do a comparative analysis using annual data on both the total number of UFO sightings, and on the total number (and thus the proportion) actually reported. But it’s impossible to quantify sightings that are never reported! Moreover, one would need to somehow assign values reflecting the volume and impact of sci-fi movies in any given year, and the volume and impact of associated media coverage, as well as determining the extent to which this impacted upon and influenced UFO witnesses.
As a final complication, it’s not as if one could ring-fence the influence of any one single sci-fi movie. In any given year there will be several sci-fi movies released, firstly at the cinema and then on DVD and Blu-ray. Additionally, some older sci-fi movies will be shown on TV. Again, it would be difficult (if not impossible) to determine which UFO witness had seen what movie(s), let alone try to determine whether and by how much such movie(s) had influenced a witness – even assuming they were accurate and truthful about this.
The bottom line is this: sci-fi movies may influence ufology, but we can’t be certain about this and could never measure it in any meaningful, scientific way.
Ufology Influencing Science Fiction
It’s well worth pointing out that the debate can be had the other way around. Sci-fi writers and filmmakers have clearly studied ufology and drawn freely from material in the UFO literature. In many cases this is self-evident, as with films like Communion and Fire in the Sky, which are based on - though often take artistic licence with - testimony from UFO witnesses and abductees. But other sci-fi films and TV series reflect a deep familiarity with the subject. Movies such as Roswell and series such as Dark Skies and Taken clearly involved detailed research into ufology. On a personal note, my two sci-fi novels Operation Thunder Child and Operation Lightning Strike are as much techno-thrillers as sci-fi, blending material from ufology with government and military doctrine, tactics and hardware, to the extent that they needed to be officially vetted by the MoD, prior to publication - the first and only time that such a process has been applied to sci-fi novels.
When making Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg used Dr J Allen Hynek as a consultant. Hynek had been astronomical/scientific consultant to the US Government’s UFO investigative program, Project Blue Book. He even got a cameo role in the movie - for trivia buffs, he’s the guy with the beard, glasses and pipe, looking up at the mothership towards the end of the film. More recently, one only has to look at elements of The X-Files, both in terms of plot and visualisation, to see that Chris Carter knows ufology inside out. I helped 20th Century Fox do some promotional work for the second X-Files movie and when I met Chris Carter at the UK premiere he confirmed that he was familiar with my official MoD research and investigations relating to the UFO phenomenon. So while life imitates art, art also imitates life. There’s certainly a relationship between ufology and science fiction, but it’s definitely a two-way street.
Ronald Reagan and Steven Spielberg
For many years, suggestions of collusion between Hollywood and the government over the UFO/alien issue were fuelled by an anecdote about Ronald Reagan and Steven Spielberg. Reagan, it should be remembered, had seen a UFO in 1974 while he was governor of California and occasionally alluded to extraterrestrials in speeches, e.g. a 1987 address to the United Nations, where he suggested that in the face of an alien invasion, nation states would quickly set aside their differences and unite against the common foe (a speech that is itself often cited as evidence that Reagan was briefed about the reality of extraterrestrials). It was claimed that after a private screening of E.T. at the White House in 1982, Reagan thanked Steven Spielberg and said something along the lines of there being a certain number of people in the room who knew “how true this really is”.
Recently, as part of the publicity associated with the release of the new blockbuster movie Super 8, Spielberg himself confirmed this anecdote. In an interview with film critic Eric Vespe, Spielberg recalled that after the screening Reagan said “I wanted to thank you for bringing E.T. to the White House. We really enjoyed your movie. And there are a number of people in this room who know that everything on that screen is absolutely true.” Spielberg recalled that although everyone treated it as a joke and laughed, Reagan hadn’t been laughing when he delivered the line. That said, Spielberg believes the remark was a joke, nonetheless.
The Acclimatisation Theory
There are some interesting but contradictory conspiracy theories about sci-fi movies. The first is what might best be labelled the acclimatisation theory. It suggests that directors such as Steven Spielberg are ‘in the know’ about the existence of extraterrestrials and that their sci-fi films are part of an campaign to get the general public so used to the idea that aliens might exist that it won’t come as such a culture shock and ego-blow when the President announces that we’re not alone - “Disclosure”, as many ufologists describe it. The thinking is that the constant ‘drip drip effect’ somehow anesthetises people to the enormity of such a revelation and prompts a post-Disclosure reaction not of panic in the streets, but of quiet acceptance: “Ah, I thought so”.
The Indoctrination Theory
Related to the acclimatisation theory is the indoctrination theory, where it’s further alleged that the constant depiction of hostile aliens (Independence Day, War of the Worlds, Battle: Los Angeles, etc) is part of a campaign to indoctrinate us to the idea that aliens (whether they suddenly arrive, or whether their existence is simply revealed by government) are not going to be friendly.
The acclimatisation theory and the indoctrination theory go wider than sci-fi movies. Some people believe that documentaries have an equal part to play, and National Geographic’s 2011 show When Aliens Attack has been cited by conspiracy theorists as one of the most recent (and blatant) examples of this. My involvement in the show as a contributor has not escaped the notice of such people, and the claim that I’m still secretly working for the government has cropped up several times on various blogs and forums on which this new National Geographic documentary has been discussed. The acclimatisation theory even covers more general use of UFO/alien iconography, e.g. the use of UFOs and aliens in advertisements, on T-Shirts, etc. But for the purposes of this article, I’m going to limit the discussion to sci-fi movies.
The acclimatisation theory is difficult to debate with people. Those who believe in it are unlikely to be swayed by arguments to the contrary, or even by direct denials from those involved. “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” would be the likely response. The indoctrination theory, however, bears closer scrutiny and is easier to challenge. After all, there are plenty of major sci-fi movies where the aliens seem benign, or at least indifferent. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Contact spring to mind. If sci-fi movies are propaganda in an indoctrination campaign, we’re getting remarkably mixed messages. Proponents of the theory might argue that this reflects a reality where there are malevolent aliens and benign aliens (and maybe some neutral aliens too). But the truth of the matter is that despite the claims of the UFO community, we don’t even know for sure that alien life exists, let alone whether any alien civilisations that may exist are benign, malevolent or indifferent.
On this point, it seems to me that the whole concept of good aliens and bad aliens is hopelessly anthropocentric. In other words, we constantly incorporate human attributes such as “good” and “evil” into our speculation about extraterrestrials, resulting in a clichéd view that visiting extraterrestrials are going to be coming here to invade the Earth or to lead humankind into a benevolent Galactic Federation.
As a final aside on this point, these radically divergent views raise an interesting psychological point about the UFO community. Though it’s an oversimplification, ufologists in the ‘believer’ camp broadly split into two groups: conspiracy theorists who are more inclined to believe in evil aliens (and an evil government that’s keeping the truth from the people) and New Agers who think enlightened extraterrestrials are going to help us overcome our problems and prejudices, and will take us to a higher state of consciousness – or any number of other New Age clichés. The point about this anthropocentrism is that when ufologists speculate about extraterrestrials, they aren’t really thinking about aliens at all – they’re thinking about themselves.
False Flag Alien Invasion
The related and contradictory conspiracy theory that I mentioned earlier also involves collusion between Hollywood and the government. But in this one, aliens don’t exist. Rather, the powers that be want you to believe that they do, in advance of a “false flag alien invasion”, which would be used to usher in a New World Order.
For those who aren’t familiar with the false flag alien invasion conspiracy, let me put some flesh on the bones. Believers in this theory don’t generally believe that aliens exist (or if they do, they think they’re friendly). Rather, they believe that governments are using the acclimatisation theory and the indoctrination theory to make people incorrectly believe that aliens exist, that they’re hostile and that an alien invasion is going to take place soon. At some stage (the theory goes) a stage-managed event will occur. The government will create (possibly with the active assistance of Hollywood special effects experts) an alien invasion, using secret prototype aircraft/drones, models, holograms, and mind control. People will believe that it’s real and new powers will be rushed in, enabling the powers that be to deal with the situation. Personal freedoms will be curtailed, draconian new laws will be ushered in, and the New World Order will take over. Some people have even gone so far as to speculate that such an event will take place at the 2012 London Olympics, perhaps at the Opening or Closing Ceremony, so as to maximise the impact. By way of comparison, believers in the false flag alien invasion plan also tend to believe that 9/11 was an ‘inside job’ and that the US government planned and/or executed the 9/11 attacks itself, in order to pursue a Neocon agenda.
For any readers who think this is crazy and that nobody could ever believe such nonsense, Google phrases such as “false flag alien invasion” and “Project Bluebeam”, and you’ll see that such beliefs have a wider degree of acceptance than most people would suspect.
My Personal Experience
I have personal experience of this conspiracy theory. Because I’m a sci-fi author and because I worked on MoD’s UFO project, I’m frequently asked to do promotional work for the theatrical and/or DVD/Blu-ray release of sci-fi movies. As described earlier in this article, this work generally involves ‘straight’ interviews about the UFO phenomenon or the scientific search for extraterrestrial life (e.g. astrobiology or SETI), in which – within broadcasting rules – a plug for the movie is given. I’ve promoted films that include The X-Files: I Want to Believe, The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds and, more recently, Battle: Los Angeles and Paul. As a result, I’ve been accused of being a part of this conspiracy theory myself. To add fuel to the fire, I’m coincidentally involved in developing a series for the BBC entitled ... False Flag!
How and Why Governments Really Do Influence Some Movies
Proponents of the abovementioned theories point to the fact that the US government has occasionally sought to influence various UFO-related movies. I can confirm that this has actually happened ... but not for the reasons people might think. The point is that filmmakers and TV executives often seek to use military resources (equipment, locations and personnel) in a movie or TV show. Self-evidently, in such a situation the military and the government will negotiate with the filmmakers to ensure that if assistance is given, the military are shown in as positive a light as possible: well-trained and equipped, well-led, able, moral, courageous, etc. This has benefits in terms of both PR and recruiting. And it’s not unique to sci-fi, of course. It transcends genre. I have personal experience of this, as one of my previous MoD jobs involved my negotiating with film and TV companies over such issues. The MoD helped with the making of the BBC Scotland sci-fi series Invasion: Earth and with action thrillers like the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. I was involved in the negotiations on both these requests personally and naturally, our assistance was conditional on the military being portrayed favourably. If you want our help, you play by our rules. It’s not a conspiracy – it’s common sense.
Despite what some people believe, Hollywood is not colluding with the US government to promote belief in the reality of extraterrestrial life, either as a prelude to Disclosure, alien invasion or a New World Order takeover based on a false flag alien invasion. Sci-fi movies are just that – movies. It’s about being creative, it’s about entertaining people and it’s about making money. Sci-fi movies – even the scary ones – are there to be enjoyed. Don’t have nightmares; do sleep well.