On Tuesday, I will release my next book, 1997: An Ordinary Year in Film, an in-depth set of reviews on the films of 25 years ago. It will be a free release. What follows is an excerpt.
Why aliens in the 1990s?
I’ve pondered that at length since I lived through the big alien boom in the 1990s. Aliens were all over American media. At the theater, you had the great UFO abduction film Fire in the Sky which was followed by Independence Day, Men in Black, and Contact. In print, countless books on Area 51 and proof of aliens. And most important in the media, The X-Files which was a massive hit show before becoming an oddity of a film I still wrestle with.
I look at this from a defiantly skeptical perspective. I’m not sure what my religious views are but I definitely don’t believe in the supernatural as it’s depicted in this media. I’m a massive fan of the books of guys like James Randi and Joe Nickell. I find there to be no possibility of the UFO monomyth as depicted in alien abduction stories to be possible in an age where there’s too much surveillance. Video cameras killed the alien star.
However I should also point out that I love The X-Files. It’s my favorite show. But what draws me to it is that sweet fantasy that all of this could be real. That’s actually a common thought among debunkers. They love the fantasy of it all because it’s that. Hell, a prominent figure in the skeptical community is the great William B. Davis, AKA the Cigarette Smoking Man on The X-Files, who has been an active and vocal spokesman for it.
So I’m in a good position to analyze this material. I have a skeptic’s eye but also a love of the art. And the mission of this book is to look at art through that lens of who we were in 1997. Why were we this way?
First, some context. I see three major UFO booms in the media. The first was the initial 1950s explosion set off by initial reports. Those combined with communist fears put the culture in a position to fear the outside. The second came in the 70s post Watergate and alongside the death of rural America. It existed but when electricity and phone lines were everywhere there was anxiety and one last gasp of it.
Then the 1990s came and I think the fear was simple. We still didn’t know who the bad guys were. The media needed an answer. Couldn’t be the Soviets anymore. We needed some focus. We settled on Aliens. You also had one last great burst with grainy home video that made faking UFO footage so easy. Fox sure inhaled that. And having The X-Files helped as a fulcrum though what people actually cared about was two of the most attractive people in TV history having frustratingly simmering chemistry.
This brings me to these two films, though Men in Black expertly handled the idea I’m getting at here and shouldn’t be dismissed as Alien Ghostbusters. The three alien films of 1997 examine one overarching idea. There is something unknowable out there. MIB said we should trust the system because the space cops would handle it even as it basically told the audience “you get this is a lie right?”
These two films address the idea from opposite ends. About all that links them is they’re from directors who seem to inspire strong reactions with fantastic casts throwing fists and something uniting the alien element. Contact is the bright hopeful version. Event Horizon is the nightmare exploitation version. Both kind of end up at the same place. And now I have to justify this idea.
Contact is the big film. It has an a-list cast with Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey’s first test of if he was worth the hype, and James Woods as basically himself now. It’s Robert Zemeckis returning after Forrest Gump.. Based on a book by Carl Sagan. It’s the grand what if we made contact with aliens film. It’s as serious and realistic as it gets.
And I get why it pissed audiences off. Much is made of the ending and I’ll get there but even before that, this is a dry film. It’s not effects heavy. It looks realistically at how this would go. An alien civilization responds to our signals, sends us a method to get there, and we go as a first step though conclusive proof is denied to the world because…look I think that part is a cop out. Sagan had no interest in actually dealing with the cost of events and copped out. (The film clings to his book.)
The thing is I love Contact. I love that it’s a dry film. I bask in how great the performances are and how much Zemeckis really holds back on the sap. Despite not having a CV to show it, Don Burgess does staggering work as DP. The sets are great. There are beauty shots that deserve IMAX treatment. If this was a beloved film, it would get that.
Another thing I admire. The movie isn’t afraid to make the hero an atheist at a moment where that usually required a conversion at the end and this avoids that. This is actually probably in many ways truer to Sagan’s beliefs than the book, which ends on a suggestion of intelligence creating the universe. Yeah die hard atheist Carl Sagan had intelligent design in his art. I can’t reconcile that.
This movie takes a fascinatingly secular view of a higher power. That’s the thing people hate. This movie was violently rejected for the aliens taking the form of the protagonist’s father. South Park was shredding it 6 years after it came out for that. It’s still something that enrages people. So of course it’s central to my thesis.
My take is that there’s a very good reason to have the aliens look this way. They’re meant to represent the incomprehensible. These are beings that created devices that destroy the laws of the universe. They can’t possibly exist in a form our minds process. The power of Contact is acknowledging that truth. The aliens chose a comforting form. Look, no scientist I’ve read has ever said alien life would be humanoid. This makes sense.
And it helps the idea that what this film is truly about is contacting the unknown. This is a movie about gazing into the impossible void and the void speaking back in our language, telling us it’s safe to travel. It uses safety to coax us out. The alien becomes less alien as we find ourselves in it.
There’s real power to that ending. Contact is a truly great film for that reason. It’s hopeful but not a fantasy. Like the cool blue tint that permeates much of the film, it’s a muted comfort but a true comfort.
And yet the void is scary too. So I must turn to Event Horizon, which is the bleaker than bleak twin.
Event Horizon was a notorious bomb. It was rushed through editing to beat Titanic which was delayed anyway. 30 minutes of footage were cut and cannot be restored. It was the kind of film that everyone making it remains deeply proud of though. Sam Neill still talks often about his love of it and his sadness at the failure.
25 years later, the film occupies a funny place in the culture. I can leave out The Rainmaker or Selena yet I feel bad leaving Event Horizon out. I’ll get called out on that. And that’s really the voice in my head demanding the best horror film in a very important transitional year for horror go in. Because I’m like most people. I love this film.
The plot is remarkably simple. A spaceship travels through another dimension and returns years later possessed by something from it. Whatever that is brings on hallucinations of the past in a crew sent to salvage the ship. There is a tremendous amount of gore. And so much lifted from Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris it should have been legally actionable.
The movie actually has much in common with Contact. Like Zemeckis, Paul WS Anderson is a divisive filmmaker but this is his a-game. There’s a great look to the film thanks to DP Adrian Biddle. The cast is ridiculously great with genre legends Neill and Laurence Fishburne both delivering some of their finest work.
But what I love most about the film is unintentional. I don’t think the movie was meant to say anything. It’s a space haunted house movie by the intent of the creators. But I’m going to call it when I see it. Event Horizon says something important about fear.
See it’s so funny that both this movie and Contact, as wildly different as they are, land on one point. What we see in the unknown is ultimately within ourselves. The aliens we confront might take the form of our deepest loss in Contact or our deepest regret as here but we are looking at the familiar in the unfamiliar.
As someone who openly fights mental illness, I believe this. Nothing is scarier than the human mind. It’s a mess of snakes and fears. It’s hard for me not to see the terror here is real. It’s telling that the film’s true hero is Fishburne’s captain who stares things down and goes to his death knowing his responsibility was fulfilled while the great monster is Neill who in fear removes his eyes and gives in. The symbolism isn’t subtle.
And this brings us full circle. What do these movies say about the alien? Ultimately there’s a fascinating theme running through all alien media in the 1990s which is that it’s really about what’s within us. In The X-Files, Mulder says the truth is out there but ultimately the answers to his quest lie in an earthbound conspiracy involving his biological father and the man who raised him. These movies depict the alien as a manifestation of us.
We were ultimately truly afraid of yet also empowered by ourselves. We were dealing unconsciously with the end of an external threat. We weren’t ready to discuss Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, or Waco but we wanted to. We knew no hope was coming from without. But we knew that we drew strength from hoping for it anyway.
In the end all the light of the night sky did was illuminate our own reflection.