A New Hope For Alien Abduction Movies

By  · Published on September 21st, 2015

close encounters

Columbia Pictures

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a movie of wonder and imagination and the excitement of the unknown. It also, while never being that scary for viewers, acknowledges the horror of certain mysteries. Because everyone seems to be happy at the end of the movie, it doesn’t matter that a young child was taken from his mother and it definitely doesn’t matter what happened to him on board or why. The reunion and the smile on his face are enough to forget, though not negate, the terror she experienced or the fear that drove her curiosity about the climactic UFO landing.

The original release of Close Encounters avoided showing us what happens inside and aboard that UFO, maintaining the secrecy of what those aliens were up to as they abducted scores of humans over many decades. We could still give the extraterrestrials the benefit of the doubt. Even after Steven Spielberg regrettably added shots of the UFO mothership interior for the 1980 re-release, we were given nothing to worry about. This extra scene, later removed for another version of the film, is just more amazing spectacle. But the movie isn’t totally ambiguous, either. The aliens for the most part look harmless, inviting. We assume Richard Dreyfuss’s character will have a good time.

Spielberg mostly got it right, but the problem with alien abduction movies is they lean too much to the side of terror or the side of fantasy. It’s either monsters looking to perform horrible, painful tests on people, relating those titles to the alien invasion genre, or it’s an invitation to be a hero in an intergalactic war or to a planet where nobody dies or simply to ride around in a fun spaceship hosted by a computer who sounds like Pee-wee Herman. The latter type probably shouldn’t be labeled as abduction movies since they’re not associated with the kidnapping connotation, but they’re still really about the same thing.

What that thing is, though, should inspire keen fascination. Not necessarily dreams or nightmares, just an engrossing unexplainable situation. At least this should be the case with those movies based on alleged true stories like that of Betty and Barney Hill, the famed first alien abductees who are getting another movie, this one headed to the big screen care of the producers of the Maze Runner film series. As much as we make fun of that franchise and its perplexing stack of unanswered questions, the first one in particular exhibits the sort of mystifying nature piquing our interest in nonfiction tales of alien abduction.

Mostly, film adaptations of such tales veer toward the nightmare side. Communion and Fire in the Sky play their abduction scenes aboard spacecraft as horror, and certainly what transpires in them is terrifying for the abductees. But these are accounts of experiences, mostly scary in their strangeness and lack of comprehension, that are part of a greater excursion. And the abductees always come out relatively okay, aside from some residual trauma primarily housed in their subconscious. It wouldn’t be surprising if the abductees of Close Encounters went through similar experiences, but we’re not shown those experiences nor the after affects on them as survivors.

Just as The Maze Runner and its new sequel, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, have horror-like sequences within their larger stories of mystery and adventure but are not horror films, a movie depicting the incident of the Hills should feature events that are scary for the characters while not being a scary movie overall. The thing about the Hills’ story is that the abduction stuff isn’t that interesting, especially as part of or compared to the rest of the phenomenon and what’s long been portrayed on screen regarding these kinds of stories. But the bigger picture with them, how they’d already faced enough scrutiny for being an interracial couple and of course how they were the first widely publicized case, is all fascinating.

The new movie, which will be based on the 2007 book “Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience: The True Story of the World’s First Documented Alien Abduction,” promises to heavily address the contexts of race and the Cold War, which offers hope that this will be a deeper feature than most involving this subject matter. “They were an interracial couple in a country that still had segregation laws, and they lived in a city that was next door to a bomber base bristling with nuclear weapons. What they knew and why they were targeted will make for a phenomenal film,” states Jackie Zabel, CEO of Stellar Productions and wife of the movie’s screenwriter, Bryce Zabel.

What Captured, as the movie is currently titled, probably won’t capture, though, is the non-scary continuous wonder of many alien abduction stories that have made fans of this subject matter so enthralled. Confession: throughout my youth I was one of those fans, attending readings by authors/subjects such as “Communion” twofer Whitley Strieber and obsessing over books and magazines covering the accounts of the Hills and others (especially the lengthy, intricate tales and diagrams of Betty Andreasson Luca). And I don’t expect that aspect of the appeal of the phenomenon, that never ending mystery of why aliens are allegedly abducting people, to ever fully carry over to the brief confines of the big screen.

Not that it would be impossible. Although he stayed outside what goes on inside the ship (or tried to), Spielberg sort of went down the rabbit hole of the Wonderland-type narrative that would make the most sense for an alien abduction story (especially that of Andreasson Luca) avoiding the horror trappings. The problem for most of the inside-the-ship stories is the general public looks at them derisively as outlandish and/or cliched, and those said to be true stories are particularly dismissed. If Captured can be taken seriously and focus more on the grounded elements of the Hills’ story than the hard-to-grasp events with the aliens (however they’ll be visually represented in this take), that’s a good step for public acceptance but not necessarily for those of us interested in (whether we believe them or not) such events.

Hopefully it’s a step toward uniting both angles, though. Spielberg also produced the more sprawling miniseries Taken, which covers the greater mythology of the abduction phenomenon and mostly gets right the more curious stuff that appeals to me and presumably others. Zabel worked on Taken, too, and he co-created the earlier series Dark Skies, which also deals with an expansive UFO narrative clearly based in a familiarity with the “true” materials. He’s probably the best person for the job of bringing the Hills’ story to the big screen, but I also think and hope he’s the person who will bring us more great, faithful stories of the phenomenon beyond the one that was historically first.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.