Review: Silver Screen Saucers
Have you ever wondered about the relationship between UFOs or aliens in movies and the real-life experiences of people who report contact or abduction or witnessing these things? Have you ever wondered whether the government is using UFO movies to influence people’s perceptions of these fringe but popular and captivating phenomena? Robbie Graham’s Silver Screen Saucers seeks answers to these questions via an epic exploration into the trilateral relationship between UFOlogy, government agencies and the entertainment industry.
UFOs and Extraterrestrials
The UFO phenomenon precedes its depiction in cinema. Depending on how you define evidence of UFOs you can go back decades, centuries or even millennia and find indications of flying wheels and saucers in the sky bearing beings from the beyond. Whether these are angels, aliens, trans-dimensional demi-gods, hallucinations or tiny glimpses into another realm is something Hollywood and TV have explored in great detail and diversity. Likewise, government agencies (particularly intelligence and military organisations) have taken the ‘lights in the sky’ phenomenon seriously enough to investigate it, sometimes for decades at a time. This has left a trail of tens if not hundreds of thousands of documents but nowhere do they offer firm conclusions. The unofficial UFOlogy community has likewise posited various competing and contrasting explanations and theories without developing anything even approach a consensus.
As such, one of Graham’s starting points in Silver Screen Saucers is that this is a real phenomenon, that there is something ‘out there’ and sometimes ‘down here’ too but he wisely refrains from offering a strong opinion about what that is. I have only ever toyed with this question, often as a result of watching UFO-themed entertainment, so I find nothing disagreeable in Graham’s somewhat Socratic and even Pyrrhonian approach to this issue. While those with strong opinions will not find validation in Silver Screen Saucers I think this is an important book for anyone curious about the subject and simply wanting to read a serious but open-minded discussion. This is something sorely lacking from most controversial topics, and so to me it is more than welcome.
Furthermore, no one can read this book and accuse Graham of not doing the legwork – the years of research that went into Silver Screen Saucers is evident on almost every page. From records of government involvement in films and TV programs to interviews with professionals who worked on some of the most crucial entertainment products in the UFO/alien genre, through interviews with contactees to a vast array of sources on film history and criticism, this is a compilation of information like no other. Even seasoned experts in the field will be able to learn something from Silver Screen Saucers because it is clearly rooted in an unusually broad and multi-disciplinary approach. That said, I am no expert but I found it extremely easy and inviting to read.
State-Sponsored UFO entertainment (UFOtainment?)
The relationships between these three things – the government, UFOs/UFOlogy and entertainment – are somewhat complex. Graham shows very convincingly how many UFO movies and TV series are based in real events, or at least real reports regardless of what we may think of the events described in those reports. In some cases the producers of these entertainment products had direct UFO experiences themselves and produced media as a form of catharsis, to help them cleanse themselves of the confusion brought about by such an experience. In reading their comments in Silver Screen Saucers, I am not convinced that this cathartic process has been particularly successful for the people involved, but it has made for some extremely fun things to watch.
Likewise, UFOlogy is, or should be, a serious topic. Silver Screen Saucers documents how, whatever efforts the government has put into trying to dispel or debunk it, they themselves have been as obsessed with this question as anyone has. As with questions like nuclear disarmament or the massive disparity in material wealth, whatever their public statements it is clear that some people within the state system feel the same way as most people outside of that system. Multiple US presidents along with senior military and intelligence officials have made repeated public statements in favour of ‘Disclosure’. Likewise there has been plenty of government involvement in UFO/alien movies and TV series, conspicuously involving Disney quite a lot of the time.
Alongside this you have unofficial UFOlogy in the form of numerous researchers, some more theoretical than others, some definitely more sane and sincere than others. Many of their beliefs, including about a massive government cover-up of extraterrestrial life, are inspired and shaped by films and TV programs. In turn, what thrives and becomes popular in this subculture affects the next generation of UFO/alien-themed entertainment products. As the subculture has become larger and more mainstream this relationship has only strengthened.
The Unholy Trinity of UFOs
One area where the book excels is in showing how the interpenetration of these three phenomena. For example, the US government but also other governments have been involved in some, if not many, of the highest-profile UFO entertainment products. From NASA’s support to 2001: A Space Odyssey through to military assistance on Transformers to the CIA mystery man working on Race to Witch Mountain, this is a recurring and growing dynamic. However, perhaps the most well known practitioner in the alien/UFO genre – Steven Spielberg – has had a very mixed relationship with these agencies, perhaps due to his apparently very sincere and strongly-held beliefs.
Then we have the likes of self-confessed disinformation artist Richard Doty of the US Air Force, who have infiltrated both the entertainment industry and the UFO subculture. The exact reasons for this are unclear, though domestically it seems to be an experimental process where ideas and memes are seeded at different ‘levels’ of culture to see which ones repopulate and spread. Internationally speaking, Graham identifies the likely explanation as psychological warfare. Having conquered the planet militarily (we could now blow it up completely, several times over) the next territory for the next arms race is inevitably near space and outer space. What better way to keep the Russians intimidated than to encourage movies depicting the US government secretly developing next-generation reverse engineered UFOs?
So, all these things penetrate and influence each other. To some extent they need each other when it comes to this issue. Without the UFO subculture, those in the government who want some kind of ‘Disclosure’ would have no audience. Likewise, those in the entertainment industry would have no market. Without the movies actualising even the most outrageous and complex fantasies of the UFOlogy community, they would have probably got bored due to all the unknowns inherent in the topic (at least for now). Without the government’s piecemeal declassifications and ongoing records of events both the UFO community and the entertainment producers would have far less source material, let alone the provision of technical advice and the use of infiltrators and misinfo/disinfo agents.
However, there is a twist in this tale. Just as cinema actualises fantasies, it also trivialises reality. Films especially but also narrative TV make more sense than the real world a lot of the time, and especially when it comes to difficult questions like the existence of extraterrestrial life. Simple narratives prevail – they are military craft, or the aliens want to take over, or the aliens created us and are checking up on their offspring/cattle. The notion that several of these options might be true all at once seems to escape almost everyone, whether they be in government, the UFO subculture or the entertainment industry.
One of the reasons for this is hyperreality, our inability to distinguish between the real and the simulated, between fact and fiction. Often we simply cannot remember whether a specific detail was something we read about in a serious book or just saw in a movie (or both), but it is more profound than that. At this point we cannot enter into a dialogue or exploration of most complex topics, or even just think about them, without being influenced by a series of fantasies and fictions and elaborate speculations that may or may not be true. Our very terms of reference, the words we use to talk about this subject carry with them the weight and echoes and implications of decades of the complex relationship between imagination and demonstrable reality.
As such, UFOs are both real and unreal at the same time, real because movies can be so very convincing, sometimes more convincing than our imaginations, but unreal because ‘it’s just a movie’. Whether it will ever be possible for true Disclosure to take place is something Graham is very sceptical about – as am I. If for no other reason, why would governments be honest when it would be in their interests to disclose that which fulfils one or another fantasy encouraged by TV and films that they have a track record of supporting?
But beyond questions of power, is Disclosure even possible? If they published all the high-resolution pictures and video and all the documents, there are still those would refuse to believe it, or those who would believe this wasn’t the whole truth. Ironically, hyperreality has become such a common element in our experience of the world that some people cling desperately to it, not actually wanting to know the truth because the world of fantasy, with all its bright colours and stirring music and emotionally satisfying narratives, is actually more pleasant to experience.
Silver Screen Saucers
Silver Screen Saucers is virtually a masterpiece. I would say it is a masterpiece but reading the book has provoked a lot of questions in me so I’m unsure if I should go that far. What is certain is that you have not read a book that is so well researched, so broad and deep in its exploration of a topic without then trying to smash conclusions into your face. It is a book that is extremely intellectually honest, and emotionally honest to recognise that a big part of the fun of this topic is that it’s a fun topic. Not knowing can be a lot more enjoyable than knowing.
It is simultaneously a history of UFO films and TV series, an examination of their origins, their influence on UFOlogy, UFOlogy’s influence on them, the government’s influence on both and the influence of both on the government, and a profound musing on the subject of UFOs and extraterrestrial life. After all, there might come a point when we get beyond these ludicrous shenanigans and manage to put aside our fantasies and actually take the question seriously. Probably not in our lifetimes, but still.
One of the few relative certainties is that this is a topic that isn’t going away. Despite the accomplishments of empiricism and material science in recent centuries, the human fascination and obsession with the beyond remains strong. If anything, in our postmodern age it is coming back with a vengeance like in the forthcoming Independence Day sequel. We live in an age where an entire cinematic universe has been created – a universe populated by transhumans, demi-gods and aliens, of course – and this has proved enormously successful.
So, while it doesn’t provide all the answers, or at times any conclusive answers, Silver Screen Saucers is also a self-help book for those trying to navigate postmodernity. I am sure it will leave you with as many questions as it left me with, but one above all stands out. If there are aliens out there, watching us from the heavens and seeing our truly bizarre attempts to negotiate our way through an age of mass confusion, what do they make of this? Do they find it funny? Do they find it sad? Do they debate whether to get involved, or to let us figure it out by ourselves? Or do they just film it on their iPhones and beam it back to Zeta Reticuli and watch all this on their local equivalent of youtube? Now that would make a good movie…
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