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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The UFO Incident

Released amid the mid-70s renewed fascination with flying saucers, The UFO Incident (TUI) is a made-for-TV movie dramatizes the famous “Hill Abduction” of the 60s. (Hence the DVD jacket in lieu of a theater poster.) James Earl Jones stars as Barney Hill. Estelle Parsons stars as Betty Hill. This is a television movie, but it is included here for its legacy connections to the Golden Era of sci-fi: the 50s. (more on that below). TUI, as the film version of the 1966 book about the event, becomes the seed for many movies to come, from Close Encounters to Altered to Fire in the Sky, etc.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Note: The screenplay interweaves the therapy and remembering with flashbacks of what was remembered. This synopsis does not interweave.
Betty and Barney Hill return from a vacation in Montreal. As night falls, they are crossing into northern New Hampshire’s White Mountain area, en route to their home on the coast in Portsmouth. They make small talk until they notice a strange light in the sky. It gets larger and appears to follow them. Barney is worried and dismissive. Betty is curious. Eventually, they are stopped by several aliens in the road. The aliens take Betty and Barney into their saucer. They take tissue samples and poke a long needle in Betty’s navel. The aliens seem mild and dispassionate, but not hostile. The Hills are allowed to leave, but told they will not remember any of their experiences. Per the aliens’ word, the Hills arrive home two hours later than they should have, and have no memory of traveling a long stretch of road. Both are bothered by their hole in time. The stress prompts them to seek therapy. Dr. Simon uses hypnosis to explore their repressed memories. Both Barney and Betty describe the abduction event in very similar accounts. Once they listen to the tapes of their sessions, the Hills find some peace at having filled in their missing memories. The movie concludes that the Hills remembered what they believe happened to them. The Dr. Simon character is not convinced there were real aliens, but thinks they’ve shared a common fantasy. They express their individual concerns — him with being persecuted, her with being in control. But Dr. Simon not out to burst their happy bubbles. The Hills go on to fairly normal lives, a triumph for hypnotherapy. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Knowing how many alien abduction movies will be made after TUI, it is like looking at photos of great-grandparents and seeing family resemblances. What makes TUI interesting as a film, is the lack of sensationalism. The matter-of-fact-ness has a humble charm.

Cultural Connectiions
Alien Abductions — While not the first occurrence of the trope, the Hill Abductions are the first to get mainstream traction. The 1966 book about their experiences, by John G. Fuller, and the 1975 movie (TUI) were more documentary in form than speculative fiction. This helped legitimize the account in the popular mind. The various elements of the Hill Abduction became the model by which many others would be patterned. Though, as noted below, those various elements were not created by the Hills, but pre-existed in the culture via sci-fi.

Primal Aduction, or Sci-fi Legacy? — The Hill Abduction became the model many subsequent reports. Author Thomas Bullard wrote “UFO Abductions: Measure of a Mystery” in 1987. In that book Bullard suggests that the Hill’s story is authentic because they were “entirely unpredisposed,” to a culture of UFO lore. That is, they weren't UFO 'nuts' before the event, so not inclined towards that sort of thing. Or were they?
A 1990 article by Martin Kottmeyer titled “Entirely Unpredisposed” outlined how much of the classic abduction story already existed in American culture, even if one were not a “UFO nut”. Kottmeyer cites 1930s’ Buck Rogers comics in which Wilma is abducted by the Tiger Men of Mars, taken aboard their saucer and given a medical examination. He also notes how people in a culture pick up and repeat tropes. As an example, he cites how the term “flying saucer” was not the shape Kenneth Arnold said he saw in 1947, but that was a term a reporter used (with no drawings of what Arnold saw.) “People started looking for flying saucers and that is exactly what they found.”

Some examples of the abduction story from sci-fi of the 50s (and early 60s) include:
-- The Day The Earth Stood Still (’51) has a scene in which Patricia Neal is picked up and carried aboard Klaatu’s flying saucer by the alien's robot (abduction trope). Aboard the saucer, the robot (Gort) performs medical procedures on the wounded Klaatu. Granted, this is alien-on-alien medicals, but the motifs are there -- getting carried aboard a saucer in which medical procedures are performed.
-- Invaders From Mars (’53) has the woman carried aboard the martian saucer (abduction trope). Once inside, she is laid on an operating table and about to be injected with a very large needle.
-- Killers From Space (’54) features Peter Graves as a man abducted by aliens (though not aboard their ship, per se), subjected to invasive medical procedures (leaving scars) AND amnesia of the event. Graves is also haunted by images of the aliens’ eyes, which float disembodied in his nightmares. Note Barney Hill’s words while under hypnosis (repeated in TUI) “All I see are these eyes... I'm not even afraid that they're not connected to a body. They're just there. They're just up close to me…”
-- Posters Galore The abduction trope was published dozens of times in the 50s via movie poster art. Even if the story did not feature aliens abducting earthlings, the posters often depicted an alien or robot carrying off a swooning woman. Someone did not even have to watch the movie. The posters themselves transmitted the message: Aliens want to capture you. Kottmeyer also cites an episode of -Outer Limits entitled “The Ballero Shield” which featured an alien with big slanted almond-shaped eyes. This was also the look of the aliens in Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (’56)
Could the Hills have unwittingly adopted the tropes of 50s sci-fi to flesh out their vision? Once the Hills’ story went mainstream, it followed the pattern of Arnold’s flying saucers. Once people were familiar with alien abductions, missing memories, etc., that is exactly what they found more of.

Bottom line? TUI is rather well done for a made-for-TV movie. While it has many of the usual budget constraints, the production doesn’t feel cheap. The quick intercutting of therapy sessions with flashbacks keeps the pace brisk -- a good thing, given the very talky nature of the script. Jones and Parsons do a good job portraying their characters with depth and subtlety. For someone unfamiliar with the famous Hill Abduction story, TUI is a good introduction (though not “the last word”). For fans of 50s sci-fi, it is fun to look for the movie precedents and familiar tropes. Also of interest is seeing the ancestor that spawned so many later movies. The Hills did “abduction” before abduction was cool. TUI is worth seeking out to watch. —

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