The hypothesis of this feature film is intriguing. What should a reasonable person in authority do with a bona fide flying saucer?
The DVD cover.
There it is, without a doubt an alien spacecraft, come to Earth in what seems to have been an accident. It struck a communication satellite just put into orbit and landed hard in the remote west Texas desert in a controlled descent. The craft is inert with no signs of life. Now what?
From that intriguing start there follows a slow descent into clichés.
Step one is to take possession of the object.
Much bigger inside than outside is this Tardis.
The Air Force just happens to have a base nearby and in the middle of the night a the airmen dig it out and uses a crane to put it on a truck taking it to the eponymous hangar, a facility devoted to serving NASA space shuttles. Hush, hush, hardly, hardly. It is thus well equipped for such a call-out. So far, so convenient.
What had happened? A NASA space shuttle was deploying a satellite and the saucer appeared in a blur and hit the satellite just as it was released. Two of the shuttle astronauts saw it all and have the telemetry to prove it. Ah huh.
NASA in the person of Darren McGavin, who breathes purpose, intelligence, and energy into his role, wants to know what happened, since nothing untoward appeared on the ground instruments.
The Air Force base commander recognises this as an unprecedented situation out of his pay grade so he does what he was trained to do and bucks it up the line.
Now one might think extraterrestrial contact is big enough news to get the attention of the President, but no he is busy tweeting, instead the message goes to the chief of staff, played with the casual arrogance of a master by Robert Vaughn, who briefs the unseen President.
What to do?
The Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff argues for segmented and contained revelation starting with American Nobel Prize winning physical scientists sworn to secrecy and flown to Hangar 18 and allowed to see for themselves, and then to help in comprehending what the thing is, how works, where it came from, what to do with it. There are a myriad of questions. Why is it there? Why did it crash? What are the intentions of the occupants? Starting with, how do we get into it?
But no, Vaughn fears premature leaks with consequent panic. The fewer who know anything the better to allow time for proper decisions. The first time it is said that seems reasonable.
Hmm. It is certainly true that swearing scientist to secrecy will not work. It is equally certain a panic would ensue.
It is also easy to believe that saying to the world ‘We have a flying saucer’ will invite national and global ridicule that photos, videos, and testimony will not dispel and, worse, it will unleash every one of the millions of nut cases around the world to The End of Days. Alternative facts will abound. I thought of the apocalyptic scenes in ‘Contact’ (1997). I thought of Ann Coulter, and preferred The
End of Days.
Vaughn’s desire to suppress the news is explained by a looming presidential election within two weeks, so that is the efficient cause (per Aristotle) of Vaughn’s effort to keep the secret. Ever since ‘Bullit’ (1968) Vaughn has specialised in these oily political operators.
Oh hum. There is always an excuse, if an excuse is needed, see Jean-Paul Sartre on inauthentic choice. Which is the bigger deal here? Alien contact or the electoral college? Current incumbent excepted, I would like to think any occupant of the Oval Office would see the priority here. Not so the screenwriter.
We never see the President, and the suspicion grew in my mind that Vaughn was playing a lone hand and not briefing the POTUS who would then have perfect deniability because he does not know a thing. Ronald Reagan in good conscience could always convincingly claim complete ignorance. What was harder to believe was that Vaughn did not go to Texas and see for himself. Too jaded to bother, I guess. In DC aliens are commonplace, after all.
Once the craft is secured the second step is to discredit all those who saw it, starting with the shuttle astronauts. Again the general dissents but is overruled on the ground that later when the story can be told in full they were be exonerated. Later never comes for underlngs.
The telemetry from the shuttle is altered. Video is edited in a flash. Voila! No saucer. In addition the farmers who saw it must be rendered harmless, suborned by alcohol and a rumour campaign. Sounds like Scooter's work. Of the grunts who dug it up, the base personnel, and the technicians who edited the data, not a word. Sworn to secrecy?
From now on we have an update on the Roswell fable. An inept government cover-up ensues of necessity involving very few conspirators who thunder and blunder about leaving a body count. After several accidental deaths and one murder, even the scheming Vaughn pauses.
Then, being an ideas man, he has an idea straight out of US foreign policy. Get all the witnesses together in Hangar 18, and blow it up. Problem solved.
The ideas man is having an idea. Kaboom, it is.
With genius like that it is easy to see why he is chief of staff. This decision is made by Vaughn alone and one lackey. Evidently the general has been cut out of the loop for being too fussy.
The problem now, it is clear, has become the guilt of the conspirators more than the saucer itself: Goal displacement once again prevails in public administration.
In fact, the only witnesses gathered are the astronauts and dozens of NASA scientists working on the saucer.
The witnesses about to be obliterated by the ideas man.
The Air Force grunts who dug it up are not there nor the technicians who edited the telemetry, nor are the two farmers who saw it fall and watched the digging from afar. The screen writer erased them I guess because no one will believe them anyway. No one but the ‘National Inquirer’ and ‘Faux News.’ (One imagines how Faux News would work Hillary Clinton in the frame.)
Meanwhile, the NASA scientists enter the saucer and find two dead humanoids killed by a gas leak (precipitated by the collision with the satellite) and that led to the crash-landing of the saucer which is otherwise sound. They also fathom the onboard IOS computer system and the alien language to learn much about these saucerites. Talk about a fast study! Thereafter it is straight from the playbook of Erich von Däniken. Stupid and boring.
When watching the film I read a few reviews, including Vincent Canby in ‘The New York Times’ who was so….[what is the right word] disdainful, I wanted to defend the movie. The tone of Canby’s review is personal irritation that he, reviewer for ‘THE NEW YORK TIMES’ had to review it, but that is hardly the fault of the film-makers. Complain to the assignments manager and in the meanwhile act like a professional and ‘Do your job’ as they say at Foxboro.
The set up reminded me of Stephen Coonts's ‘Saucer’ (2002) which I liked for its mile-a-minute ride. The conundrum of what to do with evidence of alien life also called to mind ‘My Favorite Martian’ but not for long.