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‘Taken’ Off

Special Report

Timothy Ferris

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 27.2, March / April 2003

I once met a young man who described himself as a “freelance investigative journalist,” and who, after a few minutes’ conversation, said he firmly believed that a crashed flying saucer with alien bodies aboard had been seized by the U.S. Air Force in 1947, near Roswell, New Mexico, and was now being held in a hanger at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

“Why aren't you there?” I asked him.


“At Wright-Patterson, working the story.”

“It’s top secret,” he replied. “No way they'd let a reporter anywhere near it.”

While this brief exchange shed little light on UFOs, it sufficed to establish that the young man was no journalist. A real journalist who shared his outlook would have been on that story like a coat of paint—living for months on end in cheap lodgings near the air base, shooting pool with flyboys in the local fun zones, crashing parties at the officers’ club, ceaselessly digging until something turned up.

Something will turn up, if there’s a story there and you work it properly. Secrets are not that easily kept. People like to talk, especially about themselves; you'd be surprised at how much even hardened cops and federal agents will spill in the course of a few solid interviews. As the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and CIA expert Thomas Powers has pointed out, those charged with keeping secrets sooner or later lose track of just which parts of them are meant to be kept secret. Inadvertently, they let things slip, and you can leverage those tidbits to give subsequent interviewees the impression that you know more than you really do, which inclines them to mention other things, until eventually the picture comes together. The process is time-consuming, but worth it if the story is big enough—and not many stories are bigger than a UFO crash.

So why haven't journalists swarmed all over Wright-Patterson Air Force Base? It’s not because we find it inconceivable that an alien spacecraft might have pancaked in the desert, or fear that jack-booted troopers will kick down the motel room door if we get too close to the truth, or are worried that disclosing it will cause a public panic. We have our faults and foibles and our bad apples, like any profession, but we're not an unalloyed gaggle of dimwits and cowards, and we certainly don't much care about causing a panic: We're in the panic-promoting business. Rather, it’s because every capable journalist has a bullshit detector, and we think—in our admittedly bemused and imperfect way—that this story is bullshit.

Indeed, from our standpoint, UFO news has been on life support for decades. It used to be that flying-saucer stories normally proffered a mix of eyewitness accounts and physical evidence. The eyewitness accounts may have been conflicting and suspiciously blinkered (as when a few people would report seeing a UFO in a piece of sky visible to thousands of others who saw nothing) and the physical evidence paltry (a scorched spot on a roadway here, a fuzzy photo there), but at least there was some semblance of empirical data. But then UFO tales tilted into the realm of alien abductions. Abductees were expected to produce neither coherent eyewitness accounts nor any physical evidence whatever. All they had to do was claim to feel that something had happened to them—something rather like having a bad dream—that might have involved aliens in spaceships. Abduction interpreters took it from there, like oracles reading tea leaves. John Mack, the Harvard psychologist who went belly-up for abduction yarns years ago, argues that what he calls “the alien encounter phenomenon” may be inherently exempt from the customary rules of evidence, if it “derives from a source which by its very nature could not provide the kind of hard evidence that would satisfy skeptics for whom reality is limited to the material.”

That’s us journalists, all right: We're “limited to the material.” We prefer facts to dreams, feelings, and expressions of faith, and we don't even trust putative facts until we've checked them out. (Journalism students are advised, in the words of a onetime Chicago city-room editor, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out!”) Alien abductions don't even begin to check out, as Johnny Mack implicitly concedes. So the more abduction-oriented the UFO yarns got, the less we journalists would have anything to do with them.

But from a science-fiction standpoint, alien abductions put solid-rocket boosters on the UFO story. The flying-saucer spotter of old was a passive observer, who had suffered, at most, a few moments of puzzlement or fear. His report, and its evaluation by skeptics and believers, belonged to the empirical realm of evidence and logical inference—that is, of thinking. But once he claimed to have been abused by aliens—to have been plucked from his farm, taken aloft, and rudely probed, and his poor wife probed, too—the emotional quality of his role improved immensely. Rather than merely being inconvenienced, like an owl stirred to flight by the click of a birdwatcher’s camera, he became a terrified victim. His tale, no longer confined within the narrow riverbanks of factual thinking, now sailed on wide oceans of feelings—and feelings sell a lot more tickets than thoughts do. Abductee reports may be wildly implausible and woefully lacking in verification, but science fiction is a “what-if” medium: What if they're telling the truth?

That speculation is the mainspring driving the longest TV mini-series ever made, Steven Spielberg’s twenty-hour Taken. Billed as a “history” of alien abductions, Taken was a hit, a “water-cooler event” that put the Sci Fi Channel on the map as the most watched basic cable outlet in the nation for ten delirious December nights. It reached well over ten million viewers in the U.S., will be seen by many more around the world, and doubtless will persuade plenty of viewers, especially younger ones, that the alien abduction phenomenon is real—that, as Sean Macaulay wryly put it in the London Times, “It is true, it is part of America’s history, and it has been covered up for too long.”

What fills all that time is, essentially, a demonstration of the logical dictum that all sorts of conclusions may be derived from a false premise. (The syllogism, “If Chicago is south of Miami, I am the king of Bavaria” is logically true.) If you start by asserting, say, that giant squid are the smartest creatures on Earth, then you immediately have a lot of questions to answer—like, “How come giant squid aren't running the planet and hijacking cruise ships?” or, “Do they have condos and cool discos down on the bottom of the sea?” To a journalist this all sounds silly, but for a fiction filmmaker—especially one who’s trying to have it both ways—the plethora of questions is a plus.

Spielberg, the executive producer and guiding light of Taken although he directed none of it, is a fiction filmmaker to the marrow. His artistic vision is as brilliant, if not much deeper, than the layer where light bounces off the silver screen, and he is ill-disposed to let facts get in the way of what works dramatically. As he told The New York Times, "I've always been fascinated with all of the questions that these [UFO abduction] stories raise. What do they want with us? What can they discover by taking us that they couldn't discover simply by taking a small scraping of skin or a follicle of hair? Why physically abduct us? And why do it the way they do it, so secretly? Why not just come to us with a Petri dish and say, 'Could we have a little DNA, please?' We wanted to come up with a story that tries to provide an answer to some of those questions.”

As you might expect, the answers proffered by Taken don't add up to much, but that doesn't prevent its being a pretty good show. Budgeted at $40 million, Taken looks and plays as if it had cost even more, thanks to Spielberg’s undeniable story-telling genius, his weird but genuine devotion to flying-saucer lore, and the impressive team he assembled to make it. The special effects, by Jim Lima (Space Jam, Spider-Man), are gorgeous. Although Lima’s aliens disappointingly resemble the big-eyed, skinny-bodied humanoids familiar from a hundred pulp-novel covers, they have a chilling amorality and an air of cold intelligence that rings true—they're lab technicians as seen by lab rats—and the flying saucers they tool around in are spectacular, even if they are sometimes upstaged by the finned fifties Buicks that adorn the show’s period pieces. The directors (a different one was used for each of the series’ ten two-hour segments) include innovators like Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist) and Breck Eisner (Dead Of Night). The solid ensemble cast, which includes Heather Donahue (The Blair Witch Project), Joel Gretsch (Minority Report), Julie Benz (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and the remarkable child actress Dakota Fanning (I Am Sam), manages to breathe life into a stolid but heartfelt script by Leslie Bohem (Dante’s Peak), who wrote the whole thing after reportedly being converted from flying-saucer skeptic to true believer by Spielberg.

Taken is freighted with portentous pseudo-profundities ("Life is like a roller coaster ride”) and dramatic infelicities. A sequence in which a crazed abductee holds the other members of his abductee support group hostage at gunpoint is so unintentionally funny as to recall the young Harrison Ford’s complaining to George Lucas, on the set of the first Star Wars movie, “George, you can write this shit, but you can't say it.” Yet it also has moments of startling originality, and it sustains a dramatic coherence remarkable in so long a work. Told in a pseudo-documentary framework, with superimposed dates and place names bestowing on each sequence a persuasive if unearned aura of authenticity, it appeals to an even wider audience than the 100 million or so Americans who say they believe that spaceships have visited Earth, and two percent (more than the entire population of Manhattan!) who claim to have been abducted themselves.

The problem, of course, is that all this talent is wasted on telling a story that swallows every absurdity of the alien abduction myth—with the sole exception of crop circles, which are dismissed as fraudulent in a sly bid to make it all seem plausible by showing that the filmmakers aren't thoroughly gullible. Spielberg obviously loves the story, and his affection sells it on an emotional level. “If it’s just another urban myth,” he said recently, “then it’s certainly one that has sustained itself for decades, and with remarkable similarities from one case to the next. They have been around since long before I made Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, and they've persisted way after.” It doesn't seem to bother him that a similar argument could have been employed, at other times, to justify the burning of witches, throwing Christians to the lions, or expelling Jews from Spain. Nor should it, necessarily: Spielberg is in the entertainment business, which generates profits by showing people what they want to see, not what they need to know.

Yet Spielberg’s wide-eyed, “what if?” approach, devoted at such length to so bogus a subject, ultimately drains Taken of the value that great storytelling, as opposed to virtuoso movie-making, can evince. In the end the show is, literally, childish.

It’s a cliché that Spielberg’s tales are character-driven, and this is certainly true of Taken, which traces fifty years in the alien-fretted lives of three families—the Keys, the Clarkes, and the Crawfords. The Keys are abducted, probed, and tossed back to Earth repeatedly, like human recycling bins. The Clarkes become half-breeds after Sally Clark, a tough coffee-shop waitress (played with admirable three-dimensionality by Catherine Dent) has a fling with an alien cleverly disguised as a human hunk (Eric Close, who played a federal agent whose wife was abducted—small world—in the NBC series Dark Skies). The Crawfords, a military clan, busy themselves trying to kidnap the Clarkes and killing anybody who gets in the way. Their scion, the maniacally evil Capt. Owen Crawford (Joel Gretsch), viciously murders his girlfriend, his wife, and even a couple of Boy Scouts, but in the Spielbergian universe his ultimate crime is that he neglects his children.

In a sense, children are the only characters who really matter in Taken. The series is narrated by a ten-year-old (played by an estimably composed Dakota Fanning, who manages to breeze through lines like, "People are lonely in this world for lots of different reasons”), and it makes room for a few adolescents, among them a Berkeley journalism student who fearlessly tracks down an alien tomb and gets his brain and body fried for his trouble. But its grownups are cardboard cutouts. They're adults as seen by children—exemplifications of good or evil, lacking in emotional subtlety except where children are directly involved, whose grown-up lives, especially when sex rears its head, dissolve into a confusing jumble.

This is not to say that the series is meant to be seen by children: Like most sentimentalized treatments of childhood, it’s too scary and routinely cruel for that. (Try showing your kid the upsetting although spectacularly beautiful episode in which a little boy is lured from his bed by an alien disguised as a favorite cartoon figure, only to be abducted and—you guessed it—ruthlessly probed.) But it is told from a relentlessly infantile point of view—which makes sense, since that’s the one perspective from which its many absurdities can be sustained without letting bothersome questions get in the way. How come enormous flying saucers, flying low, are seen by only a handful of people? Go figure. Why don't more of those who do see them come forth with their stories? Because bad men in the military kill or imprison them. (We see a lot of these bad guys, glowering down into the camera like stepfathers bawling out their wards.) Why do the military officers suppress the story, when exposing it would quadruple their budgets overnight? Because they're frightened and mean. (As our child narrator patiently explains, adults get mean because they're frightened. Thanks, kid, but did you know adults can also get testy when they're treated like children?)

In the end, Taken belongs to the time-honored sci-fi tradition of two-dimensional heroes rescuing anxious girls from reptilian aliens, and there’s little harm in that. Sitting through it does make you wonder, though, what would happen if all that talent, money, and time were devoted to a grown-up subject. The Indian wars, for example: Imagine a twenty-hour TV miniseries, rooted in fact rather than fancy, with characters ranging from Sitting Bull and Red Cloud to George Armstrong Custer and U.S. Grant, that covered, say, the forty years between the great council that brought thousands of Plains Indians to Fort Laramie in 1851 and the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. The fact that Taken was a hit demonstrates that viewers are prepared to spend as much time watching a movie as it would take to read a substantial book, provided that they find the drama sufficiently compelling. It may be too much to hope that an epic of comparable quality will soon be devoted to a serious subject like the Indian wars, much less the quest for intelligent life beyond Earth. But surely it can be done for one that’s not claptrap.

Timothy Ferris

Timothy Ferris is emeritus professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest work, Seeing in the Dark, was named by The New York Times as one of the seven best books published in 2002.