The Time of Gods and Monsters is Come

Does it seem like the summer tentpole season starts earlier every year? If that bothers you, buckle up. The success of the long-in-development Deadpool basically guarantees that it will start in January now, and probably be R-rated. I’m not necessarily against the soon-to-be trend. Deadpool was great! And with the exception of a few awards season hangovers, January and February are usually a dumping ground for bad studio films.

As I write this, Batman v. Superman is about to hit theaters. It signals the true start of tentpole season. The sheer amount of variables Zack Synder was juggling in making Batman v. Superman was incredible, and somehow he pulled it off. He delivered an entertaining film that featured everything fans would want in a showdown between DC Comics' two superstars, while setting up the Justice League movie. It’s a bit more dour than some audience members will enjoy, but it delivers on action and spectacle, the two most important ingredients in a DC movie.

The real triumph of the film was balancing all of the heroics with a capable villain. Jesse Eisenberg was amazing as Lex Luthor. The perfect mix of smart, crazy and diabolical. There will probably be some critics who bring up issues with the film's sheer amount of wanton destruction, but it's balanced out with enough entertaining stuff, it's hard for me to complain.

Oh, and this movie is going to make oceans of money.

The CIA and the Actual X-Files

In the early 1990s, Fox was a broadcast network barely removed from its first fledgling years. In contrast to more mainstream comedies and dramas on the Big Three networks, offbeat shows like The Simpsons and In Living Color were Fox's primetime bread and butter. Fox became a bonafide contender in 1993, thanks to a deal with the NFL and the sci-fi drama The X-Files.

Some of my best childhood TV memories were of The X-Files' first season. Although it wasn't a solid ratings hit until the following year, my family managed to find it. And every week, we gathered to watch suspenseful tales of sci-fi, horror and the paranormal. At some point along the way, after the first film was released, I stopped watching.

A few weeks ago, I resumed. From the beginning. If you haven't watched The X-Files in years, now is a great time to start. The show is available in its entirety on Netflix, and thanks to a recent rescan, it's in HD, beautifully restored and color-corrected. I'm also really enjoying actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani's podcast The X-Files Fileswhich offers great commentary on major episodes and interviews with some of the show's key creative forces. All of this is in preparation to watch the new revival on Fox, which brought back David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

But I'm not here to talk about any of that. I want to talk about the actual X-Files.

Declassified photos taken in Sheffield, England. March 4, 1962.

In 1978, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) declassified a trove of documents related to Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs). Many of them were no doubt known to the writers of The X-Files, who chose to make extraterrestrial-related governmental conspiracy the backbone of their classic series. These documents are now available online here, provided directly on the CIA's official website.

This report from 1952 details the sworn, eyewitness testimony of a German man named Oscar Linke. He described an incident near Hasselbach, Germany, which was in the Soviet-controlled portion of the country following World War II. After his motorcycle blew a tire, Linke was walking towards the town when he spotted two men "in some shiny metallic clothing." As he approached them, he saw a large object lying on the ground that looked like a "huge frying pan."

"There were two rows of holes on its periphery, about thirty centimeters in circumference," Linke testified under oath. "The space between the two rows was about 0.45 meters. On top of this metal object was a black conical tower about three meters high." He went on to describe how the object began to spin, rising from the ground.

My first reaction is to cast Linke as a kook eager for his fifteen minutes of fame. But Linke was the former mayor of Gleimershausen, and his testimony was detached and detailed. I don't think Linke actually saw an extraterrestrial vessel, but it's possible he saw something that was a closely held secret of the Soviets. Perhaps some technology crafted in a wartime German laboratory that never saw combat.

Taken over Minneapolis, Minnesota. October 20, 1960.

"Over Badalona, about 10 kilometers away, the object stopped trailing smoke," reads another declassified document. "It disappeared for a few seconds, and reappeared, again emitting smoke, several kilometers farther away."

That testimony was offered by Valentin Garcia in May of 1952. It was one of seven contained in this document, all pointing to some activity over Spain and Northern Africa. The dates were May 22, June 4, June 11 and June 16. The locations were near Barcelona, Tunesia, Morocco and Casablanca.

The majority of my exposure to events believed to be extraterrestrial involves American sites: Roswell, Los Angeles, Mississippi and Arizona. Though these international incidents occurred a half-world away, they describe sightings that are eerily familiar. True believers would say the similarities support the existence of alien life. After all, how could a hoax that spans the globe be so well executed that it fools the CIA?

Earlier that same year on March 29, flying saucers were reportedly seen over uranium mines in the Belgian Congo. "Both discs hovered in one spot and then took off in a unique zigzag flight to the northeast," one declassified document states, sourcing a Commander Pierre. "A penetrating hissing and buzzing sound was audible to the onlookers below."

Commander Pierre of the small Elisabethville airfield pursued the discs in a fighter plane, coming close enough to describe them and estimate their size and rate of speed. "The inner core remained absolutely still, and a knob coming out from the center and several small openings could plainly be seen. The outer rim was completely veiled in fire and must have had an enormous speed of rotation," the report states. It also includes hand-drawn schematics of the discs' estimated dimensions, which you can check out here on the CIA's website.

                    Another fictional story set in Casablanca.

These are but a handful of official documents kept classified for over two decades. There's a massive treasure trove of alien and UFO-related documents dumped into the public domain thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. The CIA hosts these documents online here at cia.gov. The question is: why do they exist at all? True believers would say that they are evidence of the truth. That truth, of course, being that extra-terrestrials have visited Earth. I agree that they are evidence of the truth, but not the truth that Mulder wants to believe.

I'm open to the possibility that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe and will remain so for the rest of my life. But immediately following that concession to the Lone Gunmen of the world is a recognition of the extraordinarily low probability that first, extraterrestrial life exists, and second, it has travelled across the universe to visit Earth. The range of possible planetary configurations necessary to permit life is, quite literally, astronomically low. Take that in. Astronomically low. We use that phrase figuratively everyday to describe events and outcomes that are unlikely. Here, I'm using it literally. The probability that aliens have visited earth is not only low, it is the benchmark of low probability, hovering just above actually impossible.

     Travis Walton's alleged abduction, as depicted in "Fire in the Sky"

That last paragraph may have read like I'm tapdancing around reality, but I think it's a coherent and clear position. It's also one shared by many in the scientific community, including cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who has mused many times on the matter. In a speech entitled "Life in the Universe" Hawking says: "What are the chances that we will encounter some alien form of life, as we explore the galaxy. If the argument about the time scale for the appearance of life on Earth is correct, there ought to be many other stars, whose planets have life on them. Some of these stellar systems could have formed 5 billion years before the Earth. So why is the galaxy not crawling with self designing mechanical or biological life forms? Why hasn't the Earth been visited, and even colonised. I discount suggestions that UFO's contain beings from outer space. I think any visits by aliens, would be much more obvious, and probably also, much more unpleasant."

Hawking goes on to state, "Maybe the probability of life spontaneously appearing is so low, that Earth is the only planet in the galaxy, or in the observable universe, in which it happened. Another possibility is that there was a reasonable probability of forming self-reproducing systems, like cells, but that most of these forms of life did not evolve intelligence."

With the acceptance that actual alien visitations are an exceedingly low probability, what truth then is contained within these declassified documents? I think the answer is much more terrestrial. In looking at these documents, we're inspecting trees and trying to guess what kind of forest they comprise. There's no need to look across the known universe into the unknown universe to find it. We need to look only at the post-war political climate.

Although the USSR and the USA were allied against Germany and the Axis powers during World War II, they were only united by common enemies. After the second world war ended, the Cold War began. Germany was divided into territories managed by the Americans, the Soviets, the British and the French. Berlin itself was divided into different zones. The documents I reference in this blog post are from that post-war era, where former allies were trying to decide if they would become enemies or remain mere rivals. That decision-making process lasted for decades.

The Central Intelligence Agency played an important role during the Cold War. In many ways, it was at the vanguard of the chilly conflict. In a war that was entirely fought through proxies and through information campaigns, misinformation was a powerful weapon. A cheap and effective way of creating just enough uncertainty in a rival to prevent, or at least postpone, action. If one were to, say, manufacture an extraordinary event where eyewitnesses observed a display of extremely advanced technology, and then arrange for that event to be covered in the local papers, it would most certainly end up on the radars of rivals. And if one of the eyewitnesses was the former mayor of Gleimershausen, it would have to be at least moderately credible. Enough to postpone action.

 Another photo released by the CIA

Another photo released by the CIA

How would Soviet officials react to reports in newspapers about displays of advanced technologies? Their reaction would likely be very similar to ours. We read an incredible report and decide it is just that: incredible. They would assume that it is not a highly improbable event like a visit from extraterrestrials. They would assume it was a more probable event. Advanced technology their rivals kept as a closely held secret. They would assume it was the United States, testing stealth technology.

And if you were the United States, what would be the easiest way to push your rivals back into a defensive posture? Would it be to actually create advanced technology that would intimidate them? Or would it be to simply launch a misinformation campaign in the local papers? You could even create "classified" documents that bore the authentic stamp of the CIA, with the intention of leaking them to the Soviets. 

Mulder and Scully were right about one thing: the truth is out there. Whether I've landed on it or not, we can continue to debate as new information comes to light.

The X-Files revival is now airing on Fox. And catch up on the original series, now streaming on Netflix.

I Wanted to See The Babadook

Movie recommendations need to be tailored. As much as I love Game of Thrones, it's not for everyone. And it's definitely not for my mother. Some movies I take under my wing and recommend to everyone. They are often independent movies that are diamonds in the rough. I become a maven for these films because A) they're great, B) they don't have the marketing dollars to find a wide audience, and C) I love describing them. I love honing my pitch to friends and family. And random people at coffee shops. And Radio Shack.

Just kidding, no one goes to Radio Shack anymore. My 2014 maven movie was The Babadook, a true return to Hitchcock horror. It's about a single mother and her son, both of whom are plagued by the violent death of her husband. The son, Samuel, creates trouble at school and at play, and he fears a monster is lurking in their house. It's a fear that the mother, Amelia, soon begins to share with him, as evidence builds of a sinister presence that surrounds her. I've recommended it to everyone. I'm recommending it to you.

You should see this film. I'm telling you that straight away. And because I'm about to get into some spoilers, proceed with caution, dear readers of internet nonsense. This movie is exponentially better if you watch it without knowing anything about it. Don't even watch the trailer, which is itself a filmic masterpiece. That's right: the trailer for this film alone is better than almost any horror or suspense film I have seen in theaters in a few years.

Spoilers, ahoy. (for The Babadook, The Exorcist and The Omen)

Jennifer Kent, the director of The Babadook, is a master, using light and sound to terrify, all while honoring the story at the center of the film. While most recent horror films trade almost exclusively in jump scares, The Babadook earns everything. Even scenes that seem like mundane setup - such as meetings with school staff - are paid off in fulfilling fashion.

The anchors of the film are actors Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, who play mother Amelia and son Samuel. Their performances are tremendous, among the best of last year, across all genres. Horror often gets short shrift come awards season (with the notable exception of The Exorcist and The Silence of the Lambs), but these performances were prime, easily worthy of Oscar nominations.

The first act sets up Samuel to be a troubled child, an homage to classics like The Omen, where a baby was the anti-Christ, and The Exorcist, where a girl is possessed by the devil himself. He looks strange and acts even stranger. Bizarre behavior at school and in social settings with other children not only misdirects us from the true source of trouble - his mother's depression - but it also aligns the audience with the mother. Who hasn't been around a troubled child and pitied their parents? Who can't sympathize with a single mother trying to recover from the tragic death of her husband? This is one of The Babadook's great achievements. It humanizes depression and calls out to us to help those in grief. Ultimately, Samuel is his mother's savior: he holds on to her humanity, even as unrequited grief threatens to kill them both.

By the end of the film, it's clear that the Babadook isn't some demon coming to haunt Samuel. The monster is grief itself, a seven-year-old beast that Amelia hasn't yet confronted. It doesn't possess her, like Reagan is actually possessed by evil in The Exorcist. It grew within her, over the course of seven years, until finally she chose to face it. And face it she does, with her son in her arms, she summons all of the strength in her and then some, screaming, "You are trespassing in my house!"

That moment is incredible, mother and child protecting one another, as the Babadook hides in black shadows. His face is hidden. Only his long fingered hands peeking out, and the faint outline of his unnaturally long arms. And after the confrontation, Amelia tucks the Bababook away in the basement, only to revisit grief when it was necessary and under appropriate conditions.

We barely see the Babadook. On my first viewing, I saw this as a strength of the film, a mature artistic choice that focused the attention on the relationship between Amelia and Samuel, rather than the titular antagonist. It kept the emphasis on the story as an analogy for the struggle to deal with lingering grief, mental illness and other kinds of psychosis.

And yet, after a recent rewatch, I found myself wanting to see the Babadook. I wanted to see the beast. And I think it may have made for a better viewing experience. I think it could have been done without sacrificing the artistic integrity of the project. Think again of films like The Exorcist and The Omen. They, too, tease the audience with something wicked, which may this way come. But in those films, we saw the face of the devil. I mean that figuratively. What we saw was confirmation of the truth. The protagonists weren't crazy. They were normal people who were actually seeing something extraordinary, and the text of the film confirmed that.

In those films, the real danger was thinking it was not real. In The Exorcist, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) had encountered the demon Pazuzu before. Father Karras was the skeptic. He knew he was seeing something extraordinary, but believing in actual demonic possession was a belief too far. It isn't until Karras sees the demon leap from the possessed girl Regan into Father Merrin, promptly killing him, that Karras believes the demon is truly real. And we as the audience have to see it, too. We would have to see it in real life to believe it. We have to see it in the movie, too.

In The Omen, the boy is the antagonist, along with those the devil sends to protect him. The bridge we must cross is believing the boy is actually the anti-Christ. It's the same belief that Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) must come to hold. There are certainly incidents that prepare him to believe. He finds out his son died in childbirth, and was swapped for an orphan. But it isn't until he travels to the grave of Damien's birth mother, and finds a jackal buried there, that he believes. The fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that the anti-Christ would be born of a beast. We actually get to see the jackal, and we join Thorn in his belief.

If we could have seen more of the Bababook, what would we have seen? Perhaps it would have been the face of Amelia, or a pitiful cypher of her healthier self. It could have been the face of her husband, a form the beast takes earlier in the film. Or it could have been a new face, one of such evil it would have captured culture in a bigger way than The Babadook ultimately has. Every special effects makeup artist in the business would salivate over such an opportunity. And I think it would have made the emotional climax of the film more satisfying. When the Babadook's arms slip back into the darkness, it doesn't feel like a defeat, or even a knockdown punch. It feels like the Babadook will explode again onto the screen, pushing the audience to its emotional limits and personifying the titular evil. That never happens.

Within the film, showing the beast at the very end would have made great sense. In seeing the beast, Amelia would finally have confirmation that she is not the Babadook. She isn't the evil. She and her grief are not identical. She may not be able to rid herself entirely of it, but she is not identical to it. It is an "other," a thing that can be observed. And we the audience would have also observed it with her.

The Babadook is a beautiful, terrifying and excellent film. I'm still incredibly impressed with Jennifer Kent's direction, and she should be offered every high profile directing gig in Hollywood. But I still wanted to see The Bababook. Now, I will have to live with a hundred terrible fan interpretations every Halloween instead.

- Micah

NEW BOOK: The Angel

The cover of "The Angel"

My newest book, The Angel, was just published by Option Books. It's a short story set in the world of cave diving.

I’ve never been scuba diving. It seems nice, though. Pick a locale in the Florida panhandle, or off the coast of Mexico. There’s plenty of clear water, beautiful fish and sunlight. Surface in seconds whenever you’d like. But who the hell wants to go cave diving? Trapped underwater and under rock. No radios. No communication. It’s one of the few places where technology cannot help you. I just can’t understand the mentality that brings divers to attempt that kind of challenge. My hope is that neither can anyone else. It makes that world a great place to tell a story.

For years, my focus has been on stories that could be told under the constraints of low budget filmmaking. The Angel emerged in direct contrast to that. Shooting in caves, under water and in tight spaces is just not something you want to attempt without a significant budget. Even with a very large budget, it’s miserable. Ask the cast of James Cameron’s The Abyss. This short story was liberating in that I was free to truly explore. I was free to describe something I will never experience, and never film. Unless you want to give me a lot of money to make this into a film. Then, let’s do this.

My approach to The Angel, and to writing in general, is pretty simple. I hope I can explain it by describing an experience I love: rewatching movies with friends. Watching an amazing film for the first time is a truly great experience. I’ll never be able to watch The Empire Strikes Back or Jurassic Park the same way I did the first time. For me, an equally great experience is rewatching that film or tv show with other people. Rewatching The Usual Suspects or Game of Thrones with the uninitiated is wonderful because I know what’s coming, and they don’t. I get to both anticipate what I know is about to happen, and have this rewarding existential experience with my friends, who don’t know what’s about to hit them. It’s great!

Writing is the same experience for me. It’s walking through Blockbuster (R.I.P.) and selecting the experience I want to go on with my friends. Now I consider you a friend. So I look forward to coming over again and sharing another experience with you.

You can now find The Angel in Amazon here. It's about a thirty minute read. I hope you enjoy it.

- Micah