Well, this was a weird one.
I like made-for-TV movies, especially ones from the 70s. It’s interesting how filmmakers had to devise innovative solutions to work in such a restrictive format. For the most part, they had to be cautious of what would draw unwanted attention from censors. On the other hand, they also tackled stories the big screen wouldn’t; or, at least, not in ways theatrical films would. Since most of these TV movies were made by studios like Universal and Warners, these are like independent features made with the resources of major studios.
Such is the case with 1975’s The UFO Incident. On the surface, this is an alien abduction story. Typical of this fare, it is based on a true story. As somebody who doesn’t believe in aliens, I always regard these as more “story” than “true”. The pre-credits text informs us this is based on the accounts of a couple under “double amnesia”, their psychiatrist and somebody from a planetarium. Not sure how somebody from a planetarium could be of assistance, unless they thought a “Laser Floyd” performance would help matters.
What is most interesting is the relationship of the couple at the heart of the story, as played by James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons. It was pretty shocking to see an interracial couple in a movie of that time, especially one made for television.
They make for a neat couple and there is a decent rapport between them. Getting ready for bed one night, she chides him for eating onions and not telling her about it, so he playfully suggests the only solution is for her to immediately eat an onion, too.
The real strength of this picture is it doesn’t shy away from how the difference in their races poses some problems. The wife Jones left for Parsons is black and he had two daughters with her. Now he is living with a Caucasian woman in an overwhelmingly white area. In fact, we don’t see another person of color in the movie.
Parsons also has some baggage in their relationship. In one uncomfortably honest scene, she wonders aloud to Jones why would he have been interested in her: a homely woman who isn’t exactly a spring chicken.
As for the UFO abduction element, this is slowly revealed in a series of flashbacks in multiple hypnosis sessions conducted by a psychiatrist played by Bernard Hughes. We also see the couple try to overcome curious memory lapses they have experienced by repeatedly driving the route where their amnesia began. They don’t know what happened exactly, only that something traumatic occurred. I was surprised they were so intent on discovering why they couldn’t remember driving over 36 miles of road in the middle of nowhere when I have driven for hours before and couldn’t tell you what happened at any minute of the journey.
I was surprised this film so thoroughly explored the psychological hurdles Jones’s character struggled with as a Black man in his current situation. It does this to such an extent that I wondered if the alien invaders were only a metaphor. At best, I suspected for the longest time the invaders were a product of the minds of him and his wife as they struggled to reconcile an attack from other humans.
Alas, the movie will eventually show the aliens and will treat the encounter with them as something that really happened. These are the typical grey-headed, big-eyed things that have somehow become the norm over the decades for how beings from another world are portrayed. The only thing that is disturbing is their eyes. I’m not sure what is the effect employed, but it looks like projections of some mammal’s eyes (maybe not human) through holes in the masks. It is genuinely creepy.
The sessions with Hughes cause some unusual elements of the encounter to surface. Probably the weirdest questions Hughes asks Jones are “When you woke up the next morning, did you experience any particular discomfort on your groin?” and “How much later was it that the warts appeared?” So, aliens traveled halfway across the universe to bring us venereal diseases. Thanks, space jerks.
When watching made-for-TV films on disc, I often wish they would edit out the fades marking where a commercial break would occur. This movie has especially jarring transitions for those: a freeze-frame as the image desaturates to black and white, followed by a fade to black. Then the process is reversed, usually with the spoken line prior to the break repeated. Without commercials, this is very disorienting.
The UFO Incident is a strange movie that never seems to settle into its skin, but I liked it just the same. Surprisingly, it doesn’t need the alien aspect, as it has the makings of a strong drama just from the struggles of Jones and Parsons as they go about their everyday lives. I wish the movie had treated the aliens as only a metaphor, because that’s how I have chosen to regard them.
Dir: Richard A. Colla
Starring James Earl Jones, Estelle Parsons, Bernard Hughes
Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray