Monday, November 12, 2018

"Like Being on an Elevator With No Elevator" - UFO: Target Earth (1974)

Having recently reviewed Michael de Gaetano's metaphysical Western ghost story Haunted (1977), it is appropriate that we move on to Mr. de Gaetano's first film, the metaphysical UFO movie titled UFO: Target Earth (1974). (We will ignore the fact that the title has either misplaced its colon, or has forgotten to add a second colon.)

Reviewer leofwine_draca writes, "One of the sorriest excuses I've ever seen for a movie, UFO: TARGET EARTH is the pits." Reviewer vigilante407-1 writes, "UFO Target Earth is, quite simply, the single most boring movie I've ever seen. It tries to be artsy, but falls flat on its face." Reviewer jtp21455 writes, in a very personal narrative, "I have always been very interested in the UFO phenomenon and i couldn't wait to see this movie when it came out in 1974, so my ex-wife and i went to see it at a drive-in movie....This movie was so bad i looked around and everyone else left, and we were the only ones left, i finally couldn't take it anymore and we also left."

These reviewers ignore the film's metaphysical commentary, so their opinions must be corrected. Please read on...

The film begins as a windowboxed documentary. In the opening sequence, reporter Tom Lewis interviews people about their UFO encounters. His first interview is with Professor Bauer, a bald man in a blue sweater who tells Tom that one night his car broke down and a blast of wind threw him against his car. Speaking coherently, as most professors do, Bauer says, “I saw this object pass over, moving rather slowly but very positively powered. I’d say it had a disc-like look to it. You know, it was reflecting light, it was hard to see clear, but it was very definitely an object other than there was no reflection or a balloon or something.”

“What do you think this means in the whole scope of things, the whole universe?” Tom asks.

“I think there’s no doubt about it that somewhere, somehow we’re being visited by extraterrestrial bodies, visiting our planet and maybe looking it over.”

Tom continues to interview locals in Georgia about their experiences with UFOs, all of which clearly describe alien flying saucers. A farmer says he and his wife were picked up by a saucer: “It was a rush of air picked both of us up. It was like being on an elevator with no elevator, you know what I mean?” His wife adds eloquently, “We were still scared but we weren’t as scared as we were.”

The theme song, played over black-and-white shots of UFOs in the sky, is about “Somewhere between the ceiling and the sky, the attic in your eye” and “So many roofs over you.”

After the title sequence, the film becomes a tense drama. Allen Grimes, an redheaded instructor at the University of Gainesville, makes a telephone call on a rainy night, but somehow he intercepts a completely different phone call in which a man wants another man to approve a plane’s flight plan to investigate radar blips that are interfering with a power plant’s operations. Of course, Allen takes notes about the mysterious phone call, which ends when one man says, “There’s something out there. I know it. I can feel it.” The other man replies, “Well, do it.”

Allen looks out the window at the lightning, and the filmmakers beautifully transition to a flashback to when Allen was a young boy who couldn’t sleep because the light of UFOs kept him up at night. “It was like a big star,” he tells his mother. “It was coming on and making me naked.”

His mother replies, “That was just your waking star, son.” (She does not explain what a waking star could possibly be, unfortunately.)

 Back in the present, on the same stormy night, Allen arranges a meeting with a girl named Vivian. He turns on his tape recorder. “I’ve heard that you feel extraterrestrial presence—beings—around us,” Allen begins.

“Beings? That word is two-dimensional. Energy. Yes, I feel that.” She says she would like to communicate with some extraterrestrial presence.

After the one-minute interview, for which he summoned Vivian in the middle of the stormy night, Allen turns off the tape recorder and concludes the meeting.

The next day, Allen visits Dr. Wheeler, who is giving a lecture in the university planetarium.

Dr. Wheeler is somewhat less coherent than Professor Bauer earlier. “Comets still persist as strange bodies in our midst,” he says. “Even with all that we know about these orderly phenomena, these bodies that obey absolute laws of motion, they still fire the imagination. It is curious that in a day of science and Star Trek, that there’s always a flurry of UFO sightings before and after a comet visits us.” (Unfortunately for the audience, this day of science and Star Trek is never depicted in the film.)

Dr. Wheeler is skeptical that UFOs exist. He explains that he has seen many UFOs, but all had scientific explanations, such as the appearance of Jupiter and its moons. Dr. Wheeler does believe aliens exist, but that aliens have not visited earth. In the university observatory, he continues his explanation: “The notion of magic is a viable part of our lives. It’s been with us since childhood. In the absence of scientific explanation, the myth will survive.”

Through the massive telescope, Dr. Wheeler shows Allen a photograph of a comet. “I’m showing you a UFO in advance,” says Wheeler.

Allen tells Wheeler about the UFO sightings around the Buford power plant that he heard about on his intercepted call. “What do we know about electricity?” asks Dr. Wheeler.

“We know it’s a power source,” says Allen.

Dr. Wheeler replies thoughtfully, “So is imagination.”

Later, Vivian finds Allen in a bar. “What I feel, it emanates from you,” Vivian says. She believes the energy she perceives about extraterrestrial beings is somehow associated with Allen. She starts hyperventilating. “Energy! Taking energy! Being!” The electricity in the bar surges.

Allen visits a woman named Professor Mansfield. Like Wheeler, she is also skeptical about UFOs and derisive about the place of aliens in the current culture. She says she read an essay from a student about the story of Jonah and the whale, positing that Jonah was swallowed by an alien watership and not a whale, an idea she considers silly for some reason. When Allen asks if she can get him computer equipment, she says, “You’re speaking of metaphysics on the one hand and technology on the other.”

Allen replies, in a vague reference perhaps to a Venn diagram, “When the circles are drawn, they’re joined.”

The filmmakers pan, poetically, to the gas log in the fireplace.

Allen and Vivian take their van and motorboat to the local Army base to speak with General Gallagher, who Allen believes to be one of the men from the phone conversation he intercepted. Of course, the general agrees to speak with Allen. Allen proposes linking the university’s communication system with the Army’s. The general explains that all communications at the base are shielded and scrambled, and could not be decoded. (He does not appear to view the proposal to merge their communication infrastructures as any kind of security risk.)

Allen’s vague plan is to interview people who live around the Buford power plant about UFOs, and to collect data from sensors in his van to feed to the university computer. Cleverly, to make the interviews appear realistic, the filmmakers show the interviews with the boom mike clearly visible, implying that Allen and Vivian also have an unseen sound man traveling with them.

In an interview, a woman says she once saw something fall from the sky into the lake, so it is fortunate that Allen is towing a motorboat behind his van.

As Allen and Vivian set up sensors around the lake, Vivian says, “It’s the strangeness of the place. I feel like I’ve been here before.”

“Deja vu?” Allen asks.

“I don’t know,” she says. Then she goes on to say she thinks Allen is trying to bind her soul using technology, though she appears unconcerned about this possibility.

Allen motorboats across the lake to set up his sensors, leaving Vivian alone at their campsite.

Vivian hears someone say her name. She thinks it’s coming through her walkie talkie so she drops it and runs into the woods.

Allen returns to the campsite, where he finds that Professor Mansfield and her assistant Stan have driven out from the university. The three of them search for Vivian, who is still missing in the woods. They find her sitting in the woods in a catatonic state.

“My God,” Allen says, “she’s another person.”

Vivian appears to be possessed, perhaps by aliens. “They’re using me and I can’t touch them. I can only feel,” she says.

After they return to the campsite, Professor Mansfield seems much more open to mysterious phenomena. She says, “What the old woman saw as a girl could have been an alien ship that experienced a major power loss during an eclipse of the sun. It fell not from the sun but from space, and it plunged into the lake, where it has been submerged for all these years. But somehow, through technology that far exceeds our own, the inhabitants have managed to remain alive, and periodically they send out satellite ships to secure power, say from the power plant, or to investigate the environment of the planet.”

“You don’t believe a word of that,” Allen says. “Why are you saying it?”

Professor Mansfield replies, “No, Allen, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it because I haven’t seen it but I say it because I must construct some possibility in order to begin our investigation.” In other words, they need a hypothesis to test, so the hypothesis might as well be a long-submerged alien spaceship.

Dr. Mansfield suddenly becomes sick. Meanwhile, Allen and Stan discover a massive energy source underneath the lake by setting a television precariously on top of a director’s chair beside the campfire.

Allen, alone in the forest, says the word, “Dreams.” In a trance, he looks at a second TV set.

A face appears on the second TV, but nobody acknowledges its presence.

Stan attempts to unplug all the equipment, but Vivian tries to communicate with Allen as he communes with the television.

“It was you,” Vivian tells Allen. “All the time it was you. Take us with you, please.”

Finally, the aliens begin communicating through the TV. A male voice says, “It is your fears which have shaped us to the forms you see. We are formless. We are pure energy but you impose the images of your fears on us, causing us to take the appearances of what you see.”

On her sick-cot, Professor Mansfield has a revelation. “Of course! Your fears create the forms you see!”

The alien voice continues. “We have waited for you over a thousand years. We are your waking star, and you ours.”

Allen, now hypnotized by the aliens and resembling Julian Sands for some reason, walks to the edge of the lake.

The alien voice reveals that the key to energy, and the aliens’ freedom, is the dreams of Allen’s mind, the power of imagination. Allen is forced to choose between two “timespans,” his human timespan or their alien timespan.

Will Allen choose his human life, or give it all up to help the aliens?

The filmmakers show about ten minutes of colorful oscilloscope imagery before revealing that Allen, now bald, has chosen the aliens over humanity. Allen walks into the lake.

Stan attempts to rescue Allen, but he only finds a white skull—all that remains of his friend.

The final shots show a white flying saucer moving through the stars, then merging into a human eye on which is projected a solar eclipse.


Based on the evidence presented in UFO: Target Earth and Haunted, it is clear that Michael de Gaetano is not the typical low-budget filmmaker seeking quick cash. Instead, he is entirely invested in presenting complex philosophical ideas on the big screen. His first two films are full of heady dialogue talking about predestination and human potential and the energy of imagination. I have not yet seen Mr. de Gaetano's third film, a "battle of the sexes" basketball film variously known as Dribble and Scoring from 1979, but I imagine it must center around metaphysical discussions of
emotions creating physical forms, destiny doomed to repeat itself, and other such concepts.

Like most classic films, particularly of the 1970s, UFO: Target Earth reaches far beyond its popular "hook"--in this case, the study of UFOs, which were popular at the time. Its creator's obsessions are stamped onto every frame and infused into every word of dialogue. Such a unique and individualistic movie can be nothing other than a true classic.