March 10, 2011 at 1:09 PM ET
Retired Air Force Capt. Robert Salas says he was at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana when UFOs hovered over the base in 1967 and nuclear missile launch systems somehow went non-operational. So you might think that watching the latest alien-attack movie, "Battle: Los Angeles," would cause him some sleepless nights.
Salas doesn't think the aliens are in any mood to launch a globe-shattering strike like the one in the movie. "If they were going to attack, they would have done it by now," said Salas, who serves as a consultant for the film project. "They could have caused a lot more destruction ... but all they did was shut our missiles down."
For the folks who truly believe we've been visited by extraterrestrial craft, "Battle: Los Angeles" (opening Friday) and other E.T. thrillers provide additional opportunities to keep UFOs in the public consciousness. Which is why Salas is touting the film. "I think the public is taking more of an interest in this subject," Salas told me this week. "Of course, just about all these movies are going to be a little on the extreme side, but it continues to be of interest."
Even if you're not ready to give credence to reports of alien visitations, there are plenty of stories in the news that serve to stoke the interest in strange phenomena. William Birnes, who is the publisher of UFO magazine and a consultant for "UFO Hunters" as well as other TV projects, pointed to three such stories from just the past month.
Over the decades, fear has been a strong theme in E.T. movies. On one level, extraterrestrial tales serve as a convenient backdrop on which to project our own all-too-real worries. In the 1950s, movies such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "War of the Worlds" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" were seen as Cold War parables. (All three movies inspired recent remakes that haven't stood up quite as well as parables for environmental or virological threats.)
On another level, evil-E.T. movies and other fear-inducing flicks may serve as "practice runs" for dealing with real-life threats. Psychologists have hypothesized that we're hard-wired to seek out scary experiences that unfold in a safe environment. Just as early humans gathered around the fire to hear about fights with saber-toothed cats, we gather in front of screens to watch the aliens blast LAX.
Not all movie E.T.s are terrifying, of course. The cartoon Martians in another movie opening this week, "Mars Needs Moms," get the Disney treatment. And in the 1982 movie "E.T.," the alien is the good guy and the humans are the bad guys ... which is what makes this "E.T.-X" trailer on YouTube so funny:
But for every cuddly E.T., there's an evil "Independence Day" overlord plus an rampaging "Alien" predator. Birnes said "Battle: Los Angeles" combines two of the genre's most potent fear factors: relentless killer machines (think "Terminator") and goo-filled super-insects (think "Starship Troopers").
"What are human beings most afraid of, in terms of some existential threat to the human race?" he asked. "Creatures that are repellent. Exoskeletal types of insects, primarily because we and the insects are fighting for control of the planet, in a sense."
The movie plays off yet another monster-movie meme: the unstoppable attack from above. Birnes said "Battle: Los Angeles" echoed one of the better-known chapters in UFO lore, known as "The Battle of Los Angeles."
In 1942, the city weathered what was thought at the time to be an aerlal artillery barrage, waged by phantom forces that couldn't be brought down. At first, the authorities thought it was a Japanese air raid, but the "battle" was eventually attributed to war jitters that sparked spontaneous rounds of anti-aircraft fire and flares from L.A.'s defenders.
At least that's what the authorities said. UFO aficionados, however, put the Battle of Los Angeles in the same category as Salas' close encounter in 1967, and the rash of flying-saucer sightings reported in Washington in 1952. "There's solid, solid evidence that UFOs really have interfered with the military," Birnes insisted.
That's a claim I'm not ready to agree with, though it sounds good as a movie P.R. campaign. I do, however, agree with Birnes' view that E.T. movies have an enduring hold on the popular psyche. "Science fiction movies are made because there's a huge market for science fiction," Birnes told me. "'Battle: Los Angeles' is really John Wayne meets 'Independence Day.'"
So it's time to saddle up. For solid, solid evidence that this is the year of E.T. in Hollywood, check out this list of other upcoming releases:
Extra credit: If you see "Battle: Los Angeles," take note of the smoke rings. Robert Salas told me that he was recently looking at purported UFO pictures taken by highway maintenance engineer Rex Heflin in California in 1965. The photos show a hat-shaped object in the sky that apparently left behind a dark, unexplained smoke ring when it zoomed off. Then Salas watched an advance screening of "Battle: Los Angeles," in which alien missiles rain down on Earth. "As I was watching the movie, lo and behold, these objects were leaving big smoke rings," Salas said.
More on aliens:
Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the "like" button on our Facebook page or by following msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about Alan Boyle's book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for "The Case for Pluto."