A "documentary" about a purported alien stirs the liveliest debate of any home movie since the Zapruder film
BY RICHARD CORLISS
On an operating table in a small white room, a naked humanoid creature lies supine and inert--its stomach bulbous; its six fingers slightly curled; a deep, foot-long gash in its right leg. Two humans in white contamination suits circle the creature, slicing its chest, sawing its skull in half, removing internal organs. A third takes notes on a sheet of paper. Behind a window, a fourth person watches, hidden by a surgical mask. The only identifiable figure is the humanoid. Its face shows strain, perhaps pain. When the camera recording the event catches the creature's sightless gaze, an eerie poignance fills the chamber.
The 17-minute film, silent and in muzzy black and white, has enough implicit melodrama to fill a satisfying sci-fi epic. But some people believe, or hope, that it may be genuine--evidence of an alien life form on earth, conceivably connected with the report (and alleged government cover-up) of a UFO crash near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Professional skeptics find the film a clever or clumsy hoax. Others believe it's real, but not from Roswell. The UFOlogical combatants duel it out in magazines and on the Internet while poring over the footage with an intensity not lavished on any home movie since the Zapruder film.
The controversy has created a hot little industry. Ray Santilli, the Englishman who is peddling the footage, says it has been seen in 32 countries. Britain's Channel Four aired a documentary on the subject. In the U.S. an hour-long show called Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? has become a staple of Fox TV--the X-Files network--and has been among the top 25 sellers in video stores. Before the end of the year, the tape will be offered in 35 catalogs, including the Publishers Clearing House mailings.
The Fox show, with Jonathan Frakes of Star Trek: The Next Generation as host, debuted to surprisingly high ratings in late August. It was hastily scheduled to play again a week later with some unaired footage. The program will air a third time on Saturday, with clips that may reveal hints of the alien's spacecraft and language. Says executive producer Robert Kiviat: "We're approaching it like a detective story." By doling out a few new clues in each episode, Alien Autopsy could end up running more times than Murder One.
Santilli says that on a trip to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1992, he met an elderly man who identified himself as a former Army photographer present at the autopsy of the Roswell alien, performed at Fort Worth Army Air Field. This man, says Santilli, offered to sell the movies he made there. Says the entrepreneur: "The whole thing was just way too fascinating to let go." The mysterious cameraman still declines to reveal himself, though Santilli says, "I think he will step forward within the very near future."
He will have a few questions to answer from a host of instant film critics. Why does the film go so conveniently out of focus at crucial moments? Why is the camerawork so jumpy, in the modern ER fashion, instead of having the smoothness that even World War II combat cameramen aimed for? Why hasn't the original film stock been submitted to Eastman Kodak, which has a standing offer to do a chemical analysis that would verify if it was indeed manufactured in 1947? Why are there film cuts, suggesting a lapse in time, that return to the same continuous incision? Judging by shots of a wall clock, an autopsy of this importance took only 2 and a half hours? It's no wonder that nearly all special-effects artists think this is bogus. Says Toronto-based Gordon Smith (Natural Born Killers, JFK), thought by some pros to have built the "alien": "A lot of us think it came out of England, from a B-grade studio."
Part of the show's appeal is its pretense of objectivity. "We remain skeptical," Frakes intones, summing up the opinions expressed by a number of expert pathologists and cinematographers. But the evidence is loaded to suggest that the film is genuine. At least two experts insist that their critical observations were deleted. One is Kevin Randle, whose investigations into the 1947 event inspired last year's provocative Showtime film Roswell. Randle believes that extraterrestrials did land there but that "the alien-autopsy film is a hoax"--a suspicion the Fox show doesn't make clear. Steve Johnson, a movie-effects designer who created the aliens in Roswell (and worked on The Abyss and Species), viewed the autopsy footage at the Fox producers' request and told them it looked "pretty phony." His comments were not used. Says effects expert Stan Winston (Aliens, Jurassic Park), whose on-camera interview suggests otherwise: "Do I think it's a hoax? Absolutely."
This weekend, perhaps somewhere in England, a small group of effects artists could be having a quiet giggle and counting their cash. But it's a big universe out there, big enough to harbor canny hoaxers, true believers, wily debunkers--and lonely time travelers. So in some alternate universe, Marvin and Mindy Martian just might be sitting down to watch Human Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? Whether that is likely or not, one point is beyond debate: the show will be on Fox.
Reported by William Tynan/New York
Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.
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