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Why we love to fear E.T.

Watch the trailer for "Battle: Los Angeles"

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.

Not really.

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.

  • Last week, the British government released 8,500 pages' worth of reports on UFO sightings, ranging from obvious misunderstandings to still-unsolved mysteries. "What it shows is that there are active discussions and investigations going on among the defense departments of First World governments about the existence of extraterrestrial craft and the potential threat to national security," Birnes said. "The back-door message is, 'Yes, we are monitoring this, and although we haven't found anything yet, if you thought that your government wasn't concernedf about the existence of UFOs, we are.'"
  • Scientists have been debating whether or not meteorites linked to the early solar system contain microbes from beyond Earth. "The UFO community eats this stuff up," Birnes said. "They love this. Why? Because it is scientific validation for one of the premises of the UFO community's investigation of whether there's life out there in the universe. ... When people laugh at us and say, 'Oh, you guys wear tinfoil hats, [we can say] our own government is spending a lot of money on this."
  • IBM's Watson supercomputer vanquished two of the top human champions on TV's "Jeopardy" trivia game show. "That's a real fear ... creating a machine that will start using this amoral machine logic," Birnes said. "They figure out that since human beings are doing the polluting, they'll get rid of us."

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."

William Birnes, Robert Salas and others discuss the 1942 "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:

  • "Paul" (March 18): Slacker movie where the alien (Paul) is one of the slackers. (Official movie site)
  • "Apollo 18" (April 22): Why did NASA stop doing moonshots, and why was the agency's plan to send astronauts back to the moon canceled last year? Surely not because the missions were too expensive. It's because of the murderous aliens that astronauts ran across during their super-secret Apollo 18 mission. Of course. (Official movie site)
  • "Super 8" (June 10): Kids use a Super 8 camera to make their own zombie movie in 1979, and stumble across a catastrophic train derailment that sets loose some hazardous alien cargo being transported from Area 51 to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. (Official movie site
  • "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" (July 1): Those lovable Transformers battle over an alien spacecraft hidden on the moon ... wrecking Earth and rewriting the story of Apollo 11 in the process. (Official movie site)
  • "Cowboys & Aliens" (July 29): The Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of movie genres ... a star-studded Wild West posse is all that stands in the way of an alien takeover of the planet in 1873. You got cowboys in my sci-fi movie! (Official movie site)
  • "The Darkest Hour" (Aug. 5): American kids in Moscow fight back against an alien invasion. 
  • "The Thing" (Oct. 14): Prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter film (which itself was a remake) about a murderous E.T. that crash-lands in Antarctica.
  • "Area 51" (Date not yet set): Faux documentary about teens who break into super-secret Area 51 and leave behind "found footage," a la "Paranormal Activity."

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.

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