The flight didn’t last for long. As the 1950s came to an end, saucer-mania waned, both in terms of reported sightings, and silver-screen appearances. “When it came to flying saucer movies, the horror ones did better than the serious ones,” says Mark Jancovich, the author of Rational Fears: American Horror Genre in the 1950s. “And you could make the horror ones quite cheaply. What happened was that science-fiction horror moved into the cheap, low-budget end of the market. Studios also recognised that the really big sci-fi hit of the 1950s was not an alien invasion movie, it was Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You then got this wave of period sci-fi films like The Time Machine, The Curse of Frankenstein and The Lost World [starring Klaatu himself, Michael Rennie]. The Victorian settings of gothic horror films made them seem respectable, whereas flying saucers moved downmarket as the 1950s went on.”
Meanwhile, in the real world, 1961 was the year when Yuri Gagarin orbited the planet, and President John F Kennedy announced the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. Actual space travel was so astounding that flying saucers seemed quaint in comparison. Finally, in 1969, the US Air Force’s survey of saucer sightings, Project Blue Book, closed with the publication of a Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects. Its damning conclusion: “Nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge”.
Of course, people kept reporting UFO sightings in the 1960s and beyond. This very May, there was an American public congressional hearing on what are now known as UAPs – Unexplained Aerial Phenomena – although Scott Bray, the deputy director of naval intelligence, stressed that the military hadn’t found “anything non-terrestrial in origin”. You could argue that in popular culture, too, flying saucers have never really gone away. Super-size a flying saucer and you get the motherships in Independence Day and District 9; flip it on its side and you get the looming monoliths in Arrival. In Star Wars, the Millennium Falcon is a flying saucer with some extra pointy bits poking out of the front; and in Star Trek, the USS Enterprise is a flying saucer with a body and legs stuck on the back. But sightings of old school, unadorned flying saucers, in the sky or on the screen, are now rare. “Like any fad,” says Womack, “the phenomenon in its original form simply ran its course.”
Today, flying saucers are a piece of quintessential 1950s Americana to file alongside a roadside diner’s chequerboard floor and the tail fins of a gas-guzzling convertible. When they’re used in modern science-fiction blockbusters, such as Men in Black and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, it’s because of that vintage quality. Maybe that’s how Jordan Peele will use them, too, sensitive as he is to America’s historic injustices. Once the flying saucer seemed to have hurtled down from the frightening future; now it’s a relic of the comforting past.
Nope is released on 22 July in the US, and on 12 August in the UK.
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