''Independence Day,'' ''Dark Skies,'' and ''The X-Files'' assume an audience understanding of the alien legend

By Anne Thompson
Updated July 26, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

The story so far…

If aliens really did crash-land in Roswell, N.M., in 1947, they made a big error by not signing with an agent to hawk their exclusive story. If they had, by now their whole planet would be rich.

It isn’t just Independence Day that builds on the 49-year-old news flash that the U.S. Army found evidence of spacemen about, and on the second flash that — oops! — it didn’t. As Mulder and Scully grope at the outlines of a vast government cover-up — something to do with medical experiments, Nazis, and a boxcar buried in the desert — The X-Files makes reference to Roswell as casually as Ross orders coffee on Friends. This fall, NBC’s Dark Skies will travel the same murky path, retelling recent history as a contest between alien forces in human guise and a secret government group. In the cartoon world of The Simpsons, Roswell is the name of an alien. Even the summer thriller The Rock joins the game, winning a big laugh from audiences when it reveals that the microfilm stolen by British spy Sean Connery tells the truth about who killed JFK and about Roswell. Yes, the elusive desert incident has become the other grail of American conspiracy theorists.

Independence Day producer Dean Devlin admits that he was needlessly concerned about audiences’ getting the references to Roswell and Area 51 (a restricted Nevada military base that’s reputedly home to captured alien craft). ”I was raised [with] a lot of UFO mythology — my mother was a big believer,” he says. ”But when these things are mentioned in the movie, people react right off the bat. It’s amazing how much people know.”

Roswell took its time becoming a pop staple. When the Roswell Daily Record led its July 8, 1947, edition with an Army press release reporting the recovery of a ”flying saucer” by soldiers from Roswell Army Air Field, America was primed for news of UFOs. Two weeks before, a Washington State pilot’s account of a close encounter with nine saucers had set the nation buzzing. Within hours of Roswell’s news flash, though, the military changed its story: The debris recovered was simply a weather balloon, a conclusion revised to read ”nuclear-test blast” surveillance balloon in a 1994 government report on the undying topic.

It wasn’t until 1979 that the story struck a chord in Hollywood. Speaking in the documentary UFOs Are Real, Lieut. Col. Jesse A. Marcel, the officer who had overseen the debris’ collection, asserted for the first time that all was not as the Army claimed. The next year saw the Roswell enigma’s freely adapted big-screen debut: The B movie Hangar 18 had astronaut Gary Collins and NASA’s Darren McGavin discover a White House cover-up run by Robert Vaughn, who’s hiding a surviving alien, who reveals in turn that mankind is actually an alien-engineered experiment.

Since 1989, a number of books (notably The UFO Crash at Roswell, by Kevin Randle and Donald Schmitt; The Roswell Incident, by Charles Berlitz and William Moore; and Crash at Corona, by Stanton Friedman) and endless airings of Unsolved Mysteries have kept the case open by sifting the troublesome facts, searching out new witnesses, and embellishing on that most tantalizing possibility — that one of the craft’s passengers was recovered alive. The 1994 Showtime drama Roswell: The UFO Cover-Up, starring Kyle MacLachlan as an obsessed Jesse Marcel, stuck closer to the ”knowns” of Roswell — before veering into speculation that the first U.S. secretary of defense, James Forrestal, communicated with a crash survivor before committing suicide in 1949. Last year’s Fox show Alien Autopsy: (fact or fiction?) featured footage of the dissection of a purported alien body allegedly recovered at Roswell.