Skip to main content

Those Apollos, they’re just a sunscreen to cover up what’s really going on out there.

Alternative 3
(1977)

The legacy of Alternative 3 vastly overwhelms its actual content. As writer David Ambrose notes in the interview on Soda’s DVD release, despite the many pointers to its hoax status (not least the cast list running over the end credits), the fake documentary has been credited as an exposé and even a suppressed text, with an unforeseen life far beyond its initial status as an elaborate (and delayed) April Fool’s joke. The general gist of such arguments even now is that, while the makers weren’t knowingly putting the truth out there, they had unwittingly hit upon an actual (alternative) history of the space programme.


The argument for Alternative 3’s content being an intentional “leak” appears to be that, by making a hoax documentary, the powers that be set up instant inoculation against future claims through the precedent of it being proven nonsense. If this were the case, one might argue for the ruse’s effectiveness as it has achieved exactly that end. Although, more persuasive against such a reading is that the airing served to focus attention in a direction no one had been looking hitherto.


There are precedents for agenda-led fare, naturally, from wartime propaganda pictures to those availing themselves of government or military co-operation in exchange for revisions of content. But it’s also the case that writers will frequently say of a work that, with hindsight, it was entirely coincidental that they reflected or predicted events of which they had no knowledge (The Lone Gunmen pilot, shown six months before 9/11 and featuring a plan to hijack an airliner and crash it into The Twin Towers has been dismissed as such by Frank Spotnitz). The consequence in cases where murky goings-are suspected may be that the conspiracy theorist will doubt the author’s innocence (in the case of those working for Murdoch’s Fox, perhaps understandable, for Yorkshire Television less so); they must have been bundled in to the all-consuming plot, subject to the dictates of their puppet masters.


All that would be assuming Alternative 3 possesses a kernel of truth to its narrative, of course. In terms of the unofficial exploration of space, the subject can lead to its own chicken-and-egg theorising. Are those with tales of secret space programs and arcane histories of Nazi interplanetary capabilities (relating to their purported Bell craft technology), explorations of lost worlds and contact with occult forces drawing on a legacy of popular fiction (from Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo and The Land that Time Forgot, right up to Indiana Jones and – God forbid – Iron Sky)? It’s engrossing subject matter and a fascinating, all-consuming rabbit hole to leap down; in one way or another many Nazis went underground, be that verifiably (through integration into the US space programme) or more elaborately (from Gregory Peck cloning Hitler in Argentina in Boys from Brazilto fleeing defeat and establishing bases under Antarctica, where they fought off Admiral Byrd’s Operation Highjump in 1947).


This kind of alternative reading of history leads one quite smoothly to Alternative 3’s idea of a secret landing on Mars on May 22, 1962 evidencing life there, and of activity on the dark side of the Moon (not broached in the doc, but that’s where the aliens lurk out of sight).


Leslie Watkins is reported as saying of the accompanying Alternative 3 book that it was fiction “based on fact. But I now feel I inadvertently got very close to a secret truth” which involved his suspicion of being wiretapped; Jim Keith’s Casebook on Mind Control and UFOs: Casebook on Alternative Three supports Watkins’ notion to an extent, pointing to a joint US/USSR space programme, the mysterious deaths/disappearances of scientists, and the deception of the public concerning advanced technology (although the doc doesn’t get into claiming this is at the behest of an all-powerful ruling elite).


If one looks, one can find circumstantial support of the doc’s basic tenet, including the popularly cited claim from Ronnie Reagan (although the Alzheimer’s card can be waved to dismiss anything he claims) regarding discussion with space scientists “It was fascinating. Space truly is the last frontier and some of the developments there in astronomy etc. are like science fiction, except they are real. I learned that our shuttle capacity is such that we could orbit 300 people”. Then there’s Laura Eisenhower, Dwight’s granddaughter, claiming she was offered the chance to join a Mars colony (bound to be dismissed as the ravings of a New Age hippy fruitcake, of course), Gary McKinnon’s hacking expedition that bore the fruit (cake) of discovering references to “non-terrestrial officers” in government computer systems (but he was stoned out of his (fruit) tree at the time, so perhaps not credible; still, credible enough to have the US demanding his extradition) and Corey Goode’s attestations that it’s all true, all of it, and more besides.


Then again, Ambrose’s wry recollection of his experience reading The Montauk Project: Experiments in Time, finds him confessing how much he enjoyed the book and quite convincingly told and researched… up until the point it cites Alternative 3 as factual book and suppressed documentary. It’s exactly the kind of literalness that would induce anyone willing to entertain the “truth by coincidence” reading a wide berth.


Besides the most readily recognisable conspiracy lore points in the doc, there’s the more winning side product of legitimate factual points that lend it a prescient underpinning. Principally among these is the one the makers – understandably – wish to congratulate themselves on, that of the ecological time bomb (although, in Alternative 3, the Greenhouse Effect is leading to extremely hot winters and cold summers, “the next step to an unavoidable Ice Age”). Alternative 3 can claim its place as a prophet of climate change, although, to put it in its place, this is a decade that was already exploring the subject in No Blade of Grass in Silent Running. More to the point, though, such back patting isn’t why the doc has attained such longevity; it’s all about the conspiracy.


The disappearances Alternative 3 takes as its starting point, “sudden and inexplicable, without trace”, are, we are told, the result of an abandoned documentary about the scientific Brain Drain from Britain. In a particularly colourful piece of introductory spiel, former BBC news presenter Tim Brinton notes how that particular investigation hit a blank wall, “A blank wall, below where I’m standing now, of Terminal 3 of Heathrow Airport”. 


For much of the running time we follow Gregory Monroe’s rather wooden reporter Colin Benson (nice sheepskin coat, though) as he pursues the trail of these missing individuals (“Is he on acid or something?” Colin immortally asks of an antic interview subject, having barged into his house like he’s the precursor of The Cook Report) and the space scenarios it leads to, but it’s Brinton’s gravitas that really sells the deception, complete with accident sites that are “peculiarly unclear” and a videotape exhibiting “the ceaseless noise of space”.


In some respects the (reported) flurry of public belief that followed the broadcast seems barely creditable; as one can see only the contrived and stagey nature of the interviews and presentation, until one recalls that a lot of genuine ‘70s documentaries have very mannered presentation, and that the (oft-compared). No bones were made about Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast being a dramatisation and still people fell for it. There’s the Doctor Who-like incongruity of vast cosmic plots set against grey British terraces. But there’s also really rather good use of stock footage to support the climate change thesis, along with intentionally degraded film stock for parts of the documentary itself. Few of the talking heads have much in their presence to persuade you they are other than actors, but it’s the conjuring trick of what they’re reeling off that’s the key.


Just the name “Alternative 3” is evocative and tantalising, much more so than initial title “Disappearing People”. (Alternatives 1 and 2 involve cutting the population and consumption of resources respectively, according to Dr Gerstein, “The third – maybe not so crazy”, although the Wikipedia page gives 2 as establishing underground shelters to house a select few in order to escape the environmental apocalypse; it’s notable that both Alternatives 1 and (the Wiki) 2 have been posited as agendas of the secret controllers of the world.


The most memorable interview subject is astronaut Bob Grodin, played by readily-recognisable Canadian actor Shane Rimmer (Dr Strangelove, veteran of Doctor Who, voice of Scott Tracy and a mainstay of multiple Gerry Anderson productions, Bond films and Supermans as well as A Very British Coup; generally available as an ever-present Yank-in-UK-residence for hire), who runs with the suggestion that the Apollo astronauts discovered they weren’t alone when they landed on the Moon.  


In Bob’s case, rather than encountering E.T.s, it’s a pre-existing lunar base (“Those Apollos, they’re just a sunscreen to cover up what’s really going on out there” which is pretty much what those claiming a secret space program say, albeit that NASA compartmentalisation means they aren’t even aware of the advanced technology they don’t have available to them). It has to be said, though, that Rimmer has one of his big scenes stolen from under him thanks to the cameo from his then girlfriend, former Miss Norfolk Linda Cunningham (“She’s not my daughter, right”).


Tim Brinton: Fear, suspicion, unanswered questions. Possibly murder. What are we dealing with?

The Apollo missions are “to keep you bums happy, stop you asking questions about what’s really going on out there”, leading to the memorable description of the lunar exploration as “Two men on a bicycle on the surface of the Moon”. Which beckons the theory that the Moon landings were faked as the technology was insufficient to get there and back, as mooted by Dark Moon, and obliquely touched on by Capricorn One, where faults in the design mean the mission has to be faked. I particularly liked the suggestion that the Viking probe footage might be faked (so exploring similar territory to Capricorn One) in which it is pondered why, having spent so much money getting to the surface of the red planet, they should equip the probe with a camera with a range of only 100 metres (“the average size of a large film studio”).


Another popular subject in conspiracy lore suggests the Cold War frostiness between the US and USSR was just big sham (“None of us can understand how the peace has been maintained for the past 25 years” comments Alec Linstead’s G. Gordon Broadbent; great name). The illustrious professor posits that there is, at the very highest level in East-West diplomacy, “an operating factor of which we know nothing”. While more popularly this banner is waved in favour of the Illuminati transcending such trifling details as national boundaries, Broadbent – in a very tickling bit of speculation – suggests “It could just be that this unknown factor is a massive but covert operation in space. As for the reason behind it. Well, we’re not in the business of speculation”.


Tim Brinton: International co-operation? In space? A space shuttle? But shuttling what, to where?

Ambrose and director/co-deviser Christopher Miles pay due passing reference to the matter of economics (it would be more economic to explore space from space, rather than expending resources getting there in the first place, therefore a Moon base as a means to ferry people to Mars makes sense) and also throw in references to the in development space shuttle and the superpower co-habited Skylab (“But what are they all doing up there in space?”)


Tim Brinton: You mean go to some other planet?
Dr Carl Gerstein: I mean, get the hell off this one while there’s still time.

Alternative 3 is an “attempt to ensure that at least some of the human race survived” the imminent demise of planet Earth, which, in some versions of secret space programme, is the line fed to those in hermetically operating off-world bases as a carrot to get them up there (in sustainable communities). The idea of a great space escape would be popularised in Moonraker two years later, with Hugo Drax planning to do for the final frontier what his predecessor in Bond villainy Stromberg panned for the oceans, but this selling the lie idea has also been seen in the recently recovered Patrick Troughton Doctor Who, The Enemy of the World, in which an underground community live under the illusion that the earth above is a radioactive nightmare.


Alternative 3 concludes with an intimation of life on Mars (again, the makers take credit for finding water there), taking in terraforming (of a sort, anyway, with a nuclear explosion delivered from Earth leading to hibernating life on the planet awakening, the polar icecaps decreasing and vegetation developing). Red Planet would pick up the terraforming idea 23 years later, and Mission to Mars, as most other Mars pictures have – barring the pop-referencing “pure science” of The Martian – suggested a formerly inhabited planet. Of all the elements in the doc, the sight of a skittery creature (a Khan bloodsucker?) is perhaps the most glaringly contrived, what with a conveniently discovered microcircuit providing decoding and enabling a view of aerial photography of a verdant planet surface when combined with the earlier videotape.


Cast members include Richard Marner (best known as Colonel von Strohm in ‘Allo ‘Allo). Alec Linstead (who appeared in three Doctor Whos, most memorably the first Tom Baker story), Phoebe Nichols (most recently appearing in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) and Norman Chancer (Local Hero). Brian Eno’s aural contribution is particularly choice and atmospheric. Ambrose, fittingly for someone engrossed in the Philadelphia Experiment, went on to co-pen The Final Countdown, and Miles’ work includes films That Lucky Touch (with Sir Rog), The Clandestine Marriage (Nigel Hawthorne) and an early movie lead for Ian McKellen in Priest of Love.


Presumably Preston B Nichols and Jerry Deloney’s character in Slacker devoured proclaimed the doc as absolutely true without noting the “April 1 1977” at the end; you’d be hard pressed to come across Alternative 3 and proclaim it a masterpiece of hoodwinking. It doesn’t even really try that hard. What it does have going for it is a wealth of great ideas, feeding off topical themes (or ones not as topical as they ought to have been, environment-wise) and the general distrust in government that had burgeoned during the previous decade. It also, in however nascent a form, employs techniques that would be identified with the subgenre of the fake documentary during the following decades. Alternative 3’s a very cosy and innocent piece of conspiracy play, but one that manages to tap into something vaster and more enduring. Whether its subject matter brushes up against, in some shape or form, tangible but entirely elusive goings-on, or amounts to no more than enticing conceits seized upon by the popular imagination, it isn’t going away.










Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He’d been clawed to death, as though by some bird. Some huge, obscene bird.

The Avengers 5.6: The Winged Avenger
Maybe I’m just easily amused, such that a little Patrick Macnee uttering “Ee-urp!” goes a long way, but I’m a huge fan of The Winged Avenger. It’s both a very silly episode and about as meta as the show gets, and one in which writer Richard Harris (1.3: Square Root of Evil, 1.10: Hunt the Man Down) succeeds in casting a wide net of suspects but effectively keeps the responsible party’s identity a secret until late in the game.

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …