Review: Alien Island (Cristóbal Valenzuela Berríos)

Alien Island examines the role mass media plays in highlighting some narratives while excluding others, and how that power has been used for political purposes.”

1970. Chile is in the midst of a dictatorship that would last 16 years under Augusto Pinochet. One day an object is seen in the sky, like a spot moving around the sun. Newspapers, radio stations and TV channels wonder about the origin of the unidentified object. No answer is given, and Chilean ufology is born. A few years after the incident a group of CB radio operators with equipment to monitor strange activity in radio waves receive a very clear message from a fellow radio enthusiast. He informs them about strange occurrences involving extraterrestrial objects on an island off the coast of southern Chile. The testimonies of these aficionados, interviewed almost 40 years later, are the backbone of Cristóbal Valenzuela Berríos’ engaging and often puzzling Alien Island.

Early on in the film, the UFO craze is smartly shown as part of the nightly offerings of a television set in ’80s Chile. With the press of a button images of police repression or social unrest could be switched to a less politically charged interview with someone claiming he was abducted by moon men. By framing the whole film in the 4:3 aspect ratio of TV, Alien Island examines the role mass media plays in highlighting some narratives while excluding others, and how that power has been used for political purposes.

But the political edge of the story is not so evident from the start. A few mentions of the dictatorship are scattered throughout the first half of the film, deceptively presented more like contextual bits than as meaningful commentary. The interviewees are shot like characters in a B-movie, surrounded by shadows in dimly lit environments that heighten the mystery around them, while their tales of alien beings are wittily illustrated with archival images from various sources including older films, newsreels, and videos from space agencies. A trip towards the mysterious island is even paired with aptly chosen shots of a car driving along an empty road, an image reminiscent of The Shining. While those interviewed could be easy targets for mockery in the hands of other, more cynical filmmakers, Valenzuela Berríos and his team show an appreciation of their storytelling and provide a filmic dimension to their recollections.

This appreciation of their testimonies allows for the characters to openly and emotionally talk about what has been their passion for years: the study of extraterrestrial life. At some point one of them explains how a species of aliens arrived on Earth: in the remote future they came from an enemy race that enslaved them, forcing them to live under a tyrannical regime for thousands of years. A group of them travelled back in time to stop that from happening to humans. In declarations such as this, Valenzuela Berríos’ film builds bridges between the political situation in Chile and the ufologist’s beliefs without spelling everything out. Fiction may seem at first like an escape, a way out of the inconceivable stories of human rights violations taking place around them, but these stories are inescapable, and reality seeps in in the most unexpected ways. A final character with a connection to filmmaking heightens the sensation that there is a type of mass hysteria favoured by wide-reaching communications media such as TV that is akin to the delirium needed for something as ineffable as the Chilean dictatorship to take place for years without many people batting an eye.

Like in a mystery film, the answers to the questions posed throughout the film are aptly kept until the very end, and they are stranger than they seem at first glance. Alien Island shows how elements of fiction can be used to tell a non-fictionalized story, and how it makes sense to do so when reality is on such unstable ground.