Spielberg packs decades of alien, UFO tales into 'Taken'

Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 12:15 a.m.

The sky's no limit for Sci Fi Channel's "Taken," which is big by just about any measurement.

The 10-part miniseries dramatizes more than five decades of alien-abduction and UFO mythology. It clocks in at 20 hours. Ten directors worked on it. The budget was a reported $40 million.

And here's the clincher: Steven Spielberg, a sizable name when it comes to movies and aliens, is the guiding hand behind the series showing on 10 consecutive weeknights (Dec. 2-6; Dec. 9-13) starting Monday.

Spielberg, whose famed otherworldly musings are "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," approached Sci Fi Channel in 1998 about an epic alien project.

"With a storytelling legend behind you, you're not going to throw it away on a four- or six-hour miniseries," said Sci Fi President Bonnie Hammer. "We wanted to give him time to tell the story ... and we were willing to go along for the ride."

The filmmaker's cachet is not squandered: The miniseries' full title is "Steven Spielberg Presents: Taken."

It is in the tradition of such grand 1970s dramas as the 24-hour "Centennial," both in length and in the compressed airing. Other recent miniseries, such as HBO's "Band of Brothers," have been spun out week to week.

"We wanted to create a true event as opposed to a weekly series,"

Hammer said. "In a sense, it's a bit of an experiment scheduling it this way, but there's a level of excitement attached to it because we're breaking some rules."

"Taken" is, rather remarkably, the work of one writer, Leslie Bohem, who also served as executive producer along with Spielberg.

Starting in 1945, the drama follows four generations of the Keys, Crawford and Clarke families and their part in extraterrestrial encounters that affect both Earthlings and aliens.

In the first episode, World War II fighter pilot Russell Keys (Steve Burton) is in a dogfight over France when an eerie blue light envelops his plane, saving him and his crew but with lasting and dire effects. Also central to the tale is government research into a spacecraft that made a crash landing near small - but destined for fame - Roswell, N.M.

The saga is narrated by 10-year-old Allie (Dakota Fanning), a girl with an intriguing family tree and a crucial role to play for humanity.

Co-stars include Eric Close, Catherine Dent, Matt Frewer, Michael Moriarty and James McDaniel - and a spaceship-sized load of visual effects supervised by James Lima.

The film strives for emotional depth as well as sci-fi razzle-dazzle, said Bohem, who spent more than three years crafting "Taken" with guidance from Spielberg.

"Our initial conversations were, 'What's intriguing about this (the subject), how do we treat it with respect, how do we make it seem as real as possible," Bohem said.

Spielberg posed his own question to Bohem: If tales of blank-eyed, spindly alien invaders who spirit away humans aren't true, then why are stories told by alleged abductees so similar?

"I glibly said, 'Your movies,"' Bohem recalled.

In a statement, Spielberg said he's uncertain about whether Earth has received visitors but insists "I know there is life off this planet."

Does Bohem believe aliens have been booking regular Club Earth tours? Maybe, which means "God's got a bigger canvas" and our view of the universe must change, he says.

"I find it even more compelling if it's not true. Then the question of why we are all drawn to these stories and have been for so long comes to the fore, and I think that is the even more profound question."

In line with that, Bohem saw the miniseries as a means of examining the broader concept of being taken, not just by invaders but by "love, by lust, by power, by drugs, by alcohol."

Spielberg himself calls "Taken" a "character story first and foremost."

"I believe what will keep people tuned in, hopefully, is that the characters are very compelling and you watch these characters evolve and age before your eyes and give birth to special children who themselves have a purpose in our story," he said.

While Bohem was the sole writer, each two-hour chapter of "Taken" used a different director, among them Tobe Hooper on Episode 1 and Jeremy Kagan on Episode 7.

"They did it the opposite way it's often done," said Breck Eisner, who directed the second episode. "They had one writer write everything, every word. I think they thought, 'Let's try a couple different visions from directors and get multiple points of view."'

Spielberg is cited by those involved as the unifying force, offering counsel and suggestions - among them his vision of an alien spaceship interior that is "not quite within comprehension, blown-out and unclear," Eisner said.

"What could be better than directing a project that Spielberg is producing, based on alien mythology. For me, a sci-fi fan, it's the greatest thing you can imagine," Eisner said.

For 10-year-old Sci Fi Channel, the miniseries represents a splashy way to try and expand its audience beyond die-hard science fiction fans, Hammer said.

There's some evidence the strategy might pay off. A Nov. 22 feast of UFO and alien documentaries, a promotional platform for "Taken" with Spielberg serving as host, made Sci Fi the No. 1 adult-targeted cable channel during prime time.

Bohem, however, is looking for rewards beyond ratings: the audience's recognition of a united, self-reliant world that must function without the expectation of help from more-evolved aliens.

"It's important to me you come away from this comforted by the fact that we're all in this together, but not comforted by the fact there's somebody showing up on Thursday from Alpha Centauri with all the answers.

"They won't be coming on Friday, either."

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top