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SyFy, UFOs, and 'Official Denial'

by Matthew Kresal 5 years ago in scifi tv
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It's been 25 years since SyFy aired its first original movie.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a rash of film and TV projects based off of the alien abduction phenomenon. These included adaptations of two non-fiction books based on the phenomenon by Whitely Strieber (Communion starring Christopher Walken) and Budd Hopkins (Intruders). In 1993, the fledgling Sci-Fi Channel (now known, of course, as SyFy) also produced a TV movie on the phenomenon as their first original movie. Titled Official Denial, the result is an interesting if at times an under-served piece of work.

Screenwriter Bryce Zabel pictured here in 2001 during his time as Chairman and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

What Official Denial has going for it more than anything else is its ideas. Bryce Zabel's script takes much of the abduction narrative and the UFO phenomenon, in general, to create an at times compelling piece of work out of it. The film sends greenhouse owner Paul Corliss on a journey that sees him being abducted by aliens and then by a shadowy government working group known as Majestic (a name that those familiar with the UFO world may very well recognize). Yet Zabel doesn't give the viewer the usual semi-horror narrative that is often tied with abductions such as the grey aliens as well as other UFO elements such as the Men in Black to instead create an often intriguing take on those ideas but with a neat twist. Beyond that, the film feels at times like the first draft for Zabel's later TV series Dark Skies which also drew on the same source material (Majestic especially) but in which he did very different things. While the dialogue can be a tad hokey at times, for those interested in the phenomenon that the film is based on, there will be plenty to like.

Yet Zabel's script is at times ill-served by the production as a whole. The film was the channel's first original movie and throughout its 90-odd minutes that's more than apparent. Official Denial has the look and feel of a low budget movie which isn't an issue for the more Earthbound portions of its running time but which becomes painfully obvious when it comes to the special effects. The film's opening minutes are very much dependent upon CGI that, even by the standards of the time when the film was made, are dated at best. The same is true of the grays and the one in particular who becomes something of a major supporting character which looks exactly like what it is: a kid in a gray costume wearing an alien mask. Beyond the effects, the film is about average from the direction of Brian Trenchard-Smith to the cinematography and music. It's a shame in a way because the story deserved better treatment.

The cover art from the 1994 VHS release, to date the only official release of Official Denial on physical media.

The cast does okay for the most part. Parker Stevenson does well as Paul Corliss, the every-man sort at the center of the film's plot who goes from everyone around thinking he's crazy about discovering things are even stranger than he believed. Erin Gray, noted for her Cult TV roles, does well as his wife who is ultimately taken on the journey with him. Chewing the scenery nicely as Majestic's head of security is Dirk Benedict, himself famous for his role on the original run of Battlestar Galactica, who manages to keep his performance just on the right side of crossing over into parody. Of the cast, it is perhaps Chad Everett as General Spaulding who comes across the best as the authority figure who brings Corliss in as the outsider who might be closer to the truth than his agents. All do well, for the most part, give the nature of the film as a whole.

At the end of the day, Official Denial is an interesting little film. It has some solid ideas and a good script but it never quite lives up to them due to the nature of its production values and (to a lesser extent) its cast. It's hard to believe that the channel that would give us umpteen Sharknado movies started with something as interesting as this. Perhaps a remake might be in order?

scifi tv

About the author

Matthew Kresal

Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first novel Our Man on the Hill was published by Sea Lion Press in 2021.

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