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TV Guide (November 30 - December 6)
The X-Files may be closed, but Steven Spielberg and Sci Fi Channel are keeping TV's alien nation alive with Taken, an ambitious 10-part miniseries spanning more than 50 years of abductions, government conspiracy and interplanetary romance
by Ted Johnson
Are we alone? Have we been visited? Does Steven Spielberg know something we don't?
There is a story, circulated on the Web, that the famous director is really an alien collaborator, unleashing such movies as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" with the motive of making space creatures appear more friendly than they really are.
Gulp. Can it be true? Leslie Bohem, who worked with Spielberg on Taken, a 20-hour miniseries for Sci Fi Channel, couldn't resist asking the famous director. "He says it is not true," Bohem deadpans. "But if it is true... he would be lying, wouldn't he?"
A famous director in cahoots with aliens is exactly the kind of story that ight have made its way into the soapy 10-part epic. Combining more than 50 years of historic fact and alien folklore, Taken follows four generations of three different families - a sort of Winds of War meets The X-Files.
First there are the Keyses, whose lives are ruined by continuous abductions, starting with the mysterious blue lights that engulf a World War II fighter plane flown by Capt. Russell Keys (Steve Burton). Then there are the Clarkes, whose destinies are changed when matriarch Sally Clarke (Catherine Dent) spends the night with an alien (Eric Close), which results in a half-human, half E.T. son (Anton Yelchin). Finally, there are the Crawfords, a ruthless military clanheaded by Capt. Owen Crawford (Joel Gretsch), who discovers four alien bodies in a spacecraft that crashes near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The sprawling saga is threaded together by the narration of Allie Keys (8-year-old Dakota Fanning), a child who had inherited alien powers.
On the Vancouver, British Columbia, set in April, Fanning - who made a splash in last year's movie "I Am Sam" - has spent the day filming scenes in a "government"-designed green helmet that prevents the aliens from discovering her character's whereabouts. (In typical Spielberg lore, aliens are the good guys and federal agents are the heavies.) "I am considered the gift," Fanning says of Allie. "So they send me down here to see if [people] are ready for the gift, and it turns out they are not."
If this all sounds familiar (remember Roswell?), it doesn't matter to the producers, who say that Taken's uniqueness is in its scope: At a reported cost of $40 million, it is the most ambitious project ever undertaken by Sci Fi. And to emphasize the project's impact, executives chose to air the miniseries over two weeks rather than stretch it over an entire season. "We wanted to do something big and different," says Sci Fi president Bonnie Hammer. "But it is also a big risk."
The miniseries originated in 1998 out of Spielberg's desire to create the definitive story of alien visitation - including everything from crop circles to the experiences of the first alleged abductees, Betty and Barney Hill. "I've been interested in all the wonders of extraterrestrials over my entire life," Spielberg says. "And I thought we would need [more than two hours] to really do the history of alien abductions."
Spielberg was the driving force on the project, but after production on the miniseries began, he became occupied directing "Minority Report" and the upcoming "Catch Me If You Can," so he didn't direct any episodes. Instead, he handed oversight of the production to Steve Beers (Dark Skies) and script duties to Bohem ("Dante's Peak"), with whom he developed the story.
Initially, Bohem had only mild interest in paranormal hisotry, but once he began his research, he discovered a wealth of inspiration. "What really amazed me is how many people believed they were abducted and how many countless more believed they saw something," Bohem says.
Stories of alien visits have become so much a part of our culture that visual effects supervisor and coproducer Jim Lima ("Total Recall") based his idea of what mysterious lights would look like, and how an alien craft would move, on hundreds of accounts from other people who claim to have had an encounter. "[Aliens] are constantly described as being about 4 feet tall, skinny, gray-skinned [with] huge black eyes," Lima says. "Typically, [they have] three fingers and a thumb. So we have to respect the mythology."
On the set, it was hard not to get caught up in the alien subculture. "I couldn't determine what is fact and what is fiction," remarks Dent, 37, who plays Sally Clarke. The public's thirst for such believe-it-or-not debate has not been lost on Si Fi. As part of its publicity blitzkrieg for Taken, the network formed a public interest group in October called Coalition for Freedom of Information to press the government to open classified UFO files. "It's become clear to us that the government is hiding something," Hammer says. "We don't know what that thing is, but there's a lot of information that has been classified that dates well back beyond 25 years. And all information that goes back beyond 25 years [is supposed to] be declassified."
It will come as no surprise that Taken does not tie up all of the loose ends with a tidy explanation for the mythology of alien abductions - leaving open the possibility for a sequel or even a series. That would be fine with Bohem, who has plenty of fodder for more.
He marvels at another story circulating on the Web. It alleges that Richard Nixon, while trying to impress Jackie Gleason one night, reportedly took the Honeymooners star to see some dead alien bodies in Roswell. "They were probably a little drunk," Bohem suggests.
But did it really happen? You'd have to ask the government. And if they denied it, and if it were true... well, they would be lying, wouldn't they?
UP, UP AND AWAY
Taken: A Cosmic Story On A Giant Canvas
Call it hubris, but Taken is SciFi Channel's equivalent of reaching for the stars.
Attempting what too few networks even dream of anymore, this mammoth 20-hour enterprise is a spectacular reminder of what a major miniseries used to promise: a sprawling story with a sensational hook, produced on a scale that demands an unusual commitment.
Airing for two weeks over 10 weeknights (December 2-6 and 9-13, 9 P.M./ET), Taken may ask too much from all but the most ardent sci-fi buffs. Episodic, repetitive and often painfully earnest, this multi-generational saga of alien abduction, family drama and government intrigue is at its sporadic best a gripping mix of The X-Files and The Fugitive.
The first three nights achieve the strongest balance of wonder, terror, suspense and romance, as we're introduced to three families exposed to extraterrestrials in the '40s.
In Texas, a lonely mother (The Shield's Catherine Dent) is seduced by an escapee from the famous Roswell crash. Nearby, a ruthless Army captain (the wonderfully villainous Joel Gretsch) begins a dark obsession with aliens. In the Midwest, a Wold War II fighter pilot (Steve Burton) is haunted by his abductions and fears for his son.
The influence of Steven Spielberg is marvelously felt on the second night, when the pilot's son is lured away by an alien who adopts a fabulous storybook disguise.
Spielberg's trademark child's-eye view works less well in the excessive voice-overs of little Allie (Dakota Fanning of "I Am Sam"), a precociousfourth-generation hybrid whose adventures fill most of the chase-intensive second week.
Taken often feels like a juicy Stephen King page-turner, both absorbing and exasperating. Yes, it might have been much better if far shorter, but the effort is as impressive as it is cool.