The notion that space aliens visited Earth in the distant past was the stuff of science fiction (and Scientology) until Swiss author Eric Von Däniken published his blockbuster book Chariots of the Gods? in 1968. Utilizing a sexy mix of conjecture, factoids, and pseudoscience, Von Däniken argued that because ancient civilizations accomplished seemingly impossible tasks (for example, building the Pyramids), “ancient astronauts” must have provided extraterrestrial assistance. Although considered a joke by the scientific community, Von Däniken’s book was quickly adapted into a German documentary movie, which was then re-dubbed into English and released in America as Chariots of the Gods—without the question mark, a telling detail. While it’s easy to imagine the movie thrilling audiences during an era rich with drugs and existentialism, Chariots of the Gods is thoroughly ridiculous, and quite dull, when viewed today.
Comprising National Geographic-type footage of various locations around the globe, the movie is driven by wall-to-wall narration and cheap-sounding electronic music. The following excerpt from the narration captures the movie’s loopy perspective: “Hardly more than a thousandth of these ancient sources has given up its secrets. Moreover, what has been decoded calls for careful study to determine just what verifiable facts they contain. We should no longer permit ourselves to dismiss accounts of sky vehicles and traveling deities as sheer imagination.” In other words, who needs proof when we’ve got exciting theories? Things get really silly when literal interpretations of the Bible are offered as evidence of alien technology—what if Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by the world’s first nuclear bombs? At its worst, Chariots of the Gods succumbs to childish mental exercises: “If you multiply the height of the pyramid by 1 billion, it equals almost exactly the distance from the earth to the sun—a mere coincidence?”
Chariots of the Gods was re-edited, and given a new Rod Serling narration track, to become a 1973 TV special called In Search of Ancient Astronauts, and Serling also narrated the 1975 theatrical documentary The Outer Space Connection. Dry and meandering, the movie rehashes ideas from Chariots of the Gods and wanders into other puzzlers that captured the popular imagination in the ’70s, including the Bermuda Triangle. Serling’s vocal work is as robustly eerie here as it was during his Twilight Zone days, but the parade of unanswered questions and vague insinuations gets boring. At its goofiest, The Outer Space Connection features an interview with some beardy scientist who claims “It’s very possible that pyramid energy could be used to preserve tissues over extended periods of time, such as long space travel or cloning purposes.” A similar doc, Mysteries from Beyond Earth, was released in 1975, with Hollywood actor/director Lawrence Dobkin hosting, but that one covers such a wide spectrum of pseudoscience topics that it’s tangential to this set of films.
In terms of sheer kitsch, the most enjoyable “ancient astronauts” doc is Mysteries of the Gods—or, to cite the full title that reveals the movie’s secret ingredient—William Shatner’s Mysteries of the Gods. Yes, our beloved Captain Kirk leads the search for evidence that little green men once bivouacked on Earth. Originally filmed as a German documentary titled Botschaft der Götter (which was based on a Chariots sequel book by Von Däniken), the picture was refurbished for American audiences by adding Shatner’s narration and several long scenes of Shatner interviewing “experts” about life beyond our planet. The combination of Shatner’s campy performance style and the film’s low-rent electronic music makes Mysteries of the Gods entertaining despite the movie’s dubious assertions. Wearing tacky ’70s fashions, Shatner strolls around places like the Kennedy Space Center, listening to outlandish claims that alien visitations explain the Big Bang and the development of the human brain.
In the movie’s most unintentionally hilarious scene, Shatner visits a woman who discovered a “crystal skull” among Mayan ruins. “We’ve used the modern airplane to come and see something very ancient, the crystal skull—it’s ominous, it’s awesome,” Shatner intones dramatically. Then, once he’s got the artifact in his hands, he says, “I’m trying to put myself back in time and space, back to when the skull was used for religious ceremonies. Can you describe to me [dramatic pause] how it was used?” By the time Shatner’s chatting with psychic Jeanne Dixon—who says that absolutely, definitely, for sure aliens will visit Earth in August 1977—Mysteries of the Gods has achieved liftoff as a masterpiece of reckless bullshit. Although the “ancient astronauts” genre is still going strong, with projects including occasional revivals of the Chariots of the Gods franchise, nothing will ever capture the sheer ’70s-ness of the fad better than Shatner’s stupefying spectacle.
Chariots of the Gods: LAME
The Outer Space Connection: LAME
Mysteries of the Gods: FUNKY