It started with a long-ago conversation with astronomer Carl Sagan, which awoke an abiding interest in UFOs and the possibility of extraterrestrial life in Robert Zemeckis. That led in part to 1997’s “Contact,” which Zemeckis helmed, and, now, “Project Blue Book,” which he’s executive producing for A+E Studios.
The show bears more than a passing resemblance to “The X-Files,” from the tagline (“Over 12,000 UFO sightings. 1 government cover-up”) to the menacing presence of a shadowy figure in a hat and coat. Based on a real-life government operation called Project Blue Book, the series centers on the investigation by the U.S. Air Force into UFO sightings in the 1950s and ’60s. It stars Aidan Gillen as J. Allen Hynek, an astrophysics professor recruited to help with the investigation, and Michael Malarkey as the Air Force captain assigned to debunk the stories.
The first of 10 hourlong episodes of “Project Blue Book,” which bows this winter, was screened for press and other guests Tuesday at Mipcom.
The drama’s period detail is evident in the ’50s interiors and cars, a Flash Gordon comic book, a reference to the not-so-long-ago panic caused by Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds.” Inevitably, however, those involved insist on the show’s timeliness in today’s troubled, Trumpian, truth-challenged times.
“Project Blue Book was the original fake news,” said showrunner Sean Jablonski, calling it a government program created to discredit people’s sincere accounts of unexplained phenomena and to “give them alternative facts.”
“We didn’t just settle for case-of-the-week stories, but layered in the facts of a government cover-up that exposes the origin of fake news,” Zemeckis wrote in an e-mail read out at the screening. “Unfortunately, that feels as relevant today as it did back then.”
It’s clear that “Project Blue Book” is being shepherded by true believers, folks who have faith not just in the show but in the existence of life beyond Earth. Jablonski is in no doubt of that, recounting a solo trip he took to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, in Peru, in the belief that aliens built it.
On stage with Jablonski in Cannes, Gillen (“The Wire”), Malarkey (The Vampire Diaries”) and Laura Mennell (“The Man in the High Castle”), who plays Hynek’s wife, Mimi, also professed themselves open to the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “I have no reason to be a non-believer,” Malarkey said, in a Q&A conducted by series executive producer Barry Jossen, the head of A+E Studios.
“When you look at what we know about our vast universe, it’s impossible not to hope for the existence of worlds (and life) beyond our own,” Zemeckis wrote in his e-mail.
The cast also includes Ksenia Solo (“Orphan Black”) as a woman who befriends Mimi Hynek and is quickly revealed to be not all she seems, and Neal McDonough (“Minority Report”) and Michael Harney (“Orange Is the New Black”) as a pair of cabalistic air force generals. Whether little green men appear in “Blue Book” remains to be seen. The show was created and written by David O’Leary.
“The series is based in fact,” Jablonski said. “When you scratch the surface, the conspiracy and truth of what actually happened give you a lot of story to tell.”