There's no business like UFO business

As The 4th of July holiday got under way this weekend, America was caught in a rush of alien fever. On Mars, Nasa successfully landed the Pathfinder probe, hoping for fresh evidence that the Red Planet could support life. Thousands of people jammed remote Roswell, New Mexico, for the 50th anniversary jamboree of the supposed crash landing of an alien craft. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, "Tony", a woman caller to one of the countless radio shows on UFOs, came up with a bizarre new twist by insisting that the US government was planting Hollywood science fiction films to soften us up for fresh revelations about extra-terrestrial life.

It was easy to see where Tony got the idea. Hollywood, along with the entire US "infotainment" industry, is now the chief purveyor of alien conspiracy theories, a trend continued with its latest hit, Men in Black.

Reporters from CNN and its network rivals descended in force on Roswell this week, bizarrely merging interviews with UFO "researchers" with reports from Nasa on the Mars landing. Fringe belief and mainstream science were combined as never before. Network commercials, meanwhile, included trailers for another new film, Contact, that begins with Earth receiving a radio message from somewhere in the galaxy. "We are not alone," actress Jodie Foster declares.

Independence Day - released exactly a year ago, to huge commercial success - included a plot twist taken from established UFO lore. The young US President, under alien attack, finds out that an alien aircraft was indeed discovered at Roswell, and transported to Area 51, a secret government installation in Nevada.

"Ufologists" have been selling that story for 20 years or more. "Elvis? He's not dead, he's just gone home." So goes one of the more memorable lines from Men in Black, a sci-fi comedy now billed as the slickest, biggest film of this summer. Elvis was an alien, it turns out, along with Newt Gingrich, Sylvester Stallone, and that school teacher you always thought had landed from Venus.

The premise of MIB is that aliens have not just landed, but that they live among us in human disguise, by permission of an ultra-secret government agency. The job of the men in black is to keep the peace among the immigrant aliens, and to keep the rest of us in happy ignorance.

MIB mixes slapstick humour with Star Wars-style space goons, and its plot is based on an obscure sci-fi cartoon. Aliens hang out in Manhattan bars and work as New York taxi-drivers. In a neat twist, MIB agents pick up hot tips on alien abductions from the supermarket tabloids.

But the film echoes one of the favourite theories of American ufologists, that the government knows the details of alien arrivals but blankets them in secrecy. Stanton Friedman, one of the key speakers at the UFO conference in Roswell this week, maintains that President Truman set up a secret government group called MJ-12 to manage UFO business.

Among the true believers, there is now "a lot of turmoil in the field regarding Roswell", said Glen Campbell. Mr Campbell is an authority on Area 51, which the US government is widely thought to have used for tests of secret new aircraft, including the Stealth fighter. He is something of a sceptic when it comes to UFOs. Two leading ufologists - who had earlier demanded the US government open its files on Roswell - now say that there never were any flying saucer landings and that nothing happened there.

Hundreds of visitors, however, paid $15 (pounds 9) this weekend to see one alleged crash site. Tickets to lectures by such luminaries as Erich von Daniken and an Ute Indian "sundancer" who promised "to share his culture's beliefs in relation to extra-terrestrial beings" cost up to $100.

MIB, meanwhile, in its first day in cinemas, made nearly $20m in ticket sales - just shy of the records set by Independence Day last year. In Hollywood, as in Roswell, alien business has never been better.