ON AN OPERATING TABLE IN A small white room, a naked humanoid creature lies supine and inert--its stomach bulbous; its six fingers slightly curled; a deep, foot-long gash in its right leg. Two humans in white contamination suits circle the creature, slicing its chest, sawing its skull in half, removing internal organs. A third takes notes on a sheet of paper. Behind a window, a fourth person watches, hidden by a surgical mask. The only identifiable figure is the humanoid. Its face shows strain, perhaps pain. When the camera recording the event catches the creature's sightless gaze, an eerie poignance fills the chamber.
The 17-minute film, silent and in muzzy black and white, has enough implicit melodrama to fill a satisfying sci-fi epic. But some people believe, or hope, that it may be genuine--evidence of an alien life form on earth, conceivably connected with the report (and alleged government cover-up) of a UFO crash near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Professional skeptics find the film a clever or clumsy hoax. Others believe it's real, but not from Roswell. The UFOlogical combatants duel it out in magazines and on the Internet while poring over the footage with an intensity not lavished on any home movie since the Zapruder film.
The controversy has created a hot little industry. Ray Santilli, the Englishman who is peddling the footage, says it has been seen in 32 countries. Britain's Channel Four aired a documentary on the subject. In the U.S. an hour-long show called Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? has become a staple of Fox TV--the X-Files network--and has been among the top 25 sellers in video stores. Before the end of the year, the tape will be offered in 35 catalogs, including the Publishers Clearing House mailings.
The Fox show, with Jonathan Frakes of Star Trek: The Next Generation as host, debuted to surprisingly high ratings in late August. It was hastily scheduled to play again a week later with some unaired footage. The program will air a third time on Saturday, with clips that may reveal hints of the alien's spacecraft and language. Says executive producer Robert Kiviat: "We're approaching it like a detective story." By doling out a few new clues in each episode, Alien Autopsy could end up running more times than Murder One.
Santilli says that on a trip to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1992, he met an elderly man who identified himself as a former Army photographer present at the autopsy of the Roswell alien, performed at Fort Worth Army Air Field. This man, says Santilli, offered to sell the movies he made there. Says the entrepreneur: "The whole thing was just way too fascinating to let go." The mysterious cameraman still declines to reveal himself, though Santilli says, "I think he will step forward within the very near future."