In the old west, at the small town of Aurora, Texas the proprietor of the local newspaper passes away. His daughter, schoolteacher Alaine Peebles (Carol Bagdasarian) is determined to keep the paper running. All she needs is a good story. She gets one when a glowing blue UFO brings a pint-sized visitor from outer space (Mickey Hays) to town. The alien shares benign encounters with local residents including lovable bewhiskered old eccentric Charlie Haskins (Jack Elam), gutsy widow Irene (country music icon Dottie West) and inquisitive schoolgirl Sue Beth (Mindy Smith). Each share their stories with Alaine whose printing of these 'ridiculous' rumours annoys boyfriend Sheriff Temple (Peter Brown). Faced with increasing skepticism Alaine convinces Sue Beth to help prove the alien is real.
An independently produced sci-fi western aimed at a family audience, The Aurora Encounter is notable for its intriguing cast and surprisingly moving behind-the-scenes story. None of which, alas, makes it any good. The production was part-bankrolled by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the charity that grants last wishes to children with terminal diseases, on behalf of one-shot child actor Mickey Hays. Hays suffered from progeria, a disease that made him age rapidly. His one great dream was to star in a Hollywood movie. Taken as the fulfillment of an ailing child's last wish it is hard to heap scorn on The Aurora Encounter no matter how regrettably meandering and dull it happens to be. Hays does little besides amble from one would-be cute, pointless non-event after another, smiling impishly under his dime-store alien makeup, but does so amiably enough.
Frustratingly prosaic the film is strangely matter-of-fact in detailing the alien's activities around town. Which really do not amount to much. He plays checkers with Charlie, downs the odd beer (most likely a nod that other famously inebriated alien: E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)), spies on Irene undressing at the window (a sequence presumably cashing-in on Dottie West's reputation as one of country's racier stars - but in a kids' movie?!) and befriends a dog. Later scenes flirt with excitement, as when the alien intervenes to save little Sue Beth and her friends Ginger (Carly McCullough) and Becky (Tracy Kuehnert) from a collapsing Indian cave or laser blasts the gun from a Texas Ranger (Will Mitchell), but are ineptly staged or else sandwiched between so much pointless chatter the target audience will have likely fallen asleep. Flat direction by writer-producer-director Jim McCullough Sr. fails to weave any aura of mystery around these incidents at all. Consequently, The Aurora Encounter lacks the Spielbergian magic to which it so obviously aspires. Despite adequate practical UFO effects McCullough clearly had neither the budget nor imagination to attempt anything truly spectacular. McCullough carved himself a minor niche in the midwestern film industry, scoring a small hit as producer of family adventure Where the Red Fern Grows (1974). His other directing credits include Charge of the Model T's (1977), a wacky period comedy that also stars Carol Bagdasarian, horror movie Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1983) and The St. Tammany Miracle (1994) a sporting drama with teen television icons Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Soleil Moon Frye.
There is a faint feminist angle to the story. Plucky Alaine Peebles encourages schoolgirls like Sue Beth to keep on pursuing her love of science even in the face of skeptics like the child's parents and her own smugly patronizing boyfriend. Even this subplot does not really go anywhere beyond Alaine convincing the schoolkids to help build a flying machine. Which basically involves strapping wings onto a bicycle that then dumps Alaine in the lake. "I can fly!" she yells in unconvincing triumph. Interestingly for all the film's failings the acting is consistently solid all round, from the entertainingly eccentric western character actor Jack Elam to Dottie West and a spirited turn from Carol Bagdasarian, daughter of Alvin and the Chipmunks creator Ross Bagdasarian and current custodian of the franchise. There are surprise guest star turns from noted mid-western exploitation auteur Charles B. Pierce, director of among others the original The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), and Little Rascals star George 'Spanky' McFarland making his return to the screen forty years after his last picture. He plays the Texan governor who dispatches the aforementioned Texas Ranger to investigate the alien 'menace', leading to a bizarrely downbeat finale that comes completely out of left-field. Sadly, while made with only the best intentions, The Aurora Encounter spins an already slight story into an interminable bore.