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John Was Trying to Contact Aliens

Broadcasts from an Orphan Planet: “John Was Trying to Contact Aliens” (Review)

One of the most frustrating things about UFO literature is that they can only show you a tiny sliver of a story. You read about a particular case or encounter which might have happened years or decades ago, and after I close the pages and put the book back in the bookcase I inevitably wonder  —and what happened next?

Take for instance this photo included in Jacques Vallee’s Messengers of Deception (Available by Daily Grail Publishing) showing a most puzzling scene: on the left, a perfectly normal-looking  elderly couple quietly reading and knitting, and on the right a young man with long hair and beard, sitting in front of an impressive array of monitors and instruments that reach the ceiling of the wooden-paneled living room. What the hell is going on here between this hippie and what seems to be the most laid-back old folks in the world (Keith Richards notwithstanding)??

M o D has only this to say about the picture:

Near Bellaire, Michigan, John Shepherd has established this UFO-detecting station in his grandparents’ home. The contrast between the two lifestyles is striking as John checks his eight television monitors from the console of his center. His equipment includes radar, sonar, scanners, and homing devices which attempt to attract the “Aliens” he believes are studying the Earth.

Netflix’s new documentary “John Was Trying to Contact the Aliens” fills in the gaps of this fascinating story of that young hippy —now turned an old man like his grandparents in the photo— and his life obsession with trying to reach out through the void, to connect with whomever or whatever might be out there, in a frosty spot of rural America.

[Spoilers Ahead]

The short film (directed, filmed and edited by Matthew Killip) takes a sympathetic look at the life and journey of John Shepherd, an evident child prodigy who is possibly within the autism spectrum (in all the old photos and footage shown of him, first as a boy and later as a young man with long hair and bushy beard, he never smiles) who taught himself how to build highly-sophisticated equipment, with the sole purpose of transmitting signals to outer space in the hopes of attract any interplanetary interlopers that might be passing by, with his fine selection of electronic music and afro-pop tunes. 

It would have been very easy for Killip to exploit or make fun of John’s one-man attempt to establish communication with extraterrestrials, decades before Russian scientist Alexander Zaitsev coined the term METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence); the film in fact shows extracts from old TV shows when producers would stop by and interview John for their weird or colorful news segments. After all, Americans have always had a strange fascination with the stereotype of the lone inventor, tinkering away in some basement or garage with some ‘Great Scott!’ level idea, which might even come to revolutionize the world if it finds the right market niche.

Even to this day, when every human life in this world has been altered by the products of visionaries like Steve Jobs, or Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, we hear the news that Elon Musk has just implanted a chip on a pig and part of us shudder with the ominous implications, while others ponder on how our lives could change even further if this Neuralink thing takes hold. But how do you monetize broadcasting Bob Marley beyond Moon’s orbit, the way John Shepherd did for 30-40 years with his high-tension resonator and microwave arrays, until he ran out of funds for his ‘Project SRAT’ (Special Telemetry Research And Tracking)? Perhaps this is the reason he never became a household name like Thomas Edison, who knew very well that before investing time and money in the  out-there stuff (in his case, a phone to call the dead) you first need to patent for the right-now.

Yet this Netflix docu is not an exploitative fim and does away with kooky flying saucer footage, save a few de-rigueur scenes from some old Unarius society’s promo material —which I personally felt out of place, given how the Unarians claim contact with ETs through ‘esoteric’ means (e.g. channeling) whereas John always pursued his personal contact through strictly technical methods— and instead chooses to focus on the human side of the story: the harsh family situation John faced during the early years of his life (absent father and ‘alienated’ mother, which caused his grandparents to take him in and adopt him) coupled with the fact of being a bright boy growing up in rural Michigan where no one shared his passions (both scientific and intimate, as a gay man) begins to clear the picture on why this person chose this ‘lonely mountain road’ —to use his own analogy— to try and attain an understanding of the Cosmos that very few ever bother to reach.

In the end, this ‘searching for connection’ is ultimately a story of love: The unconditional, indulging love of John’s grandparents, and the love he fortunately found later in life with his partner —John never did talk to the aliens, yet Contact was established after all. Because some men don’t try to find a meaning in this life by landing a nice job, going to church every Sunday or being a Broncos fan; some men literally build their own meaning using miles of cables, discarded computers and Army electronic surplus. And that not only takes a lot of juice… but also a lot of love.

“John Was Trying to Contact Aliens” is a beautiful, highly recommended film in which I only find two main flaws: It is too short (only lasts 16 minutes) and it leaves unanswered the biggest question of all —just how did he manage to PAY for his electric bills?

NOTE: If you’re more interested in learning more about John Shepherd, you should give a listen to this interview made by our friend John E. L. Tenney.

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