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James Fox's UFO documentary The Phenomenon

Review: The Phenomenon

The Phenomenon has landed. Years in the making, James Fox’s epic UFO documentary elevates that once kookiest of subjects—flying saucers—from the bowels of conspiracy culture into the light of legitimacy and popular debate. It caused such a stir following its release on streaming services earlier this month that it prompted Fox News to put Donald Trump on the spot, with anchor Maria Bartiromo citing details from the documentary and asking the President: “Are there UFOs?” Trump’s answer was evasive and somewhat disturbing, implying that, if UFOs are real, America is more than equipped to emerge victorious from any future military conflict.

So, what sets The Phenomenon apart from previous UFO documentaries? In terms of content, not an awful lot. But it’s the clarity and sobriety with which that content is delivered by narrator Peter Coyote that makes this one hard to write off as mere sensationalism or wishful thinking. Fox grounds his historical, chronological narrative firmly in the facts, sticking for the most part to cases that remain unexplained after decades of fierce scrutiny—sometimes by the US government itself, despite its best efforts to explain them away as “swamp gas,” “temperature inversions” and the like. Even when dealing with the infamous Roswell Incident, Fox allows not so much as a whisper of the persistent rumour that non-human entities were captured, focusing instead only on the clearly established fact that something highly unusual crashed in the New Mexico desert in July of 1947 and was recovered by the US Air Force (which would farcically change its official story of the event several times over the ensuing decades).

The calibre of Fox’s talking heads is also notably higher than in the typical UFO fare. Rather than the questionable input of self-described “UFOlogists” (who are usually little more than hobbyists), the line-up here includes political heavyweights such as Senator Harry Reid, former Obama advisor John Podesta, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Christopher Mellon. Also featured are journalistic hard-hitters Leslie Kean and Ralph Blumenthal for the New York Times. Additionally, Fox makes compelling use of archival interviews with legendary astronauts like Gordon “The Right Stuff” Cooper and moonwalker Dr. Edgar Mitchell, as well as numerous highly respected scientists from various disciplines. All share a clear message: the UFO phenomenon is real, and seemingly representative of an intelligence far beyond that of 21st century Homo sapiens.

This apparent superior intelligence is evidenced in aerodynamic capabilities exhibited by the phenomenon that have repeatedly been captured on radar and witnessed directly by world-class military aviators going back seven decades. Such technologies would seem to exceed our own by hundreds if not thousands of years. The phenomenon has persistently toyed with humanity’s most sophisticated military hardware, effortlessly out-manoeuvring America’s most expensive fighter jets and shutting down nuclear weapons at some of the country’s most sensitive military installations. It may sound like science fiction, but Fox backs it all up with reams of official documentation and with vivid, on-camera testimony from the military witnesses themselves. Again, little of this information is new, but the intent and clarity of its delivery will pack a sledgehammer blow to those previously on the fence about a subject with implications simply too profound and troubling for most to even contemplate.

Fox takes us methodically through the decades, from the 1940s through to present day, where considerable attention is focused on the much publicized UFO revelations of 2017 when the New York Times brought to light the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program
(AATIP)—essentially a secret UFO study group that had recently been operating through the US Department of Defense at a cost to the taxpayer of some 20 million dollars. By this point we are in no doubt that the US government—or more accurately the US military-industrial-complex—continues to closely monitor the phenomenon and to regard it with grave concern. How could it not when top Navy pilots continue to report UFO incursions into military airspace; when craft of unknown origin continue to make a mockery of America’s cutting-edge war machines in cat-and-mouse aerial encounters (reconstructed in dramatic detail in the documentary); when all of this continues to be captured on radar; and when leading, government-affiliated scientists are now actively studying physical materials allegedly recovered from UFOs which they confidently claim could not have been manufactured by any nation on Earth? For those who are new to the weird world of UFOs, it’s enough to make one’s head spin; and yet, The Phenomenon barely scratches the surface of the UFO enigma.

Fox succeeds in what he set out to do, which clearly was to legitimize the subject beyond all reasonable doubt. But his film is narrow in scope, essentially reducing a multifaceted, philosophically challenging, global phenomenon to an American national security issue. Maybe that’s the best way to grab our attention. Still, in focusing so heavily on the defense implications of UFOs, Fox sidelines the human dimension. Beyond dusty government documents and ambiguous photographic evidence, the reality of the phenomenon is measurable most clearly in its effects on the human being—psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually.

The UFO experience—whatever it represents—is often a transformative one for the human witness, and historical accounts of inexplicable aerial wonders (or what we now term “UFOs”) have influenced human belief systems for millennia, shaping religion and culture worldwide. This sociological component of the UFO enigma was explored most recently in the book American Cosmic by Diana Walsh Pasulka, a Religious Studies professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Pasulka contends that the decline of traditional religiosity in Western culture and the thriving belief in UFOs and alien visitation in the 21st Century is creating fertile ground for the growth of a new belief system rooted in the promise of technological salvation by a higher intelligence—and the seeds have already been planted.

Sadly, Pasulka does not feature in The Phenomenon. Her approach to the subject is oblique, and perhaps therefore incompatible with the ultimate goal shared by most UFO researchers: “Disclosure”—that one heart-stopping moment in time when the powers that be finally and fully reveal everything they know about UFOs, or at least acknowledge that we are being visited by extraterrestrial entities.

But are we? The popular assumption among UFOlogists has always been that true UFOs are nuts-and-bolts extraterrestrial spacecraft, piloted by biological beings from elsewhere in our galaxy. However, while the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (“ETH”) is appealing for obvious reasons, it fails to account for many aspects of UFO phenomena reported by hundreds-of-thousands of witnesses worldwide. In many cases, the phenomenon seems to tailor its manifestations to the expectations of the individual perceiver, based on personal and cultural conditioning. Indeed, in many if not most reported close encounter cases, the UFO experience seems to be co-created by the observer and some unknown external stimulus that can tap into human consciousness and literally shape what we perceive in the moment. Extraterrestrial intelligences may well play some role in all of this, but it would be a mistake to consider ETs as a definitive solution to the UFO riddle.

The Phenomenon pays lip service to the ETH, contemplating the vastness of our universe and the ever increasing likelihood that we share it with other civilizational intelligences. Beyond this, however, Fox does not dwell on the question of what the phenomenon actually represents—what it actually might be—only that it most assuredly is. This is a wise approach, reflective not only of its director’s privately more nuanced understanding of the subject, but also that of its co-producer and chief advisor, Dr. Jacques Vallée. Along with the late Professor J. Allen Hynek (noted astronomer and chief scientific advisor to the Air Force’s Project Blue Book), Vallée is one of the foundational figures of ufology. A respected astronomer and computer scientist, Vallée helped NASA create its first detailed map of Mars, and his work as an engineer on ARPANET—the Advanced Research Projects Agency—helped lay the foundations for the Internet. He was the inspiration for the character of Claude Lacombe in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, immortalised in the performance of Francois Truffaut.

In the early years of his career, Vallée had championed the ETH. As time wore on, however, the maverick scientist began to re-examine his own perspective. In his groundbreaking 1969 book, Passport to Magonia, Vallée argued that the ETH was too simplistic to account for many aspects of UFO phenomena that seemed too bizarre to be merely extraterrestrial. Innumerable UFO reports from across the decades include characteristics that are hard to reconcile with the idea of mere alien visitation. UFO encounters have long been reported as occurring on astral levels and in conjunction with paranormal and even cryptozoological phenomena, from spectres to Sasquatch. Thus, Vallée laid out the interdimensional hypothesis (“IDH”), positing that the intelligences behind the UFO phenomenon exist beyond our current understanding of spacetime and can flit in and out of our reality at will, assuming a multitude of forms, from the faeries, goblins, and incubi of ages past, to the UFOs and aliens of modern times. Their interactions with us are representative of what Vallée speculates may be an age-old “control mechanism,” perhaps designed to test us, trick us, and to encourage us to question the nature of our own reality. Think along the lines of the godlike supra-intelligence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which periodically and subtly prods us across the expanse of time in an effort to raise the consciousness of humanity.

Vallée is a strong onscreen presence throughout The Phenomenon, so it’s disappointing that his own provocative theories are given little if any consideration. Disappointing, but perhaps not surprising. For many viewers, it will be hard enough to accept the idea that we are not alone on the universe, never mind the notion that we may have fundamentally misunderstood the very nature of our universe.

Most UFO researchers tend to ignore the so-called “high-strangeness” aspects of witness reports—and certainly they are ignored in this documentary—probably because if the phenomenon really is that weird and multifaceted, what hope have we of understanding it in our lifetime and of reaping the benefits of that understanding? If, on the other hand, it’s just biological beings from elsewhere, and if the powers that be really do have some of those beings in pickle jars at Area 51, then surely it’s only a matter of time before the truth outs and the UFO buffs can cry a collective “TOLD YOU SO!”

The reality is that full UFO disclosure is not something that the US government has ever seriously entertained, despite what die-hard UFO Truthers would have you believe. In fact, the evidence would suggest that the American government is still far from certain as to the underlying nature of the phenomenon, which isn’t to say that special interest groups in the corridors of power haven’t formulated their own theories on the matter. What is clear, however, is that America’s military-intelligence apparatus has spent considerable time and effort over the decades trying to manage how the public perceives the phenomenon—and not necessarily for the reasons you might expect. Historical UFO perception management campaigns have been well documented (see the work of authors Mark Pilkington and Greg Bishop, for example) and some of them demonstrably have related to psychological warfare campaigns against individuals and nations of concern, exploiting the potency of UFO belief in service of agendas entirely unrelated to UFOs.

I watched The Phenomenon with my wife, who near its end asked: “why is it all just old white men in suits?” To be fair, the documentary does feature a smattering of women and faces of colour, especially in the final and most dramatic case examined, which, almost as the credits roll, introduces some much-needed emotional content into Fox’s endeavor. But on the whole, my wife’s observation was valid, and it’s applicable to the UFO research field more broadly, which has always been something of an old (white) boys’ club (although the demographic is now very slowly beginning to diversify).

Indeed, there are old white men aplenty in Fox’s documentary, uttering stony-faced assertions about government documentation, physical trace evidence, and aerodynamic performance. At a glance, this kind of sums up The Phenomenon, but it doesn’t come close to summing up the actual phenomenon, which is ultimately about people. Humans. Us. Not politics, not secret study programs, not the US military machine. In this sense, there is still room for a truly profound documentary about UFOs. The Phenomenon may not be it, but certainly it kicks the door wide open for more thoughtful explorations of a subject that is now boldly and immovably in the arena of legitimate public debate.

The Phenomenon is available to rent digitally worldwide.

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