Calling All Earthlings (2018)

Directed by Jonathan Berman

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Calling All Earthlings describes the work of George Van Tassel, who tried to build a time machine in the desert near Joshua Tree.  That in itself seems pretty interesting, particularly as we know (I think?) that his machine never quite worked as intended.  Still, the documentary seems to miss the mark by jumping around between too many characters and ideas.

This documentary is at first an apparent deep dive into a particular moment in history.  We learn about Van Tassel and the dome he has constructed as well as the FBI’s suspicion of him, particularly during the fear mongering days of the Cold War.  Such initial intrigue, however, quickly dissipates, and the story instead focuses on other people, mystics among them, who claim to have seen UFOs as Van Tassel claimed (from what I recall).

In this way the documentary starts to cover similar territory as an old Errol Morris film, like Gates of Heaven or Vernon, Florida.  These types of films were concerned less with story and more with individuals, how they spoke, what they spoke about, etc.  We’re not meant to take anything they say all that seriously and certainly not as fact.  They are instead fascinating figures, each burrowed somewhere into their own world.  We learn so much about them by what they care to talk about and how they go about discussing it.

I doubt anyone watching this is really going to believe these people when they say they saw a UFO or that someone they know saw a UFO.  We regard them suspiciously, but if you’re like me you enjoyed their own fascination with the topic.  They’re of a certain mindset to indulge in such lunacy, and the documentary’s focus then seems to be on the willingness of a certain part of the population to believe in what most would scoff at.

We spend time with mystics, spiritual groups and those who meditate in Van Tassel’s dome because of the way it is constructed to align with certain vibrations in the Earth.  That idea right there, that the dome originally constructed to act as some kind of Back to the Future device is now used to hold meditation and yoga classes, is fascinating.  Or I find it fascinating.

It’s not that such present day acts are so far off the beaten path, but there’s something compelling about people who journey out of their way to visit a sort of Mecca.  There’s implied passion, maybe even obsession, in such a mode of thinking, and Calling All Earthlings would seem to be about that, about the single-minded determination of someone actively going against the grain.

The documentary, however, doesn’t seem to follow a single path.  It’s one part Netflix true crime documentary (at least in tone), one part anthropological character study and three parts History Channel tv, a loose narrative tied together by a few narrators whose words we’re supposed to trust when, I think, we shouldn’t think to trust anything anyone says.

The most fascinating part of the documentary, to me, is the reasons why anyone cares about this or thinks they’ve seen a UFO when other people offer pretty good counterpoints to those who claim to have seen one.  This portion of the movie, however, is glossed over, brought up and then left behind.  There are fascinating figures and ideas thrown around here, but it all feels like a shallow pond rather than a deep well.

Up Next: Vision Quest (1985), Il Bidone (1955), With Honors (1994)

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