Documentary Review: “The Phenomenon” revisits UFOdom’s Greatest Hits

Last year’s release by the Department of Defense of unidentified flying object footage and the seeming admission that there’s “something” to all these decades of sightings, photographs, filmings and conspiracy-mongering about UFOs, gave birth to “The Phenomenon.”

This is the perfect time, veteran UFOlogist/filmmaker James Fox (“I Know What I Saw” and “UFOs, 50 Years of Denial”) suggests, to revisit all the “events” that have become benchmarks in UFO believer circles, and consider them again after what The New York Times reported in the spring of 2019.

So here’s Roswell, McMinnville, Socorro, Australia to Zimbabwe, with Fox trotting us through a decade-by-decade, Project Blue Book to the secret Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.

It’s the “Greatest Hits” of UFO fandom, revisited because now we’ve all seen that footage shot by Navy pilots. Something tangible is “out there,” believe it or not, covered-up or not.

This is Fox’s slickest, highest production-value film outing. It’s narrated by Peter Coyote, veteran of many a PBS documentary. There are fresh interviews and excerpts from archival conversations with politicians, military officials, eyewitnesses and experts, some more credibly-credentialed than others.

The extant footage, ranging from grainy and ancient to the newer Navy footage — still not detailed enough for us to make out the actual shape of what we’re looking at — is folded in.

And there are recreations of incidents in New Mexico, Britain and elsewhere, most memorably the 1994 Zimbabwe sightings, which included an alien visit to Ariel School, to buttress the belief that visitors from other worlds are stopping by, scanning our nuclear reactors and missile installations, (in the US and Russia) and/or trying to warn us of ecological catastrophe.

But I have to say, the recycling of old evidence without having fresh “proof” doesn’t make it any more conclusive, no matter how compelling the witnesses. Fox is right that what we know now means that we can’t utterly shrug off the testimony of Patrolman Zamora in New Mexico, way back when, of those apparently still-traumatized school kids from Zimbabwe.

Still, hearing former Senator Harry Reid recall his efforts to dig into government secrets to find evidence of a Roswell coverup, of Australian kids visited and told to shut up about something they saw, and the like, doesn’t constitute “new” evidence and a spike-the-ball “Told you so” moment.

Following around the French computer scientist and UFOlogist Jacques Vallee, real-life model for the Francois Truffaut French UFO expert in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” doesn’t seal the deal, either. Yes, he’s fascinating, and he’s got reasons for believing what he does. Fox doesn’t let him get into that (“Paranormal” everything is his hobby.), which might undercut his authority or at least water down his message.

And the film’s alien “debris” analysis scenes with Vallee are laughably and intentionally vague.

That’s also why the phrase “Area 51” doesn’t turn up here. No sense reminding folks of the wild stories and pop culture myths that the credulous have sworn up and down was “proof” but which have been thoroughly debunked in scientific and journalistic circles in recent years. And no, “abductions” don’t come up, either.

Books and documentaries like “The Phenomenon” serve the purpose of keeping the subject alive, even as “momentum” towards a resolution of this fascinating scientific and societal question never seems to develop. “For seventy years,” as Coyote narrates, we’ve been hearing about this, looking at possible explanations, and pondering the oddly America-centric nature of the vast majority of sightings.

Even in an age where some 5 billion of us have cellphones, with cameras, in our possession at all time, filmmakers like Fox are still forced to recycle “Greatest Hits” which have either no footage, or something as inconclusive as Dude-in-a-Bigfoot-suit in quality. At least we’re not looking at cave paintings of flying saucers in this one. But someday, we might have to revisit those as well. Heaven knows the History* Channel will.

Movies like this don’t settle the UFO question, don’t automatically make cherry-picked incidents from this or that “saucer craze” from the past undeniable true stories and there’s no sense pretending the Department of Defense settled it for you when they didn’t.

Fox & Friends may very well get their end zone dance on this subject. But he has to know, as anybody with a lick of common sense does, that when “proof” comes out, true believers like him won’t be the ones to present it to the world.

And repeating past claims ad nauseam doesn’t get anybody any closer to the “UFOs are Flown by Aliens” end zone. That’s as tedious as it is credulous, and that’s “The Phenomenon” in a nutshell.

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Christopher Mellon, retired Senator Harry Reid, Gordon Cooper, Dr. Jacques Vallee, John Podesta, narrated by Peter Coyote.

Credits: Directed by James Fox. A 1091 release.

Running time: 1:40

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Documentary Review: “The Phenomenon” revisits UFOdom’s Greatest Hits

  1. Jack says:

    This is a narrow-minded and very flawed review. The movie was very well presented and it’s the most complete UFO movie to show somehow who’s been in complete denial or who is clueless on the matter like most people are. You obviously don’t know much about speed and velocity to understand that a human being would’ve been splattered on the windshield at those super speeds if it was one of our owns. There’s something about writing reviews that should come with actually researching and understanding what the heck you are talking about and criticizing in the first place. I hear from a number of people that this is one if not the best, most well documented documentary on the subject without entering in any conspiracy theories. Your “everyone has a cellphone nowadays” argument is probably the worst of all, most unintelligent thing you could have said in your review. The megapixels on the best iPhone at the moment is trash to aim, photograph and even more film anything this far. Try yourself zooming in on your phone to max and see how shitty the resolution and the focus become, then try to follow a small dot super far in the sky from your shaky perspective on the ground and tell me about it. It’s like trying to follow a small fly zipping around a dozen meters away with your phone with zoom to the max. Good luck with that. This is really a shameful review.

    • There are no “beings” in drones, for starters. Seriously limited, myopic thinking on your part. Your cell phone excuse is too laughable to address. Why is Fox recycling all these old claims? Not willing to ask that? You seem to fall on the “no lick of sense” side of the spectrum. Enjoy the Koolaid. I’m not ruling anything out, but this rehash/recreation settles nothing. >

  2. NHM says:

    It sounds like your starting point was skepticism, which left you unable to appreciate this excellent documentary’s many strengths. It’d be terrible if people skipped this because you, skeptical from the start, disdain it so much. “The Phenomenon” is highly informative and nicely put together, balanced, easy to understand, very convincing, and–this can’t be emphasized enough–SANE. This isn’t a film put together by kooks featuring kooks. On a more specific note, the debris analysis is NOT “laughably and intentionally vague”. It sounds like you just didn’t understand it, in which case, rewind and rewatch.

    • Skepticism is what smart people employ on extraordinary claims. The film suffers from sins of omission and repetition, cherry picking, and wildly uneven “experts.” The science is dubious. And again, ask yourself why he revisits the hits with “recreations,” because no new facts have emerged to bolster the original claims.

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