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J.J. Abrams’ Mission to Expose the Truth About UFOs

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 8/8/2021 Nick Schager
Showtime © Provided by The Daily Beast Showtime

I wish I could say that UFO definitively proves that aliens are among us, but at least Showtime’s new four-part docuseries (produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot) does contend that it’s a possibility, given that we now have solid evidence of unidentified flying objects’ existence. Using as its foundation The New York Times’ 2017 article, “Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program,” this intriguing investigation into flying saucers and the possible extraterrestrials manning their controls is an attempt at legitimizing a field of study that’s long been ridiculed by the public at large, as well as mythologized by The X-Files, Hollywood blockbusters, and the innumerable conspiracy theorists that populate the web.

On the basis of its first two episodes (which were all that was available at the time of this review), UFO is only partly successful in that endeavor.

Premiering Aug. 8, this tantalizing non-fiction effort employs a familiar docuseries format, melding interviews with journalists and “experts,” archival photos, video clips, graphical diagrams, CGI recreations, TV news stories, newspaper headlines and declassified document text. In doing so, the series aims to portray its subject as no different than any other historical event or true-crime inquiry—a tack that’s most convincing when it sticks to the aforementioned New York Times exposé, which revealed to the public that the government does acknowledge that there have been genuine UFO sightings and that it’s looked into these events in the hopes of discovering the nature, origin, and purpose of the entities in question.

Written by Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean, that bombshell report explained that, between 2007 and 2012, thanks in large part to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and billionaire Robert Bigelow, the U.S. government covertly spent $22 million on the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), an operation whose sole purpose was to study UFOs. For the legions of Americans who believe in such things—whether because they’ve witnessed inexplicable crafts themselves, or simply find UFO claims credible—the article was validation of the highest order, coming straight from the “paper of record.” Keane and Blumenthal both participate in UFO, and their reasoned commentary about their own work, as well as the larger topic at hand, lends credence to the idea that the U.S. government is both aware of UFOs in our skies, and fascinated enough to expend considerable time and energy into figuring them out.

This new perspective on UFOs stems, in large part, from declassified government material, the most jaw-dropping of which is video from a 2004 encounter between Navy F/A-18F fighter jets off the Nimitz aircraft carrier (near the coast of San Diego) and a baffling tic tac-shaped white oval craft. Footage of that run-in makes clear that the object in question isn’t a weather phenomenon or test flare (two of the oldest and most popular official explanations for UFO sightings), and it’s hard to dismiss it as merely a fiction created by crackpot sci-fi enthusiasts. While UFO’s talking heads—including Las Vegas’ long-time UFO beat reporter George Knapp—confess that approximately 95 percent of reported UFOs can probably be explained in some rational fashion, it’s the other 5 percent that are of considerable interest, and it’s easy to see this Air Force video as falling into the latter category.

Replay Video

Showtime’s series contextualizes AATIP as the latest in a long line of U.S government investigations into UFOs, which began in 1947 and continued through the end of the 1960s via programs that included Project Blue Book. Unfortunately, UFO somewhat undercuts its persuasiveness by leaping backwards and forwards in time at random. There’s no discernible structure to each of its episodes, which provide a smorgasbord of history, current events, and old films of Americans narrating their close encounters to TV reporters. The effect of this jumbled format is to keep things beguiling and suspenseful at the expense of lucid, in-depth analysis. It makes one suspect that not everything presented here can hold up to intense scrutiny—or even a straightforward, point-by-point chronological rundown.

Still, there’s plenty to chew on in UFO, such as the “Phoenix Lights” incident of March 13, 1997, in which thousands of Arizonans saw—from approximately 7:30 pm to 10:30 pm, in different parts of the state—a geometric formation of lights hovering above the ground. Much speculation ensued, spurred by camcorder video of the event as well as by then-Governor Fife Symington, who admitted that he too had witnessed the lights, and who in a new interview describes what he saw as “otherworldly.” Symington’s eventual jokey press conference about the Phoenix Lights—replete with a colleague dressed in an alien costume—was consequently taken by many as an insult, and Phoenix City Councilwoman Frances Emma Barwood and her husband Michael Siavelis imply that Symington may have behaved in this manner due to government pressure (and in exchange for leniency regarding the fraud charges he was facing).

That notion invariably sounds like borderline-conspiratorial nonsense, and frustratingly, UFO doesn’t spend more time trying to authentically parse fact from fiction. Instead, it presents a collection of movies, photographs and conjecture in the hope that some of it will stick. That’s most notable during its second episode’s address of the Skinwalker Ranch, a Utah outpost notorious for its paranormal activity. Much is made about Bigelow’s interest in the property, and the series bolsters its spooky tales about the place through a chat with one of its former security guards. However, there’s no real effort put into verifying whether the place is “a haunted house with UFOs” (as Knapp describes it) or if it’s merely the sort of creepy rundown locale that people like to imagine is beset by the supernatural.

It’s too bad that UFO doesn’t expend greater energy striving to get to the bottom of its biggest mysteries, because much of its fresher evidence—aided by testimony from the likes of Kevin Day and Gary Voorhis, who were radar operators on the USS Princeton during the 2004 Nimitz sighting—is quite plausible. No matter where you fall along the UFO-believing spectrum, Showtime’s latest confirms that the truth is out there—even if it doesn’t completely know what it is just yet.

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