The question of unexplained phenomena and Unidentified Flying Objects have long fascinated the public, as the subject of feverish American news coverage in the years post-second world war and too many films and investigative documentaries to count, all landing on speculation without certainty. But the frenetic, oxygen-sucking rollercoaster of headlines in the Trump administration has overshadowed a cascade of strange evidence released by the government in recent years: in 2017, the New York Times revealed the existence of a shadowy, partly classified government program, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), which investigated UFO reports from deep within the Pentagon.
This is the grounding fact presented in The Phenomenon, a documentary from longtime UFO enthusiast James Fox which updates longstanding extraterrestrial theories with recent government regulations. Though the government said at the time that the program, which started in 2007 largely at the request of then Senate majority leader Harry Reid, was shuttered due to lack of funding in 2012, the New York Times later confirmed its continued existence as a renamed Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force, within the Office of Naval Intelligence.
The barrage of bureaucratic titles couched a startling revelation: for more than a decade, the Pentagon had conducted classified briefings for congressional committees, aerospace company executives and other government officials, based on sightings, video footage, and radar logs by military pilots of “unexplained aerial phenomena” which seemed to transcend existing flight technology – no visible engine at 30,000ft, hypersonic speed.
Numerous experts and astrophysicists have cautioned that just because an object is unidentified or unexplained doesn’t mean it’s extraterrestrial; some of the unexplained incidents could be attributed to bugs in display systems’ code, atmospheric effects, and neurological overload during high-speed flight as much if not more than extraterrestrial contact. But The Phenomenon, leaps from the confirmed existence of the government program to an earnest, at times breathless consideration of the existence of extraterrestrial encounters. “There’s clearly a preponderance of evidence from around the world that there are structured craft, physical craft, that are displaying flight characteristics that are so far beyond anything conventional,” Fox, who does not shy away from his belief in the otherworldly, told the Guardian of the military reports. “I’m absolutely convinced that these objects are real.”
The Phenomenon, narrated by actor and voiceover staple Peter Coyote (a veteran of numerous Ken Burns’ projects) speaks to such high-ranking government officials as Reid, who left the Senate in 2017, and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, as well as longtime UFO researcher Jacques Vallee, who inspired the character of Lacombe in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The film traces the relatively recent history of UFO fixation – the US military repeatedly investigated UFOs beginning in the late 1940s, as sightings of unidentified discs other incidents lit up mainstream news reports (Oregon farmers who photographed a supposed UFO in 1950 were featured in a LIFE magazine, for example). From 1947 until 1969, the air force investigated more than 12,000 UFO claims; though