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 a 1952 study code-named Project Blue Book concluded that most of the sightings could be explained by stars, clouds, conventional aircraft or spy planes, 701 sightings remained unexplained.
The Phenomenon plumbs that unexplained terrain with years of first-person accounts, from an old interview with the late astronaut Gordon Cooper, who recalled his own brush with an unexplained object while flying fighters in Germany in 1951, to audio footage of former president Gerald Ford who, as a congressman from Michigan, desired greater transparency on UFO research. Fox combines vintage news interviews with children who reported sightings – in Zimbabwe in 1994, at an Australian school in the 1960s – with recent interviews of the subjects, who revisit their memories with a combination of bafflement, emotional clarity and confusion.
The renderings of these accounts can sometimes overshadow the trove of records unveiled in recent years by the Pentagon, including video footage released this year of military pilots wondering aloud “wow, what is that?” to “unidentified aerial phenomena” spotted by a plane’s camera in early 2015. (The Times spoke to five navy pilots about incidents with said phenomena off the coast of Virginia from 2014-2015, including a near-crash that triggered the filing of a safety incident report, though none of the pilots speculated on the objects’ provenance).
If some first-person accounts are to be believed – the Navy reports witnessing craft which required no wings for lift, exhibited flight beyond combustion technology, and the capability of hyper-change in speed with hairpin turns – the observations “make it very challenging to come up with any kind of prosaic explanation”, Christopher Mellon, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence under the Clinton and Bush administrations, told the Guardian.
Most UFO sightings “ultimately do have prosaic explanations”, Mellon said. “And there are other cases in which we may yet develop explanations having to do with the Russians or Chinese or atmospheric phenomenon or something. But after all that winnowing, there is still a significant number of cases that are very difficult to explain.”
The government program and its known records have rendered the question “do you believe in UFOs?” obsolete, according to the Times’ investigators – “their existence, or nonexistence, is not a matter of belief”. UFO means, simply, that we don’t know what these incidents are – not necessarily alien, but a matter of government record, as fact. “It’s not a question of belief, it’s not a question of whether this is happening,” said Mellon. “Our government and our defense department have publicly acknowledged that this is real and that this is happening.” The observations released by the military seem to suggest advanced military technology, enough to have concerned the Department of Defense – which announced a new taskforce into the matter this August – as well as the Office of Naval Intelligence and members of two Senate committees. “The challenge now is to figure out where they’re coming from, how they’re made, and what the intent is,” said Mellon.
Both Fox and Mellon acknowledged the difficulty in entertaining the idea of confirmed UFOs, and some of The Phenomenon’s more fantastical claims, without skepticism. Indeed, the idea suggested by the film that governments from the US to Russia to Australia have systematically suppressed coverage, research or speculation of UFO sightings seems dubious, if not outright dangerous, given the very real threats rampant conspiracy theories, which often invoke the military and/or space, pose to American democracy in the Trump era. Mellon agreed that “there is a problem with disinformation in this area, and unfortunately there’s a lot of junk and hoaxes as well as just information from people seeing something they’re not understanding, that has an explanation based in science or a classified program”.
But he noted that “all of the serious people involved in this issue want to take a hard-nosed scientific approach to this topic – we need more and better data” based on “trustworthy” and “authentic” reports released by government departments — “it’s information that the government is surfacing from our own military”.
The Phenomenon, like the many extraterrestrial documentaries before it, ultimately can’t stake a claim on certainty; instead, it concludes with a call for consideration. “I’m not screaming from the hilltops ‘ET is here!’” said Fox. “I’m just saying, ‘Hey, look, there’s a serious situation going on, and this demands not only government transparency, but further investigation.’”