Phoenix Lights. Tic Tac crafts. Robert Bigelow. AATIP.
If that collection of words and terminology means something to you, then Showtime’s four-part docuseries UFO is going to be of interest. Well-produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot and Glen Zipper, UFO is a serious exploration of where we are, in 2021, when it comes to being any closer to the truths around unidentified flying objects and extraterrestrial phenomena.
For hardcore enthusiasts of UFOlogy, the last decade in particular has churned out a plethora of fascinating docuseries, from History’s Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation to Discovery’s UFO Witness, along with documentaries like Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers (2018), all of which are hyper-focused on seriously dissecting seminal cases and first-person accounts for their legitimacy. Further, all of this recent output has been bolstered by the December 2017 New York Times exposé on the U.S. government’s secret UFO program that confirmed what both armchair researchers and professional journalists had already surmised.
Because of the deluge of information already out there (and freely available for a YouTube rabbit hole binge), UFO is in the unenviable position of having to work twice as hard to prove why it should exist. Does it try to cater to everyone with a UFO 101 approach, or to those in the know? Surprisingly, it manages to acquit itself well to both the noobs and those who keep up with daily UFO Reddit threads.
Hugely in its favor is that the series’ producers and directors, Mark Monroe (Icarus) and Paul Crowder (Riding Giants), approach the topic with the utmost respect and gravitas, and engage expert talking heads like journalists Leslie Keane and George Knapp, University of North Carolina research professor Diana Pasulka, former Arizona Governor Fife Symington, and The Black Vault founder John Greenewald, Jr. The docuseries is also up-to-date, featuring the January 2021 Congressional mandate to release a full UFO report by this summer in the opening episode. And by the end of Episode 2, the series even drops a whopper of a cliffhanger involving a well-respected former member of the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP), the secret Pentagon UFO study carried out from 2008 to 2012. Where the series goes with that revelation remains to be seen, as critics were only given two of the four episodes. But regardless, it’s a bold move that will get attention from even the most jaded UFOlogists.
The series is also presented in an engaging and cinematic way; the b-roll and talking head segments are shot in muted blues and browns, giving the whole endeavor a rather stark patina that feels stripped down and grounded. There’s no hyperbole or grandstanding from anyone, including the eyewitnesses collected to once again speak their truths. Instead, there’s mostly a vibe of exhausted certitude from just about everyone speaking, like they’ve been waiting for the zeitgeist to finally catch up with the reality that UFOs are fact; the right question of what might they be was what was lost in the discourse.
The series then makes the case for what, exactly, these things might be. Episode 1 lays out overall context, as experts explain how and why this field of study has been typically mocked and covered up—even when there have been undisputed mass sightings like the Phoenix Lights incident in 1997, or the more recent 2007 O’Hare incident, which was both witnessed by airport workers and documented via captured audio communications from the air traffic control tower. A pattern of government gaslighting is laid out, without hysteria; rather, the docuseries uses concrete evidence about why it was in the interest of the many to cover up incidents that public did not need to know for both basic and existential reasons.
Episode 2 stands out for the inclusion of journalist George Knapp, who has been on the UFO beat since the ‘80s. A Peabody and Edward R. Murrow Award winner, Knapp has the eternal aura of someone who’s just ambled out of the desert after sharing a pack of smokes with Carl Kolchak and a Roswell alien. His no bullshit, seen-it-all expertise grounds an episode focused on how the government instigated covert investigations, from the BAASS and NIDS programs in 1995, to Skinwalker Ranch, and how AATIP came to be. It then dramatically ends with the recently-released U.S. Navy videos, revealing training exercises that encountered UFOs and which have yet to be explained away. What’s heartbreaking though is hearing the very credible eyewitnesses within the military that know what they saw in their cockpits or radar stations, but who were gaslit in the overall cover-ups that left them without support all these years. Their stories humanize the personal outcomes that have been ignored in the bigger arguments about secrets and conspiracy theories.
Ultimately, UFO left me wanting to more of its smart and insightful investigations, and with two episodes yet to come, the docuseries makes a strong case for further exploration.
UFO premieres Sunday, August 8th on Showtime, with new episodes airing weekly.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.
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