A Short Take on Ryan Eslinger’s UFO

Most movies inspired by the UFO phenomenon have been and remain B-grade, generic science fiction or horror (not that such artefacts aren’t without their abyssal significance, either), but recently, at least in my media bubble, richer, more thoughtful films have appeared, among them some that have received publicity, such as Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and others, less celebrated, that have slipped under the radar, namely Jason Stone’s At First Light and Ryan Eslinger’s UFO, which is understated, smart, and dramatically complex.

[I’m writing about Eslinger’s film from the point of view of someone who’s viewed it, so, if you haven’t and don’t want the whole plot revealed, read no further!]

The film begins with a UFO sighting over Cincinnati airport, inspired by the famous O’Hare International Airport sighting of 7 November 2006, which catches the attention of the film’s protagonist Derek (who witnessed a UFO as a small boy) and an FBI agent Franklin Ahls, who seems a one-man UFO investigations desk with the entire agency’s resources at his beck and call.  The plot is driven, at the narrative level, by Derek’s (primarily mathematical) investigation into the sighting and the social fall-out of his actions and Ahls’ parallel investigation and suppression of the event, while, thematically, by the question (in its many senses) “Are we alone?”.

Despite the impression left by the trailer, the plot is much more cerebral than cloak-and-dagger, dealing for the most part with Dereck’s efforts to decode the message from the film’s titular UFO that he discovers in recordings of air traffic control communications during the sighting. One of the most delightful moments in this narrative arc is Dereck’s debunking of an official debunking of the sighting, which identifies the observed object as a small drone:  the audience witnesses the process, diagrams, numbers and all, by which Dereck calculates the approximate diameter of an object “about the size of a dime held at arm’s length” hovering at about two hundred feet below that day’s cloud ceiling. The plot doesn’t have so much a heart as a brain, one cracking itself over the complex mathematics of the numerical message sent by the UFO’s pilots, the solution to which ultimately involves considerations drawn from the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and physical constants of, e.g., hydrogen. This is a gambit as daring as satisfying, evoking as it does some of the real, hard problems of putative communications with a technically advanced, nonhuman species.

Mathematics and physics do not lend themselves to the run-of-the-mill UFO cover-up movie, frustrating viewers with an insatiable appetite for that same old same old. Eslinger’s script is both more daring and more complex than that, delving into Dereck’s character as a way into even more profound thematic depths. Derek’s obsessiveness and mathematical genius render him a bit of a sociopath, causing him to betray his friends and inspiring his wearily understanding mathematics professor Dr. Hendricks to compare him to Thomas Edison at his worst. By the end of the film, the attentive, reflective viewer will likely be struck by the manifold irony in Dereck’s wondering if “we are alone.” At least twice, through brief flashbacks, Dereck’s lonely, if not traumatic, boyhood is revealed: his mother refused to believe him when he told her that he had witnessed strange lights in the sky, and it is suggested he was the only child of a single parent whose lives were materially precarious. He is able to attend university only because his high intelligence secured him a prestigious scholarship, but his selfish single-mindedness alienates him from those around him. Little wonder someone so isolated should wonder about being alone in the universe.

But the real thematic pay off of the film comes at the end, which has mystified or disappointed some reviewers. Franklin Ahl’s investigation into this and other UFO sightings is driven by a growing anxiety about the fate of humanity. Invoking a certain strain of SETI speculation about different levels of technical civilization, at one point during a meeting with a panel of scientists, he wonders out loud if “the eerie silence” SETI has met with is not caused by all civilizations’ self-destructing as they approach the threshold ours is. If, however, the UFOs he is chasing are indeed spacecraft from distant civilizations, then these have solved the problems that threaten to snuff ours out and learning to communicate with them might win us access to this direly needed information. When Dereck does decode the aliens’ message, which reveals the location of their next appearance, he witnesses the UFO and is immediately taken into custody by Ahls. The agent reveals that the aliens have been communicating in this way for some time and in increasingly complex ways, presenting problems whose solution seems to be leading along a path of research and discovery that imaginably leads to that know-how that saved them from the self-destruction that threatens us. Ahls recruits Dereck, who learns that we “are not alone”, in the literal sense that the universe is indeed (perhaps) inhabited by other technological intelligences, but also, unconsciously, that he is not alone in his obsessions, that finally he has found a place in this world.

But such an emotional resolution would be cheap if larger stakes were not in play. The Fine Structure Constant plays an important role throughout the film, right from its very beginning. At one point, discussing the constant with two scientists, it is suggested that the constant may in fact be the same throughout space, but not time. That the constant might be variable proves important to possibly solving the much more complex communications received from the aliens, which, in turn, suggests, though this is never spoken by any character, that the aliens are not from a distant point in space, but in time, namely our own future. Dereck, then, is representative of today’s youth whose ingenuity is required to solve the questions that lead to solving the problems that threaten our future. But not only that:  that mathematicians make their breakthroughs only in their youth is a cliché invoked at least twice. However, when Dr. Hendricks gives him this spiel, he immediately contradicts her, supplying as many examples of older mathematicians who have made important contributions. Thus, the intelligence of all generations is presented as being up to the task of facing down the world-threatening problems that loom before us. None of us are “alone” in this world or what threatens it. Young, old(er), and even future generations have a stake in the game and a role to play.

Eslinger’s is a sly sleeper of a film because of how, like Villeneuve’s Arrival, it deploys the UFO as a material, weaving it together with emotional and social matters to address larger but no less related concerns. The result is, from this point of view, an original, refreshingly pleasant and emotionally satisfying movie. Within the larger context of the UFO phenomenon, however, it doesn’t quite escape one of the central and most compelling suppositions in the reception of the phenomenon, that our technical ingenuity, which got us into this perhaps suicidal mess, will be what gets us out. It does, nevertheless, leave one with a sense of hope.

Who Knows

Håkan Blomqvist at his UFO Archives blog asks a provocative question:  “How to introduce esotericism as a profound philosophy and tenable worldview to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?” Blomqvist poses his question from within an esotericism for which Contactees such as George Adamski play a central role, so the question is easily extended to the matter of UFOs and ufology in general:  “How to introduce UFOs as a legitimate object of research to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?”

On the one hand, esotericism and ufology are topics for serious, scholarly research, only as cultural or social phenomena. Moreover, from the point of view of religious studies scholars, the various beliefs about UFOs and their pilots and the communities that form around these beliefs are, methodologically, treated as tenable worldviews. That is, as I’ve argued elsewhere, scholars can take UFOs seriously as long as they bracket the question of their reality. On the other hand, there are those both within and without the natural scientific institutions who are driven or press to have the question of “UFO reality” taken seriously, either as a topic of research in its own right or as a political / social concern, as in the case of those working toward “Disclosure”.

Since the earliest days of the modern era of ufology inaugurated by Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting there have been investigators who probed the phenomenon with more than a journalist’s tools:  one thinks of Aimé Michel, Jacques Vallée, J. Allen Hynek, James McDonald, Stanton Friedman, Harley D. Rutledge, and Peter Sturrock, among others, and even professionally journalistic ufologists, most famously John Keel, have contributed. James McDonald is an important case in point:  his public interest in UFOs sullied his reputation as a senior physicist at the Institute for Atmospheric Physics and professor in the Department of Meteorology, University of Arizona, Tucson. Because of the stigma attached to the topic of UFOs, many natural scientists interested in the subject pursue their research sub rosa, constituting what J. Allen Hynek famously called “The Invisible College”.

Not all curious scientists are as tactful as their peers in the Invisible College, however. Some dare submit their theories and hypotheses to the scrutiny of their peers, as members of, e.g., the Society for Scientific Exploration do. There is, at the same time (usually related to the perceived amount of public interest in UFOs), a media phenomenon that shadows these more socially marginal efforts, purporting to present “findings” and “proof” while in fact being at best infotainment. The most recent iteration is To the Stars Academy’s limited series Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation, which promises, among other things, to

produce tangible evidence to build the most indisputable case for the existence and threat of UFOs ever assembled [and] reveal newly authenticated evidence and footage, interviews from eyewitnesses and former military personnel who have never spoken out before and extensive breakthroughs in understanding the technology behind these unknown phenomena in our skies.

Keith Basterfield at the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena blog sums up well the likely response of more conventional or institutionally-trained researchers: “While I, in general, support the work being undertaken by the TTSA [To The Stars Academy], the apparent direction for us to learn of the analysis results is hardly a scientific one—simply entertainment.” At the end of the day, the only scientific difference between History’s new series and the numberless YouTube videos of scientifiques bruts sharing their anti-gravity discoveries is production values.

But underlying these differing approaches to the question of UFO reality is a profound, social fault line revealed most recently by the advent of the internet but arguably reaching back at least to the Reformation.

A froth on the wave of political populism surging across the planet in recent years is a kind of epistemological populism afloat on the ocean of ready information, fake, partial, and otherwise available on-line. This “populist epistemology” expresses itself, most recently, in the voices of Flat Earthers and anti-vaxxers, who find arguments and data in support of their “theories” primarily online. Like believers in alternative cancer cures Big Pharma keeps from the general public to generate profits, these graduates of Google U often cast a paranoid glance at the institutions of power, political, legal, and scientific. Thus, ranked on one side are those “intellectual, cultural and scientific” elites Blomqvist remarks and on the other mostly ordinary folk empowered and emboldened by their sudden access to sources of information they uncritically marshal and seem hardly able to logically deploy.

Ufologically, this conflict between elites (government, military, and scientific institutions) and ordinary citizens is a cliché, a most famous instance of which is the Swamp Gas fiasco when J. Allen Hynek in the employ of the United States Air Force was forced to debunk a remarkable series of sightings in Ann Arbor, Michigan, much to the understandable surprise, disappointment, and disgust of the many witnesses. The haughtiness of such elites goes back to those French scientists who dismissed peasants’ stories of stones falling from the skies (meteorites) up to Stephen Hawking’s statement (@5:00 in his Ted talk on YouTube) that he discounted “reports of UFOs” because the phenomena appeared “only to cranks and weirdos?” Hawking is, of course, mistaken about the social status of UFO witnesses, which famously includes everyone from US Presidents to shipyard workers with the unfortunate surname Hickson.

Thus, throughout the history of UFOs, and forteana in general, one can discern a kind of class struggle between the more-or-less uneducated general populace, whose members see ghosts or are abducted by aliens or faery folk, etc., and those authoritative institutions peopled by educated elites, governmental, scientific, or ecclesiastical, which dismiss the claims and stories of the uninformed and credulous. This conflict, though traceable at least back to the Roman elites’ dismissal of the new, barbaric cult their bored wives indulged, is imaginably not unrelated to more historically-recent developments, namely the Reformation, where the interpretation of the Bible was wrested from the monopoly of a learned priesthood and radically democratized.

Conflict over the reality of the UFO in general, then, is a site of more general social struggle whose deeper historical context is, first, the Reformation, which gave each believer warrant to interpret scripture individually, then the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, that replaced the authority of the church(es) with that of Reason and its new, elite representatives. Today’s vulgate, driven, perhaps, by a well-founded frustration with the impotence of its universal franchise (given a vote but no choice) and the illusion of its freedom (merely to consume), extends its otherwise unrealized democratic claim to the purely ideal realms of truth and knowledge, where the vehemence of its voice and convictions is enough to disperse what verbal tear gas or deflect what truncheons of argument might be deployed by the tribunal of reason to police it.






Skunkworks on “The ‘X’ Zone”

Rob McConnell has been kind enough to invite me to speak with him on “The ‘X’ Zone”.

We’ll be riding my ufological hobby horses on “The ‘X’ Zone” radio show Monday 8 April 20h00-21h00 EST, and again on “The ‘X’ Zone” TV Show Tuesday 9 April 11h00 EST. That, at least, is the plan.

Once the shows are recorded and uploaded, I’ll link them here at Skunkworks.

Now, where can a man get a set of digital earphones like Orson’s sporting?…

Skunkworks on Kevin Randle’s “A Different Perspective”

I had the honour and pleasure to be a guest on Kevin Randle’s podcast “A Different Perspective”.

We discussed all the things wrong with History’s Project Blue Book, the uncanny parallels between the Phantom Airship flap of 1896/7 and the post-1947 modern era, all that’s spontaneously literary about the history of UFOs, and the enduring, “hard kernel” of the mystery.

You can hear it all here.

Ufology’s Steadystate

Working randomly toward another review for Jung’s Ufological Bookshelf, I came across the following passage from Edward J. Ruppelt’s The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956):  the

“will to see” [UFOs] may have deeper roots, almost religious implications, for some people. Consciously or unconsciously, they want UFOs to be real and to come from outer space. These individuals, frightened perhaps by threats of atomic destruction, or less fears—who knows what—act as if nothing that men can do can save the earth. Instead, they seek salvation from outer space, on the forlorn premise that flying saucer men, by their very existence, are wiser and more advanced than we. Such people may reason that race of men capable of interplanetary travel have lived well into, or through, an atomic age. They have survived and they can tell us the secret of their survival. (17)

Here, in a nutshell (as it were) Ruppelt plainly states many of the assumptions that guide beliefs about UFOs and extraterrestrials to this very day.

D. W. Pasulka’s recent American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology (2019) owes much of the splash it has made to her treating the fascination for the advanced technology the UFO-as-extraterrestrial-spacecraft represents as a religious phenomenon, yet, here, Ruppelt lays bare the “almost religious implications” the idea has. (And he is hardly the last:  Festinger et al. published their classic study of a flying saucer cult When Prophecy Fails the same year as Ruppelt’s no-less-classic Report, Jung published the first, German edition of his Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies in 1958, and anthologies of articles exploring the religious dimension of UFOs and contact with their pilots have appeared since (e.g., The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds (ed. James R. Lewis, 1995), UFO Religions (ed. Christopher Partridge, 2003), and Alien Worlds:  Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact (ed. Diana G. Tumminia, 2007)).

A famous (or infamous) intersection of American esoteric religious tendencies, the flying saucer, and anxiety over “threats of atomic destruction” are the Space Brothers of the Contactees. But Ruppelt’s point seems more complex. The Space Brothers, “wiser and more advanced than we”, land to warn us of the unknown dangers of atomic energy and weapons, yes. But, it is “by their very existence” that they “are wiser and more advanced than we” are. Here, he articulates a too-often unspoken assumption that “social and technical advancement” go hand in hand, a questionable thesis, as I’ve argued.

Even if we disentangle wisdom from technical ingenuity, Ruppelt observes a further belief, used today to justify the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and hopes that Disclosure will liberate world changing technologies, namely that “that race of men capable of interplanetary travel have lived well into, or through, an atomic age. They have survived and they can tell us the secret of their survival.” SETI researchers, like all who believe UFOs are extraterrestrial spaceships, project that trajectory of historical accidents that lead to the “advanced societies” of the earth onto the evolutionary vector of all life in the universe, as if all life universally follows a path from simplicity to complexity to human-like intelligence that as it grows in complexity necessarily develops a technology whose own development is always the same. That the hubristic anthropocentrism of this assumption persists unnoticed and unquestioned among so many of both casual and more dedicated or serious believers in extraterrestrial intelligence never ceases to appall me.

More gravely is how the UFO believers Ruppelt describes “act as if nothing that men can do can save the earth”, a sentiment echoed by German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s words twenty years after Ruppelt’s  (quoted by Pasulka to end her book):  “Only a god can save us.” Not twenty years after Heidegger’s words were finally published, Jacques Vallée in the Conclusion to his Revelations (1991) remarks the same situation and despairing response:

…Technology offers us some breakthroughs the best scientists of thirty years ago could not imagine. Better health, plentiful leisure, longer life, more varied pleasures are beckoning.

Yet the hopeful vistas come with a darker, more disquieting side. There is more danger, crime, environmental damage, misery, and hunger around us than ever before. It will take a superhuman effort to reconcile the glittering promises of technology with the utterly disheartening dilemma, the wretched reality, of human despair.

But wait! Perhaps there is such a superhuman agency, a magical and easy solution to our problems:  those unidentified flying objects that people have glimpsed in increasing numbers since World War II may be ready to help…. (254)

The ironies of this despair are manifold. On the one hand, it is believed that technology alone can solve the problems its development has led to. On the other hand, these technological answers are not forthcoming from our technology. In either case, as Vallée worries, the desperate and credulous are subject to being manipulated by their belief that “only a god [or “that race of men capable of interplanetary travel”] can save us.”

What should be no less concerning for those interested in such matters is how these ideas Ruppelt describes over six decades ago persist in governing if not grounding what we imagine and think UFOs—and, more importantly, ourselves—to be.


“Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth”

I’ve argued often here that imagining advanced extraterrestrial civilizations is a mere projection of one more or less accidental cultural formation of one species on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world of homo sapiens.

Now, James Tour, a synthetic chemist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, publishes an open letter making a case he summarizes as follows:

We synthetic chemists should state the obvious. The appearance of life on earth is a mystery. We are nowhere near solving this problem. The proposals offered thus far to explain life’s origin make no scientific sense.

Beyond our planet, all the others that have been probed are lifeless, a result in accord with our chemical expectations. The laws of physics and chemistry’s Periodic Table are universal, suggesting that life based upon amino acids, nucleotides, saccharides and lipids is an anomaly. Life should not exist anywhere in our universe. Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth.

Tour’s argument touches on not only exobiology, but SETI, and so, by extension, ufology and the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH), let alone the Neodarwinist consensus. Our inability to reasonably and confidently posit how life arises from nonliving matter on earth surely alters at the very least airy speculations involving the Drake Equation and Fermi’s Paradox, let alone the persuasiveness of the ETH.

Of course, it doesn’t follow that just because we can’t formulate exactly how life arose on earth that it hasn’t occurred elsewhere under different conditions or in different forms, which would be merely another tenuous generalization from our own situation and current state of our knowledge. Nonetheless, Tour’s argument surely reveals the ignorance and hubris that underwrites the widespread belief in the ETH (let alone Disclosure (to say nothing, here, of Neodarwinism)), exposing, in turn, how it is rooted not so much in science or reason but in ideology, psychology, and imagination.

Most pointedly, Tour’s article might serve to sensitize us to the mind-boggling singularity, precarity, and preciousness of life—all life—already existing here, on earth, moving us to attend to it and its preservation, such biophilia having always been at work in its own surreal, dialectical way in our rumours about the UFOs and their pilots and, indeed, in the messages they have communicated to us.