‘The Phenomenon’ updates the UFO debate through new Pentagon disclosures


(CNN)The fascination with UFOs is hardly new, but revelations in the last few years have renewed interest in and speculation about the topic. Enter “The Phenomenon,” an earnest documentary most notable for the former officials that lend credence to the notion the government knows much more than it has shared, and that the truth, well, is out there.

The A-list names include former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has publicly advocated to declassify such information. In April, the Pentagon released videos of “unidentified aerial phenomena,” which included Navy pilots “reacting in awe” at how fast the objects moved.

Asked about the evidence that has been kept secret, Reid replies in an on-camera interview, “I’m saying most of it hasn’t seen the light of day.”

While in office, Reid pressed to fund something called Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, a Defense Dept. unit devoted to looking into such phenomena whose existence hadn’t been acknowledged prior to a 2017 report in the New York Times.

    Director James Fox — who produced his first UFO documentary in the 1990s, and more recently directed “I Know What I Saw” — has spent years probing UFOs, and goes back to reported incidents through the decades in various corners of the globe, including an Australian sighting in the 1960s and another witnessed by numerous Zimbabwe school kids in 1994. Brought together as adults, one of the witnesses says, “There was no reason for any of us to make that up.”

    The vintage footage also includes old interviews with the late astronaut Gordon Cooper, who experienced his own unexplained sighting while flying fighters in Germany in 1951; and former President Gerald Ford, who, while still a congressman, expressed his desire for greater transparency regarding the issue.

    Unfortunately, Fox somewhat muddies the waters by employing dramatic recreations and visual effects to illustrate certain witness accounts, which feels unnecessary, given the video and photographic evidence. When dealing with a topic such as this, the less embroidery the better.

    Narrated by Peter Coyote (a veteran of Ken Burns’ stately PBS documentaries), “The Phenomenon” provides plenty of examples of objects that moved in inexplicable, seemingly not-of-this-Earth ways, and offers insight from UFO researchers such as Jacques Vallee, who provided inspiration for the Lacombe character in Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

    That film, and countless others, reflect how the prospect of alien visitors remains alternately thrilling and terrifying as conjured through the prism of science fiction. If you’re intrigued by the topic at all — and who isn’t? — this documentary might be a little too breathless, but it usefully updates the conversation through the flurry of activity over the last few years.

      For all that, the unknowns still vastly outnumber what can be stated with any certainty, even after decades of watching the skies.

      “The Phenomenon” is available for digital download on Oct. 6.