As any connoisseur of the genre knows, UFO documentaries are a very, very mixed bag. There are some great ones out there, but much of what’s available is poorly shot, thinly reported, and fairly embarrassing — so many rely on the same three or four video clips of something blurry shooting across the sky. The exception, for me, is the work of James Fox, a UFOlogist and filmmaker who is also, if I may, totally kind of hot.
Fox has produced a number of UFO documentaries, and yesterday marked the release of his latest: The Phenomenon, a comprehensive history of some of the best-known and most puzzling UFO incidents worldwide (though Fox predominantly focuses on the United States). The movie — which, not coincidentally, is the perfect length — includes interviews with a number of credible former U.S. government officials, including former senator Harry Reid and former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Intelligence Christopher Mellon. Also featured is Leslie Kean, author of my favorite UFO book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, and co-author of a number of the New York Times’ bombshell stories about the Pentagon’s secret UFO program, and Jacques Vallée, a former astronomer and computer scientist who is well regarded in the field of UFOlogy. In other words, Fox has assembled the UFO equivalent of an Ocean’s Eleven-style ensemble cast.
For me, the movie picked up steam about halfway in, when it gets to the Roswell incident and its ensuing cover-up. (Fox interviews two soldiers who say they were made to pose with a torn-up weather balloon for newspaper photos, both of whom insist that what they originally saw at the site was definitely not a weather balloon.) For people who’ve seen fewer UFO documentaries than me, however, the first half is likely to be a good primer. I sound like a music snob who is obsessed with B-sides, but that is how I feel. My point is that this film has something for everyone with any level of knowledge about UFO history.
Particularly effective is the movie’s segment on the 1994 Ariel school incident in Zimbabwe, in which 60-some elementary-school students reported seeing an alien figure alongside a saucer. Students’ descriptions of the figure — tall, with large eyes, wearing an all-black jumpsuit (chic) — were consistent, and several reported that the figure communicated with them telepathically. His main message, they said, was to take care of the environment. (!) This episode has been characterized by some as an instance of mass hysteria; in The Phenomenon, Fox interviews several of the Ariel school students, and they stand by what they saw 26 years ago. Because there is so little physical evidence of UFOs available to the public, eyewitness stories, in most cases, remain the most compelling evidence we have. For me, it’s enough.
If, on the other hand, you’re mainly hoping for footage of the hot James Fox, this movie may not be your best option. He’s here a few times, but shows up more in earlier work, like 2009’s I Know What I Saw (my fave), or 2002’s Out of the Blue. He also starred in a very bad show called UFO Hunters, which ended after one season, probably because it mimicked the Ghost Hunters approach of filming a “hot spot” in total darkness, which barely makes sense for ghosts, and produces even less interesting footage with UFOs, because you can’t count floor creaks and weird knocks as evidence. Fox himself was highly critical of the show, and yet, he didn’t let that momentary shame ruin his passion for UFOs. I think there is a lesson there for all of us.