J.J. Abrams-Produced ‘UFO’ Takes a Dive Into the Rabbit Hole of UFO Sightings

When the Pentagon admitted in 2017 about a government program meant to investigate unidentified aerial phenomenon, the subject of UFOs seemed to move from the fringes to the mainstream. That’s the starting point of “UFO,” a wide-ranging Showtime docuseries created and produced by J.J. Abrams, a director who has specialized in galactic entertainment. Put skepticism about the premise aside for a moment. Abrams and his team of directors have made an insightful four-part study of the whole UFO obsession ranging from cases to what it means culturally. It is easy to sense in the tone and editing that the filmmakers want to believe, but there is plenty of room left for doubt.

In December 2017, the New York Times published a report detailing how since 2012, $22 million had been put into a government project named the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. One of the prime movers behind the program was former Senate Majority Leader and Nevada senator Harry Reid. The idea of AATIP was to investigate sightings and reports of unidentified flying objects and assess their origin. In the public imagination and media coverage, this seemed to be the government admitting UFOs are real. Where the debate is still divisive and ongoing is on whether any of these sightings are of extraterrestrial origin. To discuss the article and its implications the docuseries interviews journalist Leslie Keane and NY Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal, who penned the piece. There are also some familiar faces from the UFOlogy underground, like Las Vegas investigator George Knapp and John Greenewald Jr., founder of the long-running archival website The Black Vault. Other experts or eyewitnesses discuss both the 2017 revelations and the wider history of UFOs, from older cases to the ongoing plethora of videos purporting to capture strange objects in the sky.

What is most impressive about “UFO” is how Abrams and directors Mark Monroe and Paul Crowder assemble a mountain of confusing information, speculation and cultural history into an engaging, coherent series that does stand apart from its predecessors. Also producing is Glen Zipper, who has helmed docuseries like “Challenger: The Final Flight.” As a subject, UFOs have mostly been relegated to the fringes of programming. In the ‘90s, when there was a particular craze for the subject, now forgotten shows like “Sightings” or “Paranormal Borderline” exemplified the purposefully eerie, late night style to how the subject was treated. Once in a while a network like Fox or NBC would run a special designed for ratings grabs, like the infamous “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?” or “Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us,” where Greenewald Jr. appears as a teenager launching The Black Vault. “UFO” avoids most of the clichés from previous docuseries. The music is intense but not “spacey,” there are no re-creations of alien abductions with actors in costumes, and it also avoids giving too much space to the wilder theories or claims. Abrams’s trademark lens flare effect gives sheen to the interview moments, but there are no extravagant CGI sequences. For alluring visuals the docuseries depends on a lot of actual amateur video footage of UFOs. Much of these clips are from recent sightings, shot on modern cell phones, including a rather spectacular piece of footage from Turkey that a skeptic has to conclude was made on someone’s computer. One fault of the docuseries’ approach is that none of this footage is probed or questioned. In this era of deep fakes and filters, faking a UFO should be a piece of cake.

Aside from the amateur clips, “UFO” does avoid preaching too much to its choir. It wants to have the tone of a serious piece, akin to the kind of true crime docuseries we get from HBO or Netflix. With the spirit of a sober investigation it presents the material in layers. First we get the revelation of the 2017 NY Times article before taking the time to revisit some well-known cases, such as the 1997 mass sighting in Arizona of lights over Phoenix forming a large, triangle shape. At the time it became a media spectacle with locals claiming the lights were part of some massive object swooping over the city. Were they aliens or a convenient way for then-governor Fife Symington to call press conferences on the matter to deflect attention from corruption charges? Then there’s the famous footage released in 2017 along with the Times report, of a strange object being tracked and intercepted by the Air Force during a 2004 naval exercise. The radar operator who witnessed the incident appears on camera as a rather haunted man, claiming his life was ruined when no one would believe what he and the pilots involved witnessed. 

Then, like a thriller, the plot thickens. “UFO” does an excellent job of capturing the wars of perception and belief at the heart of those with lives consumed by the phenomenon. Greenewald Jr. and other researchers explain how since the Cold War, the military was happy with the common citizen becoming obsessed with flying saucers, in order to distract enemies from the espionage and combat technologies being developed. The famous Roswell incident, which fuels belief that a UFO crashed in New Mexico in 1947, could very well have been balloons designed to spy on the USSR. Lasers used to block Soviet spy satellites, flare contraptions, U2 spy planes, the stealth bomber, all have probably contributed to multiple UFO sightings. Could the 2004 Navy footage have been the test of some new weapon? Hardcore believers like George Knapp insist there’s a cover-up going on of alien dimensions. The story about AATIP also becomes stranger as the docuseries dives deeper into its structure. The program was linked to billionaire and UFO obsessive Robert Bigelow, whose company, Bigelow Aerospace, received $22 million to do the investigation. Some of it sounds like something out of “The X-Files,” especially when participants recount research being done at Skinwalker Ranch, a Utah site famous for supposed paranormal activity. When Harry Reid looks giddy talking about it all, the cynic must wonder what our politicians are prioritizing up there in Capitol Hill.

One of the most fascinating angles “UFO” explores is what the obsession with aliens and sightings says about our culture and historical moment. University of North Carolina research professor Diana Pasulka, an expert on religion, links our obsession with alien abduction to a natural, classic desire to believe in something beyond the mundane and visible. Belief is quite powerful, a point made through the story of Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack, who decided to seriously document the testimonials of supposed abductees. His book “Abduction” rattled the Harvard establishment but he seemed to genuinely believe his subjects were convinced of their experiences. Yet the docuseries doesn’t shy away from hinting Mack might have also been lured by the potential to write a bestseller. Along with the believers there are skeptics in this series. A former head of the Mutual UFO Network laments how much of the UFOlogy world is crammed with “junk” in the form of false claims, not to mention the desire to make easy money. For every intriguing tale of a sighting there’s also a crackpot claiming aliens stole their sperm. Hovering over it all is a government probably happy that the population is distracted by pseudoscience.

Admirably enough as a docuseries, “UFO” doesn’t conclude convinced it has found the definitive answers. With this subject matter a serious piece of journalism just can’t. One reason this subject matter is so absorbing is because there are endless streams of fascinating pictures, video and claims, but we have yet to see any hard evidence. Until the aliens demolish the White House or land to make an official introduction, the “what if’s” will be argued over by the obsessed lives we get to meet in this docuseries. They are seeking answers for a question that keeps developing endless rabbit holes. It all boils down to the power of belief. “UFO” makes a few bold suggestions, but in the end allows the viewer to decide for themselves if the truth is out there. 

Four-part docuseries “UFO” premieres Aug. 8 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.