Before seeing Jonathan Berman's Calling All Earthlings, most people-myself included-will probably know little or nothing about its subject, which is the best thing it has going for it. Prior to seeing the film, I knew literally nothing of George Van Tassel, a midcentury airplane engineer, and the Integratron, the white-domed structure he constructed over many years in the middle of the Mojave desert 40 miles north of Palm Springs. Van Tassel, who at various points in his career worked for Douglas Aircraft, Lockheed, and, most infamously, Howard Hughes, claimed that, in 1953, he was visited by an alien from Venus (who looked like a man not a day over 28 and spoke perfect English) who imparted to him plans for the Integratron, which, once completed, would be able to defy the laws of physics and gravity, produce energy, enable time travel, and extend human life.
Interesting, right? Weirdly fascinating, yes? Then why isn't Calling All Earthlings a more interesting and engaging documentary? It certainly isn't for lack of effort-Berman, whose previous documentary, Commune (2005), covered a late-1960s alternative living commune in northern California, rounds up an impressive cast of interviewees, including several of Van Tassel's relatives, various scientists who run the gamut from outright skeptics to absolute believers, and the two women who bought the Integratron in 2000 and now run it as a kind of alternative desert oasis where open-minded tourists descend for meditation sessions and "sound baths," in which they revel in the acoustic immersion of sounds reverberating inside the Integraton's massive four-story central room.
A possible problem with the film is that it feels unfocused and scattershot. Granted, Berman's intended structure is to move back and forth through time, alternating between historical information about Van Tassel and the following he developed in the desert in the late 1950s and the current state of the Integratron, his grand achievement, as a desert oddity. There is some fascinating historical footage, particularly an interview that Van Tassel gave on Canadian television (KVOS's The Webster Reports) in 1964, in which he tells host Jack Webster some genuinely outlandish things with the look and tone of the world's most staid accountant, and footage of his Interplanetary Spacecraft Conventions, which drew thousands of UFO devotees to the middle of nowhere. The interviews are often illuminating, but they are also just as often repetitive, as is the footage. At some point, about two-thirds of the way through the film, we start wondering how many different ways they can film the Integratron and that is never a good sign.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Freestyle Digital Media
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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