Wednesday, August 1, 2018

'Calling All Earthlings' (2018) Movie Review

Calling All Earthlings isn’t a great documentary. It’s messy and unfocused, threads show up and wander off willy nilly, and overall, it’s a jumble that lacks much oomph, narrative coherence, or discernible arc. It’s also bonkers weird, occasionally fascinating, and offers a unique look at a peculiar slice of wing-nut outsider Americana.

Jonathan Berman’s film revolves around George Van Tassel. An author, inventor, and Nikola Tesla devotee, he also worked for Howard Hughes, was an alien contactee, moved to a desolate plot of middle-of-nowhere desert to open a café under a giant rock, built an airstrip, constructed a weird sound dome, and died a mysterious death. His lasting legacy is the Integratron, the dome that took him 18 years to not-quite-finish, may be a time machine—or at least focuses sound to prolong human life—and was, he claimed, designed by aliens, or at least based on his encounters with their technology. Yeah, it’s a lot.

But with such a strange, beguiling figure at its center; with swirling conspiracy theories (if there is this technologically advanced species, why are they staying hidden only to be spied “like incompetent cat burglars” by famers in a remote corner of the empty desert?), sound baths,  and an array of colorful, unusual characters populating the film; Calling All Earthlings never digs into Van Tassel in any meaningful way. You get just as much information, maybe more, skimming his Wikipedia page. In fact, he and the Integratron disappear for wide swaths of the film. This leaves these elements largely unexplored and the viewer wondering what’s the point, or if there even is one.

With all of the crazy that the film purports to be about, and should be about, it’s most interesting as a portrait of the people who settled around Van Tassel’s café/airstrip and the defiant, eclectic culture that sprang up in the midst of nothing. The locals cut across a wide spectrum of folks who live a sparse, desolate existence in a sparse, desolate place. You have hardened, right-wing ranchers; alien contact enthusiasts and alien contact skeptics alike; hippies and new-age mystics of all stripes; paranoid outsiders; and a woman spinning a crystal, claiming she’s speaking to the spirit of George Van Tassel himself.

In this way, it reminds me of Roam Sweet Home, a documentary about underground Airstream culture. (A film also narrated from the point of view of a yappy little dog, btw.) Earthlings offers a glimpse at a deep-niche subculture—though it may be even too small to be a proper subculture—tucked away out of view. But even here, when it’s the most intriguing and engaging, Calling All Earthlings never truly explores or examines its subjects. You may be hard pressed not to roll your eyes at some of them, but it’s a rich tapestry of weirdos. It never spends enough time with any one person, any one idea, or any one topic to give a complete or satisfying picture.

Calling All Earthlings never quite decides what it is. Is it about George Van Tassel? The Integratron? Alien conspiracy theorists? Outsider weirdos? It’s really all of these and none of them. In the end, like many of its subjects, the film becomes an occasionally captivating, but ultimately scattered oddity. [Grade: C/C+]

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