On 6 April, 1966, a UFO appeared in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton South. The saucer-shaped craft caused a stir among students of Westall High School who watched it fly overhead then land behind a nearby clump of trees. Shortly afterwards it ascended again at high speed and disappeared. Channel Nine sent a team to interview the students and file a story, but very little made it to TV or the newspapers. According to the Netflix series, Top Secret UFO Projects Declassified, it was a standard cover-up, engineered by American secret agents whose job it was to suppress all news of extra-terrestial contact.
This may sound like a bad science fiction movie rather than a sober investigation but it’s representative of this six-part documentary series put together by Petr Vachler and a bunch of fellow Czechs.
It’s unfortunate Vachler decided to present this material not in the manner of a BBC Panorama program, but like a badly-made filler from the History Channel. You know the style: a newsreader voiceover asking blockbuster questions; stock footage taken from newsreels and old sci-fi used as an ambient backdrop to ‘expert’ commentary; lots of eerie music, (cf. X-Files, Twilight Zone, Dr. Who…); each segment introduced with a title typed directly onto the screen, Bam! Bam!; awkward, lumpen animation sequences, and so on.
Someone made a marketing decision that the best way of attracting a popular audience was to take the tabloid route. It may appeal to people who believe the Clintons are running a pedophile ring out of a Washington DC pizza parlour, but those who tune in with an open mind are likely to emerge as hardened sceptics.
After binge-watching six episodes over two nights I’m still trying to separate the gold from the manure. The sheer quantity of remarkable stories and inexplicable occurrences should be enough to convince anybody that UFOs are neither a hoax nor a hallucination. We meet credible witnesses with first-hand accounts of alien encounters, and a select group of scientists willing to blow the whistle on the US government’s top secret programs. Most of the talking heads are ufologists with an encyclopaedic knowledge of their subject.
What’s missing is an intelligent filtering process that edits out the loons and charlatans. Instead the filmmakers lump everything together in one fruity bundle. For instance, it’s easy to believe the US government had a secret, ongoing UFO investigation called Project Blue Book, but hard to swallow George Adamski’s 1952 tale about meeting a visitor from Venus who arrived in a flying saucer that bore an uncanny resemblance to a surgical lamp.
The filmmakers fail to quote Adamski’s key observation: “His trousers were not like mine.” Neither do they mention that in 1962 Adamski announced he’d soon be attending an interplanetary conference on Saturn.
The pattern is repeated when one looks up the whistleblower, Bob Lazar, who claims to have been employed in a top secret US government facility which sought to reverse-engineer nine captured UFOs. Not only is there no record of Lazar ever being a government employee, even his university degrees appear to be fictional. And what are we to make of Emery Smith, who says he carried out alien autopsies for the government? All these characters are minor celebrities in the world of conspiracy theorists – a world in which no proof whatsoever means a cloak of secrecy has been thrown over the truth.
Some ufologists such as Stephen Bassett and Richard Dolan come across as rational and persuasive, but nobody seems to have told Desiree and J.J.Hurtak that the sixties are over.
Among the strangest stories are the UFO visitations to Pisco in Peru, where the mayor complains that the aliens keep sucking up the water in his lake. Then there’s the gigantic “jellyfish” UFO that appeared in the sky over the Russian town of Petrozavodsk in 1977. Or the night of November 28, 1987, when the sky was “flooded with UFOs” over Dalnegorsk, on the Russian west coast. In 1982 the crew of a Soviet missile depot in Usovo in the Ukraine, allegedly watched in horror as a UFO took over their controls, lined up a row of nuclear warheads ready for launch, then put them back in the shed. “It was a message,” they say.
We discover there are many different species of alien, although they all have a head, a torso, two arms and two legs. To keep things simple the filmmakers prefer the tried & true version, with a bulbous cranium, big eyes, a skinny body, tapering fingers, and no trousers at all. It’s the template alien supposedly recovered from the ‘Roswell incident’ of 1947, when a flying saucer is said to have crashed in New Mexico.
The barrage of (dubious) information is by turns engrossing and tedious. The strangest, most titillating stories are offset by monotonous reiterations of a few recent developments that provide a foundation for the series. The filmmakers are especially excited by the To the Stars Academy of Arts & Sciences, founded by Tom De Longe, former singer for the pop group, Blink-182, along with a star-studded cast of scientists, businessmen and former bureaucrats.
The Academy is dedicated to investigating UFOs and conveying the truth to the public. It was launched in October 2017, with a press conference that revealed the existence of a secret government entity for the study of UFOs that was wound up in 2012. They also screened two declassified navy videos from 2004 in which jet fighters from the nuclear aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, pursue a fleet of mysterious aircraft that resemble giant Tic Tacs.
This series makes a big deal of the Academy’s presentation, which supposedly seals the case for the existence of alien life. Cranking up the suspense, the filmmakers predict that any day now the US government is going to make a momentous announcement and the world will change forever. Tom De Longe must be hoping that announcement arrives quickly, as his Academy has been labouring under a multi-million deficit because of a crowd funding effort that didn’t keep pace with expenses.
The jury is still out on the To the Stars Academy but Vachler and his pals come across as true believers in the entire UFO phenomenon. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the personal story that unfolds in the final episode, when the director, who looks like he should be fronting his own prog rock group, tells us about 15 Czechs out for a stroll in the Šumova Mountains who come across a herd of cows studying a diamond-shaped UFO. By this stage we’ve seen so many UFOs the encounter seems pretty routine, but it leads to some lofty, cosmic reflections on how beings from outer space are going to save us from ourselves.
It would indeed be nice to believe that a benevolent race of bug-eyed aliens who have been watching for milennia, are about to supply us with new forms of superfast transport, new healing technologies, clean energy sources and ways of repairing the ravages of climate change. If ever we needed these things, it’s now. So what are they waiting for?
Top Secret UFO Projects Declassified
Directed by Vojtech Filcev & Petr Vachler
Written by Jan Stehlík & Petr Vachler
Starring Stephen Bassett, Richard Dolan, Nick Pope, Kathleen Marden, George Knapp, Travis Walton, Terry Lovelace, Robert Fleischer, James Fox, Michael Salla, Mary Rodwell
USA, rated PG, 6 episodes of approx. 45 mins each
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 21 August, 2021