Review by James Lindorf
Calling All Earthlings, a documentary film by Jonathan Berman, explores a mid-1900’s UFO cult led by George Van Tassel. Van Tassel, a once mogul of the aviation industry and Howard Hughes collaborator, claimed to learn the secrets of time travel and to rejuvenate the human body through an encounter with an alien being. Van Tassel combined the alien guidance with the writings of famed inventor and physicist, Nikola Tesla, to build an electromagnetic time machine he dubbed “The Integratron.” Was he insane or on the brink of the greatest discovery in history? Unfortunately, the world will never know. While building his following, Van Tassel drew the attention of the authorities. On the eve of activating his machine, he suffered a massive heart attack, possibly dooming us all. Calling All Earthlings will have special showings in New York, August 1-7, and will continue to book shows and festivals around the country.
Near Joshua Tree, out in the Mojave Desert, sits Landers, California, whose two claims to fame include the 7-story tall Giant Rock, and being UFO central, thanks to George Van Tassel, whose family once lived and worked under the giant boulder. Director Jonathan Berman provides a relaxed and mildly amusing look at the true believers who continue his life’s work 40 years after his death. His most faithful followers include three sisters and a few other enthusiasts who act as stewards for his most significant creation, the Integratron. In addition to the sisters is Bob Benson, who has built a small working model of the beautiful building and plans to test it on a mouse or similar animal. Less connected followers include a collection of healers, mediums, a tribal historian of the Morongo Indians (who believes his people came to Earth from another planet), and Eric Burdon, former singer of The Animals, who describes being pulled by a “magnetic force” to make his first visits to Landers from LA.
Berman’s major downfall was his failure to fully explore his colorful cast, an error that would be defensible if his main story was more focused. Instead of using his characters to tell an exciting and cohesive tale, he jumps around, leaving a character behind when they say something more interesting than the Van Tassel story. Calling all Earthlings is light on the details of who Van Tassel was, how he was going to achieve his goal and how genuinely impactful he was. At his peak, thousands of people would flock to Giant Rock to learn about his encounters and enjoy his wife’s cooking at the Come On Inn. With so much potential, it is clear that Berman and his crew never looked deeper than the surface of what was going on out in the desert. There were also several dramatized interactions between a concerned citizen and an F.B.I. agent that I found very intriguing and actually wish was the main plot thread of the film.
I will commend Berman on telling his story honestly and kindly. Instead of treating his interviewees as kooks, they are shown as passionate, intelligent and earnest. He allowed them to tell their stories and share their beliefs without judgment. Calling All Earthlings fared better than the Integraton, in that at least it was finished. But much like the great machine, I am left wondering, what if? You can track the spread of the film here, or maybe one day you can catch it after an episode of Ancient Aliens.
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