Film Review: Calling All Earthlings

A low-key hangout with real-life kooks.
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Out in the Mojave Desert, near Joshua Tree, sits Landers, California, whose claim to fame used to be a very big rock. Giant Rock, that is, a seven-story heap big enough to build some kind of home under. In the 1950s, an aircraft mechanic named George Van Tassel did just that, running a subterranean café and spreading stories about encounters he claimed to have had with UFOs. Van Tassel died in 1978, but his eccentric beliefs live on with the denizens of Calling All Earthlings, Jonathan Berman's easygoing, mildly amusing look at their efforts to continue his life's work. Though Berman doesn't make the most of this environment (one imagines what the Vernon, Florida-era Errol Morris would've elicited from Landers' varied populace) or really manage to deliver a definitive portrait of Van Tassel, the nonjudgmental pic should play well on small screens to those who want to believe in its "cosmic wisdom."

Van Tassel's most lasting creation is the large, rather lovely "Integratron," an all-white cupola built to generate electrostatic energy. Pairing Nikola Tesla's ideas with his own allegedly alien-informed speculation about what such energy might do, he believed the Integratron's massive spark gap (that sizzling lightning-bolt cluster familiar from old sci-fi films) would function as a fountain of youth, a time machine, maybe even an anti-gravity machine. But he died just as the machine was almost ready to test, and in the following years vandals stripped its valuable metals out for resale.

Now, three sisters and a few other enthusiasts see themselves as "stewards" of the building, holding New Agey events for tourists and using the dome's acoustic qualities for "sound bath" concerts on quartz bowls. (All mockery of ufologists aside, those concerts might be worth the drive.) One carrier of the torch, Bob Benson, has built a small working model of the Integratron, and plans to test it on a mouse or other expendable critter. One wonders how a documentarian could pass up the chance to record such an experiment for posterity; perhaps the model still isn't ready.

Berman meets characters worth listening to here: Van Tassel's grizzled old former son-in-law, whose name is Daniel Boone; spirit-healers and old hippies; 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 L.A. But there are too many of these kooks to cope with. As Berman sits with Art Kunkin, who founded the L.A. Free Press, we've barely finished admiring his flamboyant hair before he pulls out a glass jar he claims is an honest-to-goodness alchemy experiment. He thinks he's replicating "the magical apples of the Garden of Eden," and boy howdy, do we want to hear more about that. But the movie cuts away, back to talk of Van Tassel's mid-century fame as a proponent of "We're not alone" theories.

Berman's failure to fully explore his colorful cast would be forgivable if that main narrative were clearer. But Earthlings is rather scattered in both its portrait of Van Tassel as a man and its explanation of his cultural impact. Given that his "College of Universal Wisdom" and his annual Spacecraft Conventions drew many thousands of believers at their peak, he would seem to be deserving of historical attention. Calling All Earthlings is just a soak-up-the-vibes appetizer.--The Hollywood Reporter

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