If there wasn’t so much devastation distracting this planet, maybe it would be much more common knowledge that the Pentagon released three declassified videos revealing “unidentified aerial phenomena,” or UFOs, in the spring of this year. As in, actual proof of alien aircraft. Clips captured in November 2004 and January 2015 proved that something was out there—something, certainly enough to freak out unsuspecting Navy pilots who weren’t anticipating what appear to me to be strange aerial phenomena in their flight path. It was only in 2017 that the Department of Defense shared its $22 million Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification program dedicated to locating and identifying UFOs in the first place, and that feels like a millennia ago. Area 51 enthusiasts aside, public interest has wandered away from the great expanse above to the hell here at home.
Distractions can be therapeutic and asking questions about the unknown an exercise in critical thinking. The Netflix documentary short John Was Trying to Contact Aliens makes that case in a surprising and evocative way: the roughly 16-minute film brings one man’s fruitless obsession with communing with aliens down to Earth. It follows an older man named John Shepherd from Northern Michigan, who spent 30 years broadcasting “cultural or creative music”—his words—millions of miles into space, like a radio DJ for E.T. Shepherd exclusively used equipment he built in his grandparents’ home, including a fully functioning radio tower, and dedicated all of his time and resources to the project, before running out of funds and abandoning it altogether. I was fully prepared for the short to devastate me, to act as an accidental analogy for our hopeless world where change feels as hard to realize as an eccentric, self-taught engineer blasting Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Harmonia, reggae, Afrobeat, and Gamelan music into the abyss—or a deep rumination on a human obsession with the inconceivable. But it was neither. John Was Trying to Contact Aliens is a romance.
John is introduced as a loner whose passion makes him isolate—he frequently describes himself as “different.” Early in the short, it’s revealed that John is gay and living in rural Michigan, where the people around him lack “understanding,” as he puts it. For the viewer, John is presented as a somber character who speaks in slow, poetic sentences. “Sometimes taking the course that I have in my life and the path is like a... maybe a lonely mountain road to some higher elevation peaks to see the view, to check out something most people don’t see,” he says, creating a particularly heartbreaking moment. “So you tend to go it alone more. You don’t have much company in this.” As opposed to your run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorist, John appears to be self-actualized: happy he had the chance to do something great, even if others might consider it a failure.
Mid-way through the short, John reveals he stopped broadcasting his music for aliens because he no longer could afford to, without making any contact. “Can’t say I found a lot of hard data that would be of great significance, necessarily, on the UFO front,” he says, but then shifts his message. “But as far as inspiration, creative ideas, it gave me the chance to do all of that and to share the results with people, with others. And it filled my life. It gave it something, meaning.” Soon after losing his greatest’s ambition, he met his partner, John Litrenta. At the risk of oversimplification, he finds another way to fill his life: “Contact has been made,” John utters the final phrase of the short, signifying that he may have never been looking for aliens at all, but for connection. His pursuit was his passion, and he found someone who appreciated his ardor. Sometimes, a good romance really is so simple, and here, it’s captured beautifully.
Still, there’s something distinctly somber below the surface. John strikes me as the type of person who may not exist soon: the small-town American plugging away at an impossible dream for the fun of it. It’s too expensive and doesn’t yield lucrative results. And yet, John is more than a hobbyist—he’s an aficionado with such a deep sense of focus, it’s envious. At no point does he seem to acknowledge his avocation as any sort of failure, even when touring his old metal contraptions that now lay dormant in storage. In fact, he looks at his vintage equipment proudly; he has had a happy life, a loving life. Surprisingly, it’s a life that required looking to aliens to find perspective.