Review: Netflix’s John Was Trying to Contact Aliens

“As far as inspiration, creative ideas, it gave me the chance to do all of that… it filled my life, it gave it something. Meaning.”

John Was Trying to Contact Aliens tells the story of, you guessed it, a man named John who tried to contact aliens. This 16-minute mini documentary does its best to cover John’s whole story, using a combination of present-day interviews, footage from interviews with a younger John of the ’70s, and an aesthetic that combines otherworldly techno music with visually stunning images of space.

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John Shepherd ran project S.T.R.A.T (Special Telemetry Research and Tracking) from his rural Michigan home for about thirty years, using his own money to build an addition to his grandparents’ house and stock it full of the necessary equipment for transmitting sound into space. Beyond building all of the equipment, he acted as DJ, talking up music specially selected for the most effective contact with “ETs.”

Eventually, John could no longer financially support the operation and he gave it up. Later on, he found love, miraculously finding a match for his extremely unique personality. As he put it, “contact has been made.”

Review

Quite appropriately for the subject matter, John Was Trying to Contact Aliens strikes an ethereal tone. Its techno-instrumental soundtrack avoids typical musical structure while achieving emotional resonance alongside the ups and downs of the narrative, and the story is visually interspersed with awe-inspiring images of space. The documentary’s content and editing skillfully create a sense of wonder, possibility, and excitement for the unknown that primes the viewer for total openness to John’s story.

John seems to be a gem of a person. He communicates thoughtfully and eloquently about his passion for contacting aliens. For him, the entire project is worthwhile, regardless of any hard data gathered, because of the endless feeling of possibility and excitement for that potential “moment of contact.”

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The documentary covers John’s back story: both his mother and father left when he was a baby. John speaks about the impact this had on his life and, again, his communication comes across as thoughtful, hopeful, and profound. Whether he’s talking about being abandoned by his parents, realizing that he is gay, or trying to talk to aliens, John is the kind of guy who can make the most unique or the most far-out experiences feel totally inspiring and universally relevant. His heart certainly makes the documentary worth watching.

Indeed, the only frustrating part of John Was Trying to Contact Aliens is its length. Everything included in the documentary is stimulating on multiple levels, but much of it deserves further exploration. For example, John shares that he transmits music to space because music, as an idea, is universal; however, he only uses non-commercial music, much of which is created by artists of color.

John is making a political statement here and the documentary could dive so much deeper into the subject: what is the significance of the fact that, in this man’s opinion, we can only connect with other worlds in the absence of capitalist interests and that that connection therefore relies on the work of artists of color? This fascinating train of thought goes sadly unexplored. 

The documentary also sweetly ends with John meeting his soul mate. The narrative seems to suggest that John was looking for connection the entire time and, having difficulty finding it as a gay teen in rural Michigan in the ’60s, he looked for it beyond our world. Once the world caught up to him a little bit, he was able to find it here. If this is the case the documentary wants to make, they should have made it a bit more strongly and spent a bit more time on it. If not, it’s a bit haphazard that the soul mate comes right after the project has to end. 

The Bottom Line

John Was Trying to Contact Aliens packs an incredible amount of heart and wonder into sixteen minutes. Touching on fascinating psychological, social, and political subjects, this documentary’s only flaw is that it does not spend more time exploring each fascinating aspect of John Shepherd’s story and its connection with our world.

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