'Calling All Earthlings' Explores UFO Cult's Integratron Time Machine

Calling All Earthlings pokes around the fringes of a fascinating story, starring a miniature society of UFO cultists, New Agers and desert eccentrics orbiting around an all-powerful device-turned-shrine: George Van Tassel's Integratron.

Built in the desert just outside California's Joshua Tree National Park, Van Tassel's Integratron is based on the Great Pyramid, the electrical science of Nikola Tesla and instructions Tassel received from an extraterrestrial named Solganda. The domed building was designed to generate electromagnetic fields and oscillate at frequencies Van Tassel claimed would make people younger, counteract gravity and provide free, unlimited energy. For congregates in Van Tassel's Ministry of Universal Wisdom, the Integratron was (and is) almost whatever they could imagine it to be, which may explain why Van Tassel was so reluctant to turn the machine on. Though Van Tassel completed primary construction on the Integratron in 1959, it wasn't readied for operation until 1978. But just weeks before Van Tassel and his wife were scheduled to enter the activated Integratron field, he was found dead of a heart attack in a hotel room.

The alien-designed Integratron in Landers, California. Entertainment Studios/Freestyle Digital Media

The early promise of a murder mystery never takes off, so Calling All Earthlings is better thought of as a laid back exploration of a strange community, similar to Errol Morris' first documentaries, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida. The bulk of the doc is interviews with "stewards" of the Integratron, original followers of Van Tassel and the mystics in their orbit, such as the woman who walked right out of an episode of Portlandia to insist director Jonathan Berman join her for a desert seance with Van Tassel.

It's all faintly ridiculous, but charming, like people talking about the afterlife right before last call. Where most conspiracy theories are labyrinthine and sinister, the Integratron project feels like the relic of a more optimistic age, when people saw aliens like Solganda's Ashtar Command as the harbinger of a new era in human consciousness. One early follower of Van Tassel recalls seeing Star Wars with the great man himself. "We had front row seats," he says. "We were amazed on Star Wars. The first time you saw Star Wars it was just amazing. And Van says, 'Wow, look, they know about the Force!'"

Stewards continue to ritually purify the Integratron. Entertainment Studios/Freestyle Digital Media

Of course, not everything about Van Tassel or the Integratron is so innocent. His son and grandson parrot some of the paranoia often coupled with fringe pseudoscience, particularly their belief that the government maneuvered to sabotage the free energy-producing Integratron (since they also believed a mis-calibration could result in an an explosion big enough to wipe Southern California off the map, it's hard to see why government interest would incense them). But their paranoia wasn't unjustified, just misplaced.

All along the way, the FBI infiltrated the growing UFO community around Van Tassel, convinced Karl Marx lurked somewhere at the bottom of their extraterrestrial love philosophy. Similar to other radical groups subverted by intelligence programs like COINTELPRO, the FBI treated anything politically to the left of Lyndon B. Johnson as de facto Commie subversion. Most horrifying are the letters from everyday citizens to the Bureau. "The enclosed pamphlet is something. My first reaction was one of fear that someone might see me reading it. I could not help find in it many things that might be as though one were reading Marxism. The very layout of this place is ideal for one or a group to be of danger. I do hope I have not given the impression of a 'busy body,' but these facts are on my mind," one woman wrote the FBI.

But while Calling All Earthlings feints at larger conspiracies, it's far more about how human alienness can be, particularly in California. "The rise of a desert consciousness is part of the California syndrome. It speaks to a deep, inner mystical core," says Dr. Kevin Starr, a historian at the University of Southern California. "There's the whole concept of escape from time, into eternity, as part of the mystical experience."

Starr describes in academic vernacular what so many of the subjects in Calling All Earthlings voice in their own way: the profound subjectivity of life, where people can shape not only themselves, but the whole universe. Opposite Starr on the spectrum is a man interviewed in the dark of the desert in the middle of the night, who takes a break from his beer and vague, cosmic soliloquy to spark up a cannabis bubbler. But most of the people we meet in Calling All Earthlings are somewhere in the middle, such as production associate Jackson Barlow, who describes the many pilgrims to this desert community as "looking for that external alien, that extraterrestrial in some sort of humanoid form, that comes down from a metal spaceship," but finds their journey took them to a different place. "That preconception changes then to the realization that you yourself are the aliens."

Calling All Earthlings is available now on VOD.