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We just can’t stop looking up. Maybe it’s because life is too stressful when you look at what’s going on at eye level. Or maybe we keep our eyes peeled for phenomena that we can’t understand because we feel like we know too much about all the terrible things happening around us. Maybe some of us want to believe that there’s some legit magic in the universe. Whatever the case, the idea that we’re being visited by objects — and possibly even beings — from another world has kept a hold on humanity for over 75 years. And while the phenomenon of aliens and UFOs — or UAPs, as the United States government now officially refers to these mysteries — literally involves traversing galaxies, the stories that comprise the phenomenon are all fundamentally human. After all, this phenomenon only exists because real people have survived experiences that they have to share.
That’s the angle that Netflix’s new four-part docu-series Encounters takes when approaching a topic that has long inspired eye-rolls from skeptics. Instead of diving down deep into anonymous tips and conspiracy theories, Encounters tells four stories from the points of view of the dozens of people who witnessed something inexplicable. And before you write Encounters off as another basic cable, fly-by-night production playing fast and loose with facts, know that it comes from director Yon Motskin (Generation Hustle, The Family) and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television, Boardwalk Pictures, and Vice Media. Encounters aims to put facts behind what skeptics would call fiction.
This adherence to credibility and accountability puts Encounters firmly in the new era of the UFO documentary, an era that UFO researcher Ryan Sprague is happy we’ve entered. Sprague, who describes himself as “striving for legitimacy in a field full of illegitimacy,” is well-known and well-respected in the UFO community thanks to a hit podcast, Somewhere in the Skies, a pair of books — Somewhere in the Skies: A Human Approach to the UFO Phenomenon and the recently-published Stories from Somewhere in the Skies — and appearances on series like Ancient Aliens and Mysteries Decoded. In an interview with Decider, Sprague praised Encounters and the recent wave of UFO documentaries for, well, bringing legitimacy to a field perceived as full of illegitimacy.
“What we’re seeing now post-2017, when The New York Times came out with their now famous article about how the Pentagon has been investigating UFOs, they’re taking it seriously, we now live in an age where UFOs are becoming more widely accepted,” said Sprague in a video call interview with Decider. “But with that comes the burden of proof and I think we’re getting that in a lot of these more modern-day [documentaries]. We’re not seeing the sensational Alien Autopsy anymore, all that stuff from the ’90s… It’s actually okay to talk about it now without being laughed at, or without hearing the X-Files music play behind every news segment.”
Encounters, which has big names like Steven Spielberg and Vice Media attached, is an example of this field of study’s increased acceptance — and it’s not even the first time that an A-list filmmaker has turned their attention to the mysteries above. As Sprague points out, fellow blockbuster filmmaker J.J. Abrams executive produced a showtime docu-series in 2021 titled simply U.F.O.
Now Spielberg and Amblin Television, often cited as Abrams’ biggest influences, are on the case. “I would say this Encounters one with Spielberg is probably going to be a big deal,” said Sprague. “If someone like Amblin Entertainment or Steven Spielberg are gonna put their name on it, they’re gonna make sure that the cases they’re covering have been vetted, have some sort of credibility behind them.”
The involvement of big-name producers and production companies goes a long way toward shaking off the decades of ridicule that UFO investigations have long carried. “When someone like Spielberg — who’s known to be like the E.T. guy, that Close Encounters guy — puts his name behind something and covers the case with the respect I personally think it deserves, I think that’s really sending a message to the public that there’s something to this,” said Sprague. “Not only are UFOs real now according to the U.S. government, but possibly we’ve made contact with something. I’m not saying they’re men from Mars or little grey aliens, but there is something out there that we can’t explain that people are claiming to have seen.”
So, what separates this new breed of UFO documentary from those that came before — and those that have piled up on various streaming services over the last decade? How can you tell a polished production like Encounters from a riff on the notorious Alien Autopsy? “I’d say 95% of the UFO, alien docs out there — that goes for paranormal, Bigfoot, all that stuff — are horribly produced, poorly researched.” One rule of thumb Sprague goes by when deciding whether a doc has his trust: you can probably rule out any that claim to have genuine footage of a real live alien being.
“That’s the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night,” said Sprague. “If we have a living extraterrestrial biological entity in our possession and we’re interviewing it and it’s saying the things it’s saying? That’s terrifying. Honestly, I try to steer clear of stuff like that because none of the evidence really supports that that stuff is real.”
In fact, Sprague argues that the default connection between UFOs and “men from Mars” is itself a fallacy: “We always tend to connect UFOs with little green men when in reality it’s a very small portion of it. We don’t know what UFOs are or aren’t. There could be 100 different explanations for every single UFO. They’re like snowflakes.”
Additionally, video footage of UFOs — once the gold standard of evidence — can be a red flag when watching new UFO docs. “Unfortunately, you can’t really trust a lot of UFO videos anymore, because anything can be faked,” explained Sprague. “It used to be all we had to rely on, and now it’s the opposite. It’s the worst enemy of a UFO researcher. The minute someone sends me a video, I’m like, ‘There’s apps on your phone that can literally put a UFO in the photo that looks very convincing.”
As UFOs have gone more mainstream, gone are the days of silhouetted individuals making bold claims. Eyewitness accounts really only count if you can see the witness’s eyes. In his own research, Sprague aims to keep everyone honest. “I don’t do, ‘Oh, I have an anonymous person who told me this story. Just trust me, bro. Trust me.’ No, I want you to tell me who you are, where you come from, and if you’re not willing to go on the record with that, I’m sorry. That doesn’t move the conversation forward. You have to strip that ridicule and stigma away. If you’re a UFO witness, be loud and proud about it. That’s where I’m at now. The more people who come forward and talk about these things, the better, more intelligent conversations we can have about it.”
This reliance on firsthand, on-the-record accounts is one reason why Encounters stands out in a very crowded field. “Encounters spoke to the firsthand witnesses of all those events and it gives it a very humanistic angle to it. I think for viewers to look and see someone like them on screen saying, ‘I saw a UFO’ or ‘I literally saw something get out of that thing, look around, check things out. It talked to me telepathically, got up in his craft and zipped away.’ You can laugh at that or you can say to yourself, ‘Hmm, that person looks like my barista or my therapist and they’re saying this. There must be something to it. They believe this happened to them.”
For those interested in exploring this topic further, Sprague highlighted a number of documentary films and TV series that he believes share Encounter‘s same commitment to veracity. Consider these part of the new era of UFO docs.
‘Witness of Another World’ (2018) Alan Stivelman
“Oh my god, talk about close encounters. He was a kid at the time. His name is Juan Perez and he was out on his farm in Argentina doing work for his dad, and he had a close encounter. A craft of some sort landed in their field. He actually looked inside of the craft and came face to face with some sort of being, and it scared the living daylights out of him. The craft disappeared. He ran into the house told his dad about it and then the local news got interested. UFO researchers from around the world flew into Argentina to interview this kid and he was all set to do this big press conference to talk about what he’d seen and he just couldn’t do it. He was too traumatized. He broke down right in front of the cameras and said, ‘I can’t do this.’ So he went into seclusion for 30-something years and it took this one filmmaker in Argentina to track him down. Then they found the original UFO investigator that tried to interview Juan when he was a kid and reunited them some 30 years later.”
‘Mysteries Decoded’ (2019)
“I did a one-hour special for the CW on Roswell where we actually uncovered new evidence in the form of pieces of metal that we found out at the Roswell crash site that we actually think might have come from whatever crashed there. We had the pieces tested at an aerospace metallurgy lab and the the results are pretty interesting.”
‘The Phenomenon’ (2020)
“This is probably the most extensive overview of the UFO phenomenon and the UFO issue probably ever made. It goes from the start of the modern UFO era, which was basically when Kenneth Arnold first reported seeing ‘flying saucers’ in 1947. Then a couple of weeks later you had the Roswell UFO crash, which really did usher in this whole idea that UFOs exist, they’re landing here, they’re crashing here. The documentary goes from then up until literally now, where you now have the Pentagon saying, ‘Yep, we’ve been studying UFOs, we pumped millions of dollars into looking into it. We’re no closer to an answer, but we’re taking it very seriously.’ It’s crazy the tumultuous relationship the United States government has had with this topic from 1947 till now. That documentary really does cover everything, all the key players, all the best cases, and it’s very, very, very well made.”
‘On the Trail of UFOs’ (2020)
“I’m a little biased, because I am featured in that one, but basically it’s this group of young, scrappy filmmakers who went all over the US and covered everything from UFOs to cattle mutilations to weird, secret military involvement with a lot of this stuff. It’s a very young, hip fresh overview of the entire UFO phenomenon, seen through the lens of very passionate people.”
‘Ariel Phenomenon’ (2022)
“There was a full documentary made on the Zimbabwe case from Encounters. It’s an overview of that entire case and it’s all the original footage of the kids when they were interviewed. Then they catch up with them today. That’s a good in-depth one of that case.”
‘Unsolved Mysteries,’ “Paranormal Rangers” (2022)
“I love the new Unsolved Mysteries and how they’ve handled the UFO topic. They had that episode with the Navajo Rangers who investigated everything from Bigfoot to skin-walkers to UFOs. When you have productions with that much budget to actually do a good job — I don’t see it as a hindrance at all when you have a show that covers everything from missing people to angels to UFOs. I can understand how that broad scope might turn someone off. “Oh, I don’t believe in angels, therefore I’m not gonna believe this episode about UFOs either.” However, when something focuses solely on UFOs, that’s when you start going really down the rabbit hole and you can get lost in the world of conspiracy theory and it becomes dangerous and it becomes unhealthy.”
‘Moment of Contact’ (2022)
“It’s about Brazil’s Roswell. A UFO crashed in Varginha, Brazil and apparently these little creatures that were in this thing were loose in the town and a bunch of townspeople said they saw him. Apparently, the Brazilian Air Force killed one of the beings and captured the other one — and then everything was shipped off to the US. Make of that what you will, but that’s a more modern Roswell.
As for the future of the UFO doc, Sprague believes we’re headed towards real answers. “I think we’re getting closer to answering some of those questions, especially the world we’re living in today where like we’re finding earth-like conditions on other planets. The possibility of life elsewhere is closer now more than ever. Now it’s a matter of has it visited here? Has it actually been here? Are these people telling the truth?” Those are the questions that the next generation of UFO docs will have to ponder.
Encounters is now streaming on Netflix.