Calling All Earthlings: Alien Covenant, by David Bax
A group of people—some merely inquisitive, some seeking a spiritual cleansing—have gathered in a wooden dome outside Palm Springs, California. They’re here for a sound bath, where quartz crystal bowls are vibrated to create waves of sound that resonate through the peculiar acoustics of the large room and then, presumably, into the bodies of the participants, who have paid $35 a person for the privilege ($40 on weekends and holidays). Chakras are involved. But first, they are treated to a brief history of the building they’re in, called the Integratron, and the man who designed it, George Van Tassel. The guide ticks off his resume, a list of qualifications each presented with equal weight. Van Tassel was an engineer, a scientist and a “UFO contactee.” The irony-free absurdity of that moment sets the tone for what you’re about to see in Calling All Earthlings, Jonathan Berman’s documentary on the Integraton and Van Tassel. Berman invites us, time and again, to ponder where the line lies between uncommon intelligence and pure fruitcakeism. His inquiries are unrelentingly superficial but one thing is for sure. Wherever that line lies in our psyches, its geographical location is definitely in the Southern California desert.
Calling All Earthlings isn’t about the Integraton in the sense that we learn of its daily operation as a tourist attraction or where those quartz crystal bowls come from (A shaman? Etsy?). Firstly, it’s about how the structure came to be there in the first place and how Van Tassel inspired a community of fellow believers—eventually founding the Ministry of Universal Wisdom—after he received specific instructions and scientific insight from a 700-year-old alien who had the appearance of a man in his late twenties. Secondly, it’s about what the Integratron was actually built for. It wasn’t sound baths. Instead, it was meant to be a combination time machine and eternal energy source.
With narration by comedian Ron Lynch, Berman explores this patch of desert and its history by talking to a number of colorful characters, from the three sisters who currently own and operate the Integratron to a white-bearded conspiracy theorist named Daniel Boone to The Animals frontman Eric Burdon to late character actor Ted Markland.
So the Integratron, as one of these interviewees says, is the tip of the iceberg. That works as a funny joke about the color and shape of the building but it would have been nice for Berman to further pursue the undeniable truth of the statement. He gives a lot of information, to be sure, but it’s disorganized and haphazard. Details like how the mathematical equations used to design the dome were given directly to Van Tassel by the alien and were meant to generate energy by themselves speak to a streak of science fantasy similar to that of L. Ron Hubbard, another Southern California mid-century church founder. But that contextualization is left out.
Instead, Berman spends too much time indulging his talking heads in conspiracies of government and corporate interference which stem mostly from Van Tassel’s sudden death in a Pasadena hotel room in 1978, to the point that it becomes unclear if he wants us to laugh at the quacks or if he’s one of them.
Calling All Earthlings’ most compelling insights come when it explores “desert consciousness” and the “deep mystical core in Anglo-American culture.” This part of the country is as far as you can go from where it was started before you run out of land. Beyond even the frontier where cowboy movies are set, you could call it the Weird, Weird West. Whether you’re drawn toward Van Tassel’s brand of quasi-scientific mysticism or you find it hilariously nutty, there’s something charmingly and innately Californian about the whole thing. The Integratron is not an outlier; if you planned your trip right, for instance, you could fit in a sound bath and a trip to Salvation Mountain, two hours south on the other side of the Salton Sea, in the same day. People have been coming out to this desert to get further away from modern civilization and closer to whatever’s next for decades. Those tourists who paid to have their minds and bodies realigned by sound waves may not have known who George Van Tassel was but maybe they made the trek out to the middle of nowhere looking for the same thing he did.