At several points in our lives, we have all surely rested our heads on a ground full of grass and stared at the sky and the moon, to not only wonder at the infinity of the universe under whose cover we mortals live but also to ponder upon our own place within its never-ending expanse. Alas, we flesh and blood humans cannot reach for infinity or immortality. But in the span of a lifetime that we have been given, we can achieve clear answers to both enigmas, that of the universal order of things and our own position in it.
That’s the sensitive premise of the Netflix documentary short John was Trying to Contact Aliens. Directed by Matthew Killip, it sheds light on the extraordinary and unique lifetime of John Shepherd, a self-made maverick whose prodigious mind and resourceful foresight allowed him to build contraptions in attempts to contact extraterrestrial life. In short, he was trying to not only find out mysteries of our earthly realm but of the one beyond, the one that has always occupied human consciousness, if only as some footnote of popular culture or generating speculative fiction excitement. Interestingly, he chose to transmit non-conventional music like that of Kraftwerk, Fela Kuti and other instrumental ensembles for this purpose, quite literally making way for a possible ‘gig in the sky’ phenomenon (I take the title of one of Pink Floyd’s classic songs and its cosmic nature as an example here), provided the ETs could hear them.
This sixteen minute capsule in Netflix’s diverse arsenal of original content treats his pioneering endeavours as sincere and non- judgmental, in the same quietly propulsive vein and spirit of its subject. Mr. John himself relays his adventures, the present acting as a springboard of memory, merging with the past. Archival photos supplement that, showing Mr. Shepherd in his heyday of innovation as his rural Michigan home becomes his personal playground. This short form narrative also uncovers the solitary nature of his life, from his abandonment by birth parents, being raised by grandparents to his days as a ‘different’ teenager in the 1960s and his quest for companionship in the 70s. That solitary centre allowed him to forge a deeper connection with nature, his explorations of the universe and his own distinct place in it.
The direction and the musical cues go well with the moment by moment intimacy and patience with which John conducted his formidable research and made a breakthrough with a life-long companion. His partner John Litrenta comes into the picture in the last five minutes and their connection to each other is made evident. Their soft-spoken enunciation and looks at each other tell us a story of innate decency and a ‘live and let live’ mantra we sorely miss in the world right now. So, within this short running time, we get a deep dive into this individual and his worldview, all with the humility and lack of grandiosity it requires. His vision may be larger than life, but it is all executed by human hands; it is the effort and zeal that counts.
John was Trying to Contact Aliens is about advocating for sensitivity, just like John’s grandparents believed in his vision and whipped up resources to that tune or his partner John who recognised the same and accepted his vision and love.
John was Trying to Contact Aliens is available to stream on Netflix now
by Prithvijeet Sinha
Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow, India. A regular contributor to Screen Queens, he lives for the beauty of poetry in moving images and translates them into stirring writings in verse and prose. He is also a dedicated cinephile.