Cults and aliens have formed the basis of countless conspiracies and campy movies, so it’s no surprise that Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir would choose them as the subject matter of his documentary. In The Prophet and The Space Aliens, the titular prophet is Raël, born Claude Vorilhon, a Frenchman who founded and leads the UFO religion called the Raëlian Movement. And yes, he does believe in aliens.
Raël’s backstory as a boarding school runaway turned pop musician turned aspiring auto racer might not logically lead to his current position as a religious leader, but his life transformed when he had an epiphany in 1973 when he was supposedly visited by aliens who presented him with his spiritual mission and a message about how humans were created by extraterrestrial beings.
Shamir is brought into Raël’s orbit when he’s invited to receive an award from the Raëlians and is the only honoree who shows up for the ceremony. Raël is an angelic vision in white, and the film maintains a breezy and ethereal tone as we follow him through scenes of jubilant singing and straight-faced interviews to the camera about his belief in aliens. The documentary follows in the tradition of docuseries like Wild Wild Country or Waco that showcase the potential dangers of blind belief but treats its prophet and the interrogation of his profits and power with a lighter touch. Sometimes while watching it was hard to remember it was a documentary, not a mockumentary, given the abundance of humor and the almost self-parodic way Raël talks about how he believes cloning to be the key to achieving eternal life.
Followers offer interviews discussing how they are definitely not a sex cult despite what some may think, and how their leader encouraged African people to return to their traditional religious practices. We see Raël leading rousing songs about how we are “one with infinity” before later breaking out in some Michael Jackson. The documentary lets these scenes of absurdity speak for themselves without poking fun directly, and Shamir’s approach is largely understanding about how people turn to faith and seemingly strange spiritual convictions to make meaning out of this mad world. He may not be a believer himself, but he seems to understand why others are.
It’s not too hard to see why some find Raël’s tenets appealing: he advocates for sexual liberation, nonviolence, and encourages followers to celebrate love and peace. Shamir takes us around the world to learn more about the people who practice what this prophet preaches, journeying from Japan to France to Burkina Faso. The director interviews Bishop Briggite Boisselier and religious historian Daniel Boyarin as he starts to wonder whether this is all an elaborate scam or performance piece. We hear about how Raël’’s book Space Aliens Took Me To Their Planet alienated (pun intended) countless followers and drew scepticism from scientists; some things are a little too out there even in the realm of ufology.
Shamir’s presence never feels overly intrusive, and his subjects do most of the talking — yet his intermittent narration can feel slightly cliched as he mediates on the role of religion in our lives and the limits of what we are willing to believe. The documentary is not revelatory in its critique of organized religion and the sentiment that cults are weird, but it maintains a quirky sweetness and silliness throughout — though it can feel too lighthearted and non-confrontational for its own good. In 2002 the group announced they had successfully cloned a human. Their hierarchical system, plays of power, and claims of scientific success seem to warrant further scrutiny than Shamir gives them.
The Prophet and The Space Aliens doesn’t live up to the full wacky wonder that its title suggests, or take us to another dimension. But it does present a fascinating portrait of a powerful religious leader who remains a cipher. Walking away from this documentary, I cannot say that I know anything about Raël, his followers, their potential clones, or their Raëlian (which sounds an awful lot like alien) religion for certain — but who am I to judge what constitutes something as unbelievable? Why people believe what they do is an eternal mystery, so maybe searching for straightforward answers or deeper meanings here is as fruitless as trying to name the meaning of life itself.