Feb 22, 2024

Raëlian Melodrama Courtesy of Netflix

FEBRUARY 19, 2024

What is it about some people that makes them able to persuade others to follow them blindly? And what makes some people suspend their own judgement and free will in favor of pleasing such a leader? The question of obedience to authority has been the subject of many studies (Stanley Milgram’s being the most prominent and oft-cited), as well as films like The Lives of Others. A new Netflix documentary, Raël: the Alien Prophet, attempts to explore these questions, but suffers greatly from an awkward adherence to Netflix’s apparent insistence that all documentaries must resemble a Dateline or 48 Hours episode.

The documentary is a French production that tells the story of Claude Vorilhon, a Frenchman known to the world as Raël, leader of what he deems to be a religion named, as one might expect, after himself.

In 1973, Vorilhon claimed to have had “close encounters” of the alien kind. At first, he said, the aliens greeted him and told him that they are the Elohim—beings who created our world, including the human beings inhabiting it. Vorilhon says he later had a second visitation, whereupon the aliens took him aboard their spaceship to their home planet, showing him the miracle of human cloning.

Sitting at a table, he claimed, were clones of Moses, Jesus, Muhammed, and Buddha. In addition (of course!), there were plenty of attractive women aboard this spaceship. The Elohim anointed Vorilhon as the new prophet and charged him with spreading a message of love and peace to the rest of the world. He was instructed to build a Raëlian embassy so that the Elohim can have a place to visit when they come to Earth.

Of course, one Frenchie raving about aliens is harmless but what happens when a guy like this starts to gain a real following? This was the result of Raël’s “preaching,” and his movement grew, attracting thousands of members from around the world. What started as a the silly musings of this odd but earnest man grew into what, quite obviously, appears to be a cult.

The movement followed an all too familiar trajectory: One man makes an outlandish pronouncement, gains followers, builds a commune, and money starts pouring in from various sources. The magnetism of the leader is undeniable, and his objective is for people to free themselves from the silly sexual constraints of society (Hugh Hefner famously called these constraints, “the bugaboos” during his conversation with William F. Buckley, Jr.). Naturally, it all leads to nakedness and sex!

Among the Raëlians, people did indeed get plenty of both nakedness and sex: multiple partners, gay, straight—it didn’t matter, so long as their leader, Raël, had his choice of the pretty, buxom ladies.

Given these familiar patterns of behavior, Raël soon caught the attention of the French government and came under attack. People wanted to know whether the group was a was a cult and what was going on at the headquarters. The documentary filmmakers interview both current and former followers of Raël. Some regret that they have wasted decades of their lives being obedient to the master, while others still happily follow Raël, who is very much still alive, continuing to spread his message of happiness and extraterrestrials, though now in Japan.

Indeed, the biggest controversy surrounding the movement demonstrated how far beyond France the group might spread. One of the movement’s members claimed that the group had managed to achieve cloning the first human baby, and that this baby was alive and well, living in Israel. Of course, the entire event turned out to be a hoax, like almost everything that surrounding Raël.

The documentary (encompassing four episodes) builds unnecessary controversy, which in the end, does not resolve itself nor does it reveal anything that might be a fodder for further discussion. In adherence to Netflix’s formulaic documentary presentation, the film is rendered weak, despite having demonstrated and teased great potential.

For example, it’s not clear from the film why the French government pursued Raël. Was it because they suspected something far more sinister going on? It is left unsaid but implied. At one point, Raël was interviewed on French television and accused of sexual abuse of children. The television program’s host pressed him to admit this (which he denied). Although he has said some outlandish things about sexual education, thus far, there is no evidence that abuse happened.

Moreover, although Raël was criticized for having sex with numerous women on the Raëlian compound, nobody has lodged a complaint or an accusation of rape. It’s also clear that the members who left the group were free to do so, which would then negate any notion that this is a cult with compulsory membership. Could it be that Claude Vorilhon, after growing up Catholic and without a father, failed as a singer, a journalist, and race car driver, became fed up with life, and said, “What the heck? Why don’t I try this alien thing, and see if it bites?”

The documentary implies plenty of corruption within the movement, particularly the usual kind surrounding money. This is usually the case—any movement, even a cult, must function within the conventions of society, no matter how hard it rejects those constraints. Yet it’s unclear from this film whether Vorilhon’s personal control extended beyond his role as originator of this piecemeal extraterrestrial, New Age “philosophy.”

The most frustrating part of Raël: the Alien Prophet is that it creates a morally controversial mystique. A far superior exploration of Claude Vorilhon is Yoav Shamir’s 2020 documentary, The Prophet and the Space Aliens. Shamir takes a more objective and non-combative approach, similar to that of Werner Herzog. To be sure, he has his own judgments, but that documentary is not intended as a takedown of one man, so much as an exploration of the questions driving that faith. He shows rather than tells, and therefore does a much better job of revealing the sex-obsessed silliness of Claude Vorhilon.

Throughout Shamir’s film, he interviews the superb and well-regarded religious scholar, Daniel Boyarin, who offers his own thoughts and questions about why someone would be claiming to be a prophet. Shamir reveals his frustration with Raël to Boyarin, making it clear how badly he wants to prove that the claims of alien encounters are nothing but nonsense. But Boyarin asks him, “Why? That’s not really interesting.” For Boyarin, Raël’s brand of madness would only be interesting if Raël was actively harming people, as in making them commit mass suicide, for example.

Boyarin is right. Netflix’s Raël: the Alien Prophet tries very hard to turn Vorilhon into a dangerous man. It falls flat, however, because by the end of it, Raël appears to be just a guy who looks like George Carlin as Rufus in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), a former gawky kid, who was rejected by girls, and who is now reveling in the fact that, finally, attractive women are following him around. It’s not the drama the Netflix documentary formula wants, but it may be the one it deserves.


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