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Crop circles: depending on which side of the UFO divide you end up on, they’re either explicit evidence that we’ve been visited (and continue to be visited) by otherworldly forces or they’re proof positive that humans are (and always will be) extremely gullible. As someone who finds the notion of extraterrestrial intelligence a much easier pill to swallow than most of the “evidence” that’s been presented to prove it, I’ve always viewed crop circles with no small measure of disbelief. Do I think that aliens exist? Absolutely. Do I think that they get their jollies by crafting meticulous geometric patterns in isolated corn fields? Let’s just answer that with a slightly condescending smile and move on, shall we?

Charles Maxwell and Dax Phelan’s documentary A Field Full of Secrets (2014) takes an up-close and personal look at crop circles, in particular a “fresh” pattern that Maxwell and company come upon while conducting research in England. As the filmmaking team investigates the phenomena, they speak with experts from both sides of the debate, as well as the individuals known as “hoaxers” who make it their life mission to create as many of these mysterious patterns as they can.

As the group continues their studies, they hit upon the rather radical notion that the patterns might actually represent one-dimensional depictions of three-dimensional blueprints. When a mysterious, transsexual inventor by the name of Nikola Romanski contacts the team and offers to help build the “device” depicted in the most recently discovered crop circle, Maxwell quickly accepts her help. When the building process begins to stretch out over the course of several years, however, the rest of the team begins to doubt that anything will come of it. Will Maxwell and Romanski be able to do the impossible and actually build an alternative fuel engine, using instructions left by “little green men” or will the whole thing end up being just another wild goose chase?

Perhaps owing to the sheer number of found-footage/mockumentary films that I’ve seen recently, I went into A Field Full of Secrets fully expecting the film to be a fictional movie masquerading as “true life”: by the time the film was over, I still wasn’t sure whether it was a real documentary or not. After doing a little research, however, it would appear that A Field Full of Secrets really is a documentary, after all: it would appear that I had, essentially, hoaxed myself. Life imitating art, indeed!

Despite being initially confused as to what type of film this was, I’ll admit that A Field Full of Secrets was always an interesting, quick-paced film, albeit one with more than its share of unanswered questions and odd quirks. As someone who’s always been interested in UFO discussions, I found the commentary in Maxwell and Phelan’s film to be both intelligent and logically stated, two qualities which you don’t always get in documentaries about extraterrestrials and cryptozoology. Furthermore, Charles Maxwell (the director) and Dax Phelan (the producer) are an extremely likable duo: they’re down to earth, charismatic and have pretty good chemistry together…if you’re going to be spending this much time tromping through corn fields, it seems you could do a whole lot worse than hanging out with these guys.

I also appreciated that the filmmakers tried to make the presentation as balanced as possible, mostly through the inclusion of disbelievers and life-long hoaxers like the rather unforgettable Peter Sorensen. The part where he gives Maxwell and the team a crash course in how to make crop circles is not only informative but quite fun, nicely balanced by the realization that his foolproof system doesn’t explain some of the more complex patterns. More than anything, Maxwell, Phelan and the rest of the crew come across as open-minded: they’re not, necessarily, going in with any particular hard-set beliefs but are trying to roll with the punches and adapt as things develop. As mentioned earlier, not a bad bunch of people to spend a little time in the field with.

If there’s any real issue with the film, aside from scattered irritations like the annoying scene where Maxwell’s friends show up to rib him about his crop circle research (this, in the worst way possible, felt like padding), it has to be with the film’s confusing emphasis on Nikola’s transsexuality. Had Maxwell and Phelan just presented Romanski as another interested party, regardless of her gender identity, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Oddly enough, however, the filmmakers seem to go out of their way to discuss and point out this bit of information, even though it seems to bear little to no relevance to their current work. We meet Nikola’s mother and sister, hear Phelan talk about his concerns that Maxwell is getting “too close” to the reclusive inventor and witness Maxwell discussing how he wanted to continue his friendship with Nikola, regardless of what anyone else felt.

The problem, of course, is that Romanski’s gender identity is never actually woven into the context of the film: it’s just an extra detail that’s brought up frequently, discussed often but never actually tied to anything. This was actually one reason why I, initially, thought the film was a mockumentary: with as much attention as the filmmakers pay to Romanski’s gender identity, I assumed that it was more integral to the story than it actually was. In reality, Nikola’s transsexuality has no bearing on anything that happens, whatsoever: it’s difficult to even consider the treatment progressive, since the filmmakers seem so set on depicting Romanski as an “other,” almost alien figure.

To be honest, a film that primarily focused on Nikola Romanski would have been pretty damn interesting: gender identity aside, how often do you get to meet reclusive, genius inventors who are obsessed with plasma engines and interstellar travel? Had the filmmakers devoted more time to Romanski and really delved into her backstory, A Field Full of Secrets would have made a lot more sense. As it stands, however, Romanski doesn’t appear until the midpoint: with as little bearing as her sexuality has on the actual story, it seems a decidedly odd tack to spend so much time mentioning it.

Despite the aforementioned confusion and the fact that the film sort of sputters out, at the end (it’s no spoiler to reveal that they don’t successfully build the alternative fuel source since, you know, we probably would’ve heard about it by now), I really enjoyed A Field Full of Secrets. The participants are all engaging and endlessly interesting, the locations are beautiful and some of the crop circles are so majestically constructed that they are, literally, works of art. Whether you buy into the “truth” behind any of it, of course, is ultimately up to you. For their part, Charles Maxwell and Dax Phelan have set out to shine a little light on a particularly dark part of our galaxy and, if nothing else, have succeeded in giving us all a little something to think about.